Niall Kelly - Vital work in Scottish children’s homes to avert the worst possible outcome

Published on July 18, 2017

Niall Kelly, Managing Director of Young Foundations, member of the SCSC, writes for