HEADLINES in recent months would cause any right-thinking readers to pause for thought: “Vulnerable children facing ‘catastrophe’ over crisis-hit councils”, the BBC reported in August; the previous month, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, was reported as saying that “Poor mental health has become ‘part and parcel of childhood’ for many children.”
This week, a major report by the NHS gave further cause for concern. It found, on the basis of a survey of 9000 young people in England, that one in nine children aged between five and 15 had a mental-health disorder. This came after a report published in September by the Children’s Society suggested that one in six 14-year-olds had self-harmed in the past year (News, 31 August).
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) estimates that there are about 750,000 children with diagnosable mental-health disorders, of whom 75 per cent will never be seen. The Government is trying to lower this percentage to 67 per cent by 2021. Children’s Services cannot afford to meet this crisis; so referral thresholds rise inexorably, Early Help services are overwhelmed, and the numbers keep climbing.
Directors of children’s services have confessed to me that they are not sleeping because of the horrific funding cuts that they are being obliged to implement. I have seen Heads of Early Help cry in front of their teams as they confess to being overwhelmed. I have seen the raw anger of commissioners who have been let down by private companies that are driven by profit.
THIS is a serious crisis, with little money and few professionals available. Since statutory bodies no longer have the resources required to meet the overwhelming need, the Church must find new ways to respond strategically to the cry for justice from communities that are seeing children’s lives broken.
The Church has an opportunity, in partnership with the State, to respond to that need in a significant way. The Church has powerful social assets that the Government can no longer afford: it is present in every town; its people are motivated, local, and engaged; it has buildings, services, and expertise; and its second greatest commandment is to love one’s neighbour.
But the Church is like an army contained within its barracks. It is highly resourced, trained, and equipped — but not effectively deployed.
Ways to deploy the Church more effectively might include: referring vulnerable families to church marriage courses, under the guidance and responsible oversight of the statutory services; referring vulnerable teenagers to the church youth minister, or children in difficulty to caring youth groups. Safeguarding and referral structures should be created so that both groups can work in their communities together.
SUCH a vision requires trust from all parties and a willingness to understand three crucial points.
First, the Church should understand that statutory bodies are terrified that they will evangelise the vulnerable at point of need while the statutory bodies pay for it. Churches should accept that the command to love one’s neighbour means loving without any strings — including that of joining a church.
Second, the statutory bodies cannot expect the Church to be, well, less Christian. They should drop their reluctance to use the capable faith-based groups in their midst.
Third, it needs to be acknowledged that Christian agencies such as Fegans have a vital part to play as guarantor and mediator of clinical governance to the statutory authorities, and clinical excellence to the Church.
In our work, counselling children and supporting vulnerable parents, Fegans does exactly this. We abide by statutory requirements, while working with churches across the south-east of England. We aim to ensure that every vulnerable child or family referred to us — in places such as Lambeth, Ramsgate, Eastbourne, Banbury, East Grinstead, Goudhurst, Tunbridge Wells, and elsewhere — is seen by an expert. We have proved that Christian agencies, working in Christian churches, can resolve the most complex of needs, in partnership with our statutory referrers. The fundamental question is whether Church and State are prepared to do this nationally and comprehensively.
A “New Deal” between Church and State offers a unique chance to push back the tide of rising vulnerability, as a galvanised Church, under the eye of the responsible State, work together, trust each other, and value the part that each plays. Leaders on both sides of the secular/sacred divide need to take risks and move towards a vision of a nation that prioritises care for the vulnerable over misplaced suspicion. Our goal is the same — let’s push for it.
Ian Soars is the chief executive of Fegans.