Many looked-after children have mental health
problems that make life highly challenging for foster carers. In
Lincolnshire a service has been set up to ensure that carers never
feel isolated. Graham Hopkins reports.
As many as one in five children suffer from
mental health problems. Links between this emerging and credible
statistic with juvenile crime, alcohol and drug misuse, self-harm
and eating disorders are not to difficult to make. Thus in recent
years we have seen the rise of child and adolescent mental health
1999 Audit Commission briefing paper Children in Mind
published a survey of children with mental health problems of whom
9 per cent were looked after by local authorities – compared with
0.5 per cent in the general population.
was expected that we would contribute to the mental health of
looked-after children and we targeted those in children’s homes,”
says Katie Prince, CAMHS development manager for Lincolnshire. “But
they are only a very small proportion of looked-after children. The
majority are in foster care – hence the progression to setting up a
similar scheme for foster carers.”
April 2000, Lincolnshire appointed John Neary and Zoe Powley – both
with nursing backgrounds and new to social services – as specialist
community mental health workers. “We had an invaluable two-month
induction, involving placements with CAMHS colleagues and other key
players, planning the launch of the scheme,” says Neary. “We had a
pilot involving 40 carers – identified by family placement
Interestingly, their brief was to
work directly with the county’s 290 foster carers. “This linked in
with the need to provide stability in placements, preventing
disruption and also about doing something positive for foster
carers,” says Leila Barron, fostering and adoption development
manager. “That’s why the focus was on them as the adults and not on
team realised that there would be a problem using words such as
“mental health” or “mental illness”. Barron adds: “So, we say it’s
‘behavioural problems’ that you have to deal with as foster carers
and here are two friendly people that you can have a chat
chat is what they do. The sheer size of the county means that
visits are made sparingly and reliance is placed on the telephone.
A weekly designated time (Thursdays between 9.30am and 12.30pm) is
set aside for open calls for advice, guidance and
immensely beneficial,” says Sue Heathershaw, who’s been a foster
carer in Lincolnshire for four-and-a-half years. “It’s great that
you can get reassurance that you’ve managed a situation well – and
can talk through things. And sometimes while I’m talking, I begin
to think aloud and start seeing solutions myself.
four years we’ve been managing these behaviours,” she says, “and we
didn’t know what they were. We never had any knowledge of mental
health issues before – never really thought about it. John came
along and talked through things with me – it just started to make
sense,” she says.
“Sometimes, just being able to
tell a foster carer that they’ve done something right is all they
need,” agrees Powley. “We give them a chance to think out loud and
explore ideas together – two heads are better than one.”
foster carers are not alone in benefiting from the scheme. “It’s
also a service for us,” adds Annie Pepper, family placement
officer. “Often I would talk to John about children and situations
to decide if it’s worth intervening.”
seems little time for resting on any laurels. Powley and Neary plan
to increase their training role and produce more information for
carers. But, most interesting of all, given that a high number of
carers have access to the internet, is the plan to offer advice
through webcams. Or should that be web-camhs? Here’s looking at
Scheme: Support scheme to help foster carers
understand the mental health needs of children.
Staffing: Two specialist community mental
Clients: Foster carers.
Inspiration: A development from a similar
scheme for young people in children’s homes.
cost: £56,000 plus about £500
printing costs for leaflets.
– For more information call John Neary on
– A leaflet and card advertising the scheme
and a social services staff information sheet are available free of