On the 14th of June, I made a speech in the Lords calling for the Children and Social Work Bill to include a statutory mental health assessment for children entering care. I also underlined the importance of recognising the value of social workers to society.
You can read the full text of my speech here.
Current statutory guidance states that children must receive a physical health assessment when entering care, whereas it is recommended that their emotional well-being should be evaluated through a strengths and difficulties questionnaire. Frankly, this is not sufficient or good enough; we need to be aiming higher. Children entering care often exhibit challenging behaviour resulting from their previous experiences—most often, neglect and abuse. Indeed some 45% of children entering care have a diagnosable mental health condition and some 60% are estimated to have emotional or mental health problems of some kind. But the questionnaires I mentioned earlier are completed by foster carers, who may have—it is not their fault—little or no training in mental health. These assessments should be conducted by professionals with specialist knowledge about the therapeutic needs of children in the care system.
Once the needs of a child entering care have been identified, it is also essential that they are offered the appropriate support to enable recovery. A recent survey conducted by the NSPCC highlighted that almost 80% of professionals think that accessing support for children with a diagnosable mental health condition has become harder in the past five years. The NSPCC’s recent analysis of local transformation plans to support the implementation of the Future in Mind report recommendations, in relation specifically to children in care, is not particularly encouraging.
We badly need to develop a holistic approach towards the mental health and well-being of children in care. It is not rocket science; it just needs to be given a far higher priority. A statutory entitlement to a mental assessment would provide the necessary catalyst to action.
The stereotypical and often very negative portrayal of social workers in the press is far from the reality that I encounter in my daily work. I feel that we in this House have a duty to ensure that their value to society is recognised—indeed, the Minister made that point in his opening remarks—and that their professional standing is enhanced. Of course improvements must be made, but this must be done with a clear understanding of the overall context, which other noble Lords have already referred to. It is one of rising demand leading to ever-larger case loads, of falling resources and high turnover, and a workforce who can often feel beleaguered. We ask social workers to do one of the toughest jobs there is; it is incumbent upon us to give them the support and backing they need. The lives of some of the most vulnerable children in our country depend on it.