Leaving the care system

girl-cry Research shows that children in long-term residential care need a smoother transition into adulthood. Meadhbh Monahan reports.

“High need” young people from Northern Ireland who have been in residential care most of their lives often lack basic skills such as boiling a kettle.

Despite the fact that from the moment a child enters a residential care home, the focus is on preparing them for independent living, many who have experienced traumatic upbringings still resort to crime and drug abuse. Consequently, staff are on 24-hour call to deal with incidents such as self-harm and mental breakdowns.

“Less than five” children died in care in the last three years up until March 2009. This figure does not include the widely publicised death on 7 June of Darlene Bell who had been living in a residential care home in Newtownards. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety said it could not release the exact figure to protect the identities of the children who died.

Latest figures show that 2,463 children were in care in Northern Ireland as of 31 March 2009. These children range from age one to 18 (or 21 if they are still in education or are disabled) and are in short-term, long-term or foster care. The largest portion of these children are in the 12 to 15 age group. Seventy-two are under one.

A 10-year social work strategy for Northern Ireland is currently being drafted. A departmental spokesman told agendaNi that the initial impetus for the strategy was the RPA but there is now a pressing “need to communicate the role and contribution of social work in improving the health and social well-being of individuals, families and communities in Northern Ireland.”

In addition, some strategic issues have to be faced by frontline social workers and their managers. These include:

• the increasing rise in referrals and the need for integrated health and social care;

• the retention of social workers in child protection practice;

• a poor public image and unrealistic expectations of what social work can deliver, particularly in high risk situations; and

• the need to design social work services around the needs of people who use them.

There are 53 children’s homes in the province. Of these, five are intensive support units which are children’s homes with additional support such as mental health services. There is one secure unit, Lakewood in Bangor. Children who have a history of absconding, or are considered to be a risk to themselves or others, are sent there under a court order.

According to Stephen Knox of Barnardo’s, children in long-term residential care are “one of the vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in society” and are statistically more likely to have poor educational outcomes, be unemployed, become young parents, get into trouble with the law, experience mental health difficulties and be at risk of poverty and homelessness.

Knox told agendaNi: “Residential care over the years has had its difficulties in terms of the issues attached to young people’s behaviour. For example, the dynamics of group living experienced by young people who are coming [into care] with lots of problems because of their backgrounds.”

Similarly a report by researchers at Voypic (Voice of Young People in Care) found that young people in the region have identified “difficulties and frustrations” in care, including “the absence of private space, conflict with peers, problematic relationships between children and staff, and concerns about the use of discipline and restraint.”

Staff in residential care are very keen to improve educational and employment outcomes, Knox says. He points to the ongoing strategy formation and the fact that the health department is currently researching different models of future provision with the Social Care Institute for Excellence.

In addition, he acknowledges that Health Minister Michael McGimpsey allocated £20 million from 2008-2011 to implement the ‘Care matters – Building a bridge to a better future’ strategy.

In November 2009 McGimpsey said: “This investment is already making a difference in the lives of many children and families.”

Knox works on Barnardo’s ‘Leaving Care’ project where young people are given practical and emotional support and temporary accommodation when they are leaving care. He remarks that “sometimes you’re talking about very basic skills; skills of being able to feed yourself and clean your flat, as well as develop personal relationships.”

Because young people are still often moved from one care home to another, this can be disruptive to their development.

“In order to ensure that children have a stable and secure childhood, they need greater continuity of care and we need to ensure that they stay in school so their educational achievement is increased significantly,” Knox concludes.

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