The elephant in the room: Mental health and children’s social care services

I heard a few months ago that the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee were undertaking an inquiry to look at the funding of local authorities’ children’s services, and thought that sounded like an interesting topic that might relate to my areas of interest. I therefore met with a local MP about the topic, contributed to the BPS response to the inquiry, and (on the request of the committee) submitted my own response in relation to my innovative work with BERRI. I have subsequently been called to give evidence in person to the enquiry in a few weeks time.

Given I’ve been so immersed in this issue it seemed a good topic for a blog. I’m going to start with the evidence that this sector is in crisis, before thinking more about what a clinical psychologist like myself can contribute to addressing elements of this need. Hopefully I can then write another blog in a few weeks time to talk about my experience of giving evidence, and report back about whether the politicians grasp the issues and appear motivated to do something about it.

It didn’t surprise me that this was an issue that the government wished to give more scrutiny, given the steep increase in need in this area over the last decade, whilst funding for local authorities has been substantially reduced by the government’s austerity agenda. Human distress and unmet need rarely seems to gain political attention unless it is in such a crisis that the public are aware of the issues, or it has financial implications for the public purse, and children’s social care has suddenly hit both of those thresholds in the last year or so. 

A number of factors have combined to increase need in children’s services. This includes growing awareness of child abuse and its impact (particularly emotional abuse which has long lagged behind the more tangible forms of abuse), along with reduced stigma in disclosing having been abused (due, for example, to the publicity surrounding the Jimmy Saville scandal, the various institutional abuse enquiries, and the #metoo movement) and a reduced tolerance for forms of abuse that had been normalised or ignored in the past (due to cases like Baby P and the Rotherham child sexual exploitation trials, and subsequent prosecutions in many other areas). A lot of teenagers who had been allowed to remain in unsuitable living circumstances because of the belief that they would “vote with their feet” if removed are now appropriately protected and brought into Care, perhaps because of some precedent setting cases in which people have taken successful legal action against local authorities and have been compensated for failures to protect them in childhood. This includes an enormous legal settlement for two Care leavers from Jersey, who have received tens of millions of pounds compensation.

Children in Care are also entitled to stay in their foster placements up to the age of 21 where they want to and it would be beneficial for them, and to have support after leaving Care from a personal advisor until the age of 25. Another pressure is the reduced use of secure units on welfare grounds, and a reduced willingness to incarcerate children in institutions for recurrent minor offending. The increased stress, shame and social hardship of benefit changes and increases to cost of living has led to move children growing up in poverty, and more families developing the risk factors that can cause harm to children, such as drug or alcohol use, mental health problems, domestic violence and family breakdown. This has had a particularly negative impact in families in lower socioeconomic groups.

It is therefore unsurprising that over the same period of time the demands for social care services have risen steeply. Over the last decade there has been a 9% increase in referrals to social care and numbers of children considered in need, but there has been a 84% rise in child protection cases, and 26% more children are in Care. This creates a lot of additional workload for children’s services, with a 122% increase in demand for section 47 enquiries, and a 125% increase in Care Proceedings (as less children are now informally Accommodated with parental consent). Yet the budgets have shrunk, so there is no resource available to meet this need.

The financial picture is genuinely shocking, and yet it has hardly made the news (perhaps because looking at the numbers is considered too technical or boring for the lay public, and the political and news agenda has been hijacked by the continuing debacle of Brexit). But reviewing the figures makes sobering reading. The cuts to local authorities since 2010 are unprecedented. The National Audit Office highlighted the extent of the shortfall in their report on the financial sustainability of local authorities published last year. They point out that central government spending on social care has halved. This has been masked by changes in how funding is delivered, and some additional funds from council tax being made available to spend locally, but the cuts are still enormous and amount to a real terms reduction of nearly one third of the entire budget for local authorities, but the burden is again being disproportionately felt in more deprived areas.

