The new Ministerial Task Force on Child Protection, and the other stocktakes and reviews of the care system and family justice system underway or about to be announced, give us an opportunity to re-think and further develop our services for children.
Our Operating Framework update, scheduled for a few months’ time, will set out these changes and developments within Cafcass. I will trail this work through two examples – the changes we’re seeking to promote for children, and our working definition of what permanence means for a child in care.
What does mental health mean for the children we work with?
Changes for children must start with being and feeling safe, having stronger and more secure attachments, and having a stronger personal identity. We must also see improved infant, child or adolescent mental health.
There are hardly any children we work with who do not have some degree of emotional or behavioural difficulties. In fact, it would be safe to use a working presumption of a level of poor mental health with many of the children we work with in this sense.
We must take as many steps as we can to lessen this pain and burden for them and we will be consulting young people themselves on the best words to use to describe what they are experiencing.
“Mental Health” is often a loaded word for a child, and can be quite scary and stigmatising. Wellbeing or ill-health are also complicated words and concepts to apply meaningfully across the cases of the 115,000 children we work with each year so that all involved with each child understand their pain and focus on constructive relief. There is more work for us to do on this.
With adoption rates in decline now is the time for a more inclusive definition of early permanence
With the drastic decline in the use of adoption over the last year, we have to use a more inclusive definition of early permanence if we are to be clear about what permanence means for children.
Each child needs someone special, whether at home, with extended family members or with strangers who can quickly become the child’s source of support. So it is the ability of the carer to help the child recover from abuse, trauma or conflict which makes the carer likely to be successful.
Some potential adopters I know would be happy to look after a child as permanent foster carers if no child is available for adoption. Permanence is the key concept, not so much legal status.
Along with this, the regulations governing placements with parents, with special guardians, with family and friends, with permanent foster carers and with adopters, need harmonising.
We will be emphasising the importance of trauma-informed practice and caring. Recovery from trauma is a missing category in welfare checklists. It is a major and frequently invisible need for the children we work with. When the physical pain from an assault or from a disease like cancer recedes, the emotional and psychological impact can remain – often for years.
Seeing children through the lens of the way they feel, and helping those around the child to understand the impact on them of what has happened in their lives, have always been at the heart of our work in Cafcass.
My view is that we owe it to children and the practitioners who work with them, to be clear in our operating model about the focus we will use and how we are translating our vision for making children’s lives better into our interventions and into our direct work with children, their families and their carers.