UK is failing fostered children with mental health problems, warns charity

·4 min read

Foster care in Britain is facing a “mental health crisis” because the government is failing to meet the needs of mentally ill children in care.

That is the damning verdict of the latest report from the Fostering Network, a charity representing foster carers. The report, shared with the Observer, suggests half of all foster carers are looking after a child with complex mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and attachment and eating disorders.

Yet only a quarter of the 3,352 foster carers surveyed by the charity said their foster child was receiving help with their mental health problems. Another quarter reported they were looking after a foster child who needed mental health support but was not getting it.

The charity’s head of policy and campaigns, Jacqui Shurlock, said the findings reveal a “significant area of unmet need for children in foster care” and suggest a “mental health crisis” may be looming in the sector.

“We know, from the fact that they’re in care, they will have experienced trauma,” said Shurlock. “But we weren’t expecting to find that percentage not getting any mental health support at all.

“A good home life makes a massive difference to children,” she added. “But foster carers can’t do everything. Where children have mental health needs, foster carers need support from mental health services – they can’t deal with that burden all on their own.”

She called on the government to stop expecting foster children to restart their referral to child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) when they move to a new foster care placement in a different local authority or NHS trust.

Another barrier placed in front of foster children is that their short-term foster care placements can be deemed not “stable” enough to enable them to qualify for support – for example, because the child is waiting to hear from a judge about whether or not they will go back to their birth family. “Imagine how difficult that situation is for a child. That might be the very time they most need mental health support,” said Shurlock.

By failing to meet that need in a timely fashion, “we are obviously risking much more negative outcomes in their lives, which could be avoided”.

The report also showed foster carers face a similar battle when caring for a child with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which occurs when prenatal alcohol exposure affects the developing brain and body of a foetus, causing permanent health, developmental and behavioural problems.

Nine per cent of foster carers said they had looked after a child diagnosed with FASD. A further 13% said they had cared for a child with suspected FASD in the last two years, suggesting significant numbers of foster children with the condition are falling through the cracks in the system.

Children in care, Shurlock said, are simply not being valued and supported the way they need to be. “It feels like the state is failing in its duty to meet the needs of those children.”

She suspects the “near impossible burden” this places on foster carers may be one of the reasons why around one in five fostering families left fostering last year. About 9,200 new foster families are now needed across the UK.

In Essex, Darren Harman-Page and his partner Karen have been fostering children for over 27 years, caring for more than 100 foster children and adopting six. He said some of the traumatised and neglected children they have fostered who have severe mental health needs are still waiting for support, more than two years after they were referred to Camhs.

Related: ‘Neglected’ fostering services face crisis in morale and funding, warns UK charity

“It’s really tough,” he said. Children in these circumstances may struggle with anxiety and self-harm or become hypervigilant or aggressive. They may also feel overwhelmed or unsafe in what others may perceive to be “normal” everyday situations. “Their ‘normal’ was chaos and neglect.”

He is doing all he can to provide the children he fosters with a secure and loving home, but finds it heartbreaking – and frustrating – when these children, who have suffered so much already, are not able to access the mental health support they so obviously need. “You feel terrible. That’s where the sadness creeps in, I suppose. Because you haven’t been able to help them.”

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