Such cuts are unrealistic and unsustainable, as they make the total budget too small to cover anything other than statutory services, which are legally protected. This means that councils have no means to make ends meet without dipping into their savings. The report shows that two thirds of local authorities had drawn from their reserves by 2016-17, so there is an ever decreasing amount left in the pot for contingencies, and the audit office predicted that 11% of authorities will empty that pot by the end of this financial year. Councils are having to sell off properties and come up with increasingly radical plans to try to fulfil their minimum duties. Recently Northamptonshire County Council had to declare themselves bankrupt as they had no means to cover statutory services from the available budget.

This mismatch between demand and resourcing has led to enormous cuts to non-statutory services, with two thirds of the spend on preventative and community children’s services disappearing. This means that, as with mental health, there is a minimal set of brief services delivered for milder or less entrenched difficulties, but that there is then an abyss in which no services are available until they reach the threshold for the crisis-focused specialist services – which are expensive and time-consuming to deliver and can’t keep up with demand. The focus has moved from collaborative work to assessments and interventions that are perceived as the end of the line, despite the absence of the precursor interventions that might have enabled change.

To me, the elephant in the room when it comes to children’s social care is mental health need. I don’t just mean the clean single-condition, diagnosable treatable mental health need that gets through the doors to CAMHS. That’s the need up on the sterile concrete plains of mental health research that Prof Miranda Wolpert describes so well. I mean the real messy need down in what Miranda calls the swampy lowlands where real complex people live in varied circumstances, where numerous issues intersect to create barriers in their lives that are not straightforward to address, and do not fall into the simple diagnosis to treatment pathway that currently gets through the doors to CAMHS. That’s the need that determines the outcomes for these children, and the pathway on which they leave Care and try to negotiate adulthood. It is that need which determines whether they can go on to happiness, employment and family life or whether they become one of the Care leavers who end up facing prison, homelessness, mental health problems, addiction, conflict and/or their own children going into Care.

So what are these broader mental health needs? In my experience, a complex and interwoven picture of trauma, adversity, behaviour problems, attachment difficulties, developmental disorders or delay and mental health needs is typical of children in Care or receiving social care services. As well as the traditional “mental health” needs of anxiety and depression I see a much broader picture that is expressed in a variety of ways. Some children act out with their behaviour, others withdraw and show signs of emotional difficulties (including low mood, poor self-esteem, and a lack of positive identity or perception of belonging). They often struggle to form healthy relationships/attachments to others, and can present a risk to themselves and others. They have an increased prevalence of conditions like Learning Disability, Autism, ADHD, or psychosis that add an additional layer of challenge in standard services effectively meeting their needs. That is why my BERRI assessment system attempts to cover all of these areas.

Seen as a group, children who are Looked After have high levels of mental health difficulties (45% have a diagnosable condition, and over two thirds have significant mental health need), so it would be easy to blame the Care system. However, this extraordinary level of need is predominantly caused prior to them coming into Care. It is well established that Adverse Childhood Experiences lead to multiple layers of vulnerability, and these are very prevalent for Looked After Children (my own research suggests an average of 4 historic ACEs per child, along with 2 current vulnerability factors at the point they come into care, such as involvement in gangs, sexual exploitation, school exclusion or the criminal justice system). Looked After Children are in the vast majority traumatised children, who have experienced abuse and/or neglect. But these problems don’t occur in isolation. They are contextually embedded. Children in Care come disproportionately from families that experience the adversities of poverty, crime, family breakdown, and poor housing. They are more likely to be born to parents who have lower education, higher risks of unemployment, and a higher incidence of mental health problems, substance misuse, domestic violence and a history of abuse or neglect in their own childhoods. As a result, their parents are less able to provide safe and stable care. Patterns of difficulty often carry through many generations of the family, and the problems they face are a symptom of our increasing social inequality. 

