Gaynor Allen: Troubled children need help whatever the cost

All vulnerable youngsters deserve to become happy, well-adjusted adults, writes Gaynor Allen

All vulnerable youngsters deserve to become happy, well-adjusted adults, writes Gaynor Allen

IN THE wake of a series of abuse scandals, there is a greater focus on child protection than ever before.

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Every day, there are new developments: inquiries are announced into what happened decades ago; there is endless hand-wringing and promises to learn lessons this time – and calls to take more children into care at an earlier stage.

But what actually happens on the ground in the wake of inquiries, reports and promises? At a local level, who is brave enough to fund those projects which make a difference to children’s lives? Who has the courage to identify the value of spending to help children cope with problems which could ruin their lives – and help them to grow into happy, healthy and well-adjusted adults?

One such project is Place2Be and John knows all about it. He was helped by Place2Be when he realised his five-year-old son was desperately unhappy. The boy would be surrounded by toys, but just stare into space – or sit vacantly in front of a TV screen.

Things in the house had been hard as John and his wife had just been through a very difficult separation. John knew his son wasn’t happy, but had not realised how serious it was.

John was lucky. He lived in East Lothian, one of only three local authorities in Scotland that works with Place2Be, a school-based mental health charity which works in 170 UK schools to provide early intervention for very vulnerable children. It was founded 20 years ago when teachers identified a “submerged” population of schoolchildren, some rowdy and badly-behaved, others quiet and introvert – but all with deeper problems.

There are 18 schools in Scotland – ten in Edinburgh, two in Glasgow and six in East Lothian, where the council is evaluating the service – using Place 2Be to help children cope with a range of issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, bereavement, depression, substance abuse, divorce or separation. Early intervention services like this aim to make the lives of young people more bearable.

The duty of our society to protect the most vulnerable has been shaken again and again this year, with a series of abuse scandals illustrating a collective failure to provide this protection, to listen to children and hear their cries for help.

When the authorities have consistently failed, maybe more than ever we need charitable organisations to step in. Many children in need have no advocate to speak out on their behalf, and perhaps this kind of service can help to redress the balance.

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In the last few years, councils in Scotland have focused on early intervention as the best way forward, and a way of helping to achieve a safer and better future for everyone. This costs money, and in times of economic hardship, spending money today isn’t always an option. Place2Be uses the slogan “Making a Lifetime of Difference for Children in Schools” – but it is a brave council which spends its cash on a service that tries to “fix” often unseen and unnoticed problems.

But what price to spare a child from abuse, neglect or misery?

In a joint policy statement in 2008, the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities said: “It is increasingly evident that it is in the first years of life that inequalities in health, education and employment opportunities are passed from one generation to another. The early years framework signals local and national government’s joint commitment to break this cycle through prevention and early intervention. In short we aim to give every child in Scotland the best start in life.”

Yet how does this fit in with the enormous pressure on public money? The payback with early intervention can be short-term but it is more likely to be measured in decades. Yet this preventative spending that can head off mental illness, addictions and crime sits uneasily with the needs of central and local government to deliver short-term fixes in short-term political cycles.

When budgets are tight, it is often costs and budget lines that are considered – not value. Yet the benefits of early intervention are significant. Headteachers in schools that use Place2Be say it has lowered the number of exclusions and increased the level of attainment among the children it helps. With the cost of exclusion estimated at about £12,000 per pupil, services that help reduce the number of pupils excluded have to be looked at as a potential saving – in economic, educational and emotional terms.

A conservative assessment of the economic impact of early intervention says that for every £1 spent, there is a £6 saving to society. For example, research shows children from the poorest 20 per cent of society are three times more likely to have mental health problems and children are less likely to suffer from serious mental health issues later in life if they receive early intervention. There are many children in need in Scotland who are being helped by early intervention projects. What happens to the youngsters who have no-one to turn to? Many will be excluded from school and eventually end up in court; 90 per cent of young offenders had a mental health disorder as a child and 80 per cent of children showing behavioural problems at the age of five, go on to develop more serious forms of antisocial behaviour.

So why does early intervention work? Let’s look again at Place2Be. It provides counselling, based around play, in a specially-created room and gives children time and help to work out what is troubling them. One-to-one sessions with qualified counsellors take place. For it to be successful, it has to be a partnership between the child, the parents, the school and the service.

It is all about putting children in a safe place, and allowing them to talk when they are ready. It has a structure that can be lacking in their life and it is all determined by the child.

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John’s son spent a year visiting Place2Be, but started improving within weeks. John admits it wasn’t easy, but says it brought his son back from a dark place to being a happy and healthy child, who was able to learn and enjoy school again.

John would love to see Place2Be in every school in Scotland, but accepts the financial cost of this is prohibitive. In times of economic hardship, he knows savings have to be made – but can we make decisions based purely on cost? Surely the value is more significant than the cost. Just ask John – and his son.