Corporate parenting for children in care with mental health needs: commissioners in action

In this blog, Alison O’Sullivan explains what corporate parenting means in practice and why it is so important for children with mental health needs in care.

Corporate parenting is the responsibility of local authorities. Well known fact. Much quoted.

Of course this is right. And make no mistake, directors of children’s services and lead elected members, who carry statutory responsibility, feel this responsibility keenly. It is deep and it is personal. And it would not be right to water down this responsibility in any way.

However there is no doubt that they cannot meet the responsibilities of a reasonable parent without help from others. The parents of children in families do not parent their children in isolation – they draw upon the knowledge and resources of experts, seek support from grandparents and other family members and call in favours from friends to help. And they use their influence to fight the corner fiercely for their child to get the best they can for them.

So it should be with local authorities and their partnerships. Corporate parenting should not be a lone heroic mission.

The 2004 act which creates the corporate parenting responsibility also creates a duty for relevant partners to cooperate with local authorities to improve the well-being of children in their local area. This should include children in care and care leavers and surely must include attention to their mental health and well-being.

Local authorities have the duty to make this happen but, as it says on the tin, partners have a duty to cooperate too. In every local area we need to see strong leadership from all parts of the local system to make real what Charlotte Ramsden, chair of the ADCS Health Care and Additional Needs Policy Group, has dubbed “partnership parenting”, in which partners recognise their role and it becomes part of their ethos too.

What does this mean in practice? What difference should it make? And are children in care special case?

Nowhere are these questions more pointed than when considering how to meet the mental health and well-being needs of children in a local area. NHS England has this year run an accredited National Commissioning Development Programme with a web based resource, regional and local learning sets for over a hundred NHS and Local Authority commissioners across the country on improving children and young people‘s mental health and well-being, as part of the implementation of Future in Mind. So at the concluding conference on November 28, I was keen to shine a spotlight on the needs of children in care and care leavers in particular. And there is no sharper way of doing this that through the lens of corporate parenting.

As part of the programme attention has been given to how you can understand the needs of these children, connect with them to get a better understanding of their needs and to commission a range of help which enables them to have a personalised journey through the system and get flexible support.

Professor Peter Fonagy and I have emphasised the importance of an analysis of need which is detailed enough to capture complexity, but also to connect with the both the distress, on the one hand, and the ambition we should have for these children, on the other. It’s what a good parent would do.

Detailed understanding of particular needs of groups of children is essential. Listening directly and checking first-hand the impact of intended support must feature. This does not involve inventing anything new, but it does require creative use of existing mechanisms. The JSNA must identify and the JHWS address the particular needs of groups of children within the children in care and care leaver population. The input from experts by experience must give voice to young people directly. Services must be commissioned which give individual young people input and control over their own support and treatment. Monitoring and quality checking must include listening directly to people who have used the support available and engage and take feedback from carers and parents. In short the sort of good commissioning that can really improve quality.

We are fortunate to be in a time where there is much attention on these issues: consultation on new corporate parenting guidance creates the opportunity to clarify and strengthen the role of partners; the recently published report from the national Expert Working Group convened by SCIE makes concrete recommendations about how things should be improved; and the forthcoming green paper creates an opportunity to set out next steps.

It is to be hoped that at a national level government departments will show leadership by modelling a joined up response and making sure that there is a clear focus on children in care and care leavers as new guidance and delivery mechanisms are developed. We have begun to see in recent times an increased ownership of this responsibility across system some areas – notably the national HMIC and CQC inspectorates have joined Ofsted in asking whole system and whole population questions about the mental health of vulnerable children – it’s a start.

But, in my view, one of the biggest opportunities lies in the ability of local commissioners to provide tangible leadership at local level. By being passionate about children in care, by being determined to make sure we compensate for all the damage and disadvantage these children have experienced and by becoming local champions – real corporate parents – for these children, lives will be transformed and potential will be realised. Let us see that leadership in action from commissioners and see what a difference it can make.

Alison O’Sullivan

Alison began her career as a social worker assistant in inner-city Derby in 1973, trained at Bradford University, qualifying in 1978 and then worked in Bradford for many years. She was fortunate to have experience working with all groups of people and in many different parts of this diverse district. As she moved into senior roles in social services, partnership working became a strong feature and she was seconded as joint commissioner for older people with the Area Health Authority as well as holding assistant director roles for adults. Alison was director of social services for Bradford for four years and left in 2006 to go as director for children and young people to Kirklees. She retired from this role in April 2016.

Alison was active in the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) from its inception supporting regional work to share best practice and drive improvement. She represented Yorkshire and Humberside on the National Council for ADCS and was elected vice president in 2014 becoming president for the year from April 2015. This was a huge privilege and enabled her to engage in national policy shaping and give advice on behalf of directors of children’s services to government departments and others. She has a long track record of engagement in national policy work from the Marmot Review in 2008 to Future in Mind in 2016.

Alison has acted as a champion for children at a local and national level with particular emphasis on empowering children to directly influence policy and practice. Alison pressed for better support for care leavers and mental health of young people as specific issues during her Presidential year. Since retirement Alison has been a member of the advisory board for the Children’s Commissioner, Co-Chair and support to the Expert Group improving mental health for children in care, together with advice and consultancy roles.

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