However, CAMHS are not really set up to meet these complex and interwoven needs, and cut off at 18 years of age, whilst children can stay in care until they are 21 and receive leaving care services until the age of 25. They also have ongoing needs that will need to be revisited over time as they develop or different themes emerge as they enter different life stages or face different challenges. It might be that a dental care model, in which there is long-term oversight but with responsive services as and when they emerge works better than the time-limited episodic care that is currently on offer. Likewise services need to be embedded so that they collaborate with placements and other support services, rather than stand in isolation.

The wider context of the underlying contextual and vulnerability factors mean that treating symptoms or even specific conditions might be an ineffective model of intervention. We need to think back to Maslow’s hierarchy. These children first and foremost need their basic needs met, and to have reliable food, shelter and warmth. They need safety and security, medical care and an environment that doesn’t contain ongoing risks. They need opportunities for identity and belonging, such as education, employment, hobbies, peer relationships, and family. They need intimacy and trust in their friendships, sexual/romantic relationships and relationships with carers. When that is reliably in place they need opportunities for achievement and being valued, so that they can gain self-esteem, confidence, status, responsibility and individuality. The icing on the cake is then self-actualisation, the chance to explore creativity, set goals, reflect on morals and values, and feel purpose and fulfilment. Mental health needs only fit in mid-way up that pyramid. We cannot expect a child to have a positive outlook and good coping strategies and social skills if they are not in a safe environment, don’t have their basic needs met, or cannot trust those around them. To see the point of going along to a therapist takes enough self-esteem to believe you deserve to feel happier, and you then need the organisation and social skills to get there, and the trust to confide your story, or a carer who will advocate for you and help you to achieve these steps. There are many building blocks that need to be put in place by the caregiver and environment before therapeutic interventions are possible, and it may be that when we get these other elements right, the child is able to recover using their own resources and that of their caregivers, without ever seeing a therapist.

My perspective is that if we can help to identify needs of children as early as possible and skill up the caregivers and the systems around the child, we can make the most impact. That is why I have increasingly moved from working with individual children to working with their caregivers and the systems that surround them, and have developed the BERRI system to identify needs and help carers understand them, as well as developing and delivering training to help carers and professionals understand the needs of the children and young people better. It doesn’t have the depth of working psychologically with a single individual, but it has the scope to make impact on a much wider scale, and it fits better with my personal strengths and interests. As I’ve said before, I’m not the most patient therapist to walk a long journey of recovery or personal development with a client, but I do have strengths with assessment and evidence-based practice.

My aims have always been to address human needs. I believe that Clinical Psychology in its simplest form is an attempt to make people happier and more able to lead fulfilling lives, and that is what drew me to this profession. And within that broader mission, my focus is to work with the most vulnerable members of society at the earliest possible point in the lifecycle, which has brought me to working with Looked After Children and the broader population of children and families receiving (or in need of) social care services. Recognising the mismatch between the level of need and the resources available to meet that need has increasingly led me to focus on systemic and population level interventions. Rather than drowning in the burnout that comes with trying to solve an overwhelming problem, I’ve tried to find a niche where my skills can make an impact. Having looked at this population group from multiple perspectives, and tested out projects in various settings, I have become increasingly persuaded that there is scope to make positive changes through the use of better systems to identify need, and increased clinical governance over the choice of placements and interventions. 

I have tried to develop practical, cost-effective ways to make a difference, and to gather evidence of their efficacy. I have then tried to share my findings, and what is already known from research, with the widest and most influential possible audience. That is why I have given so much of my time over to writing best practice papers and contributing to policy. Through these experiences I have gradually learnt to shape the messages I share to make them relevant and understandable to various audiences. After all, whilst most of psychology seems common sense to those of us working in the profession, once you have learnt about the main findings and the methodologies for gathering knowledge, to lay people (and professionals, commissioners and politicians) it might seem very complex and unfamiliar. Over time I have learnt that being able to articulate the financial benefits of improving people’s lives helps to get decision makers on board. So my goal in responding to the enquiry was to explain both the human and financial case for greater psychological input for children receiving social care services. I don’t know how well I have achieved that, but I’d be interested in your thoughts and feedback.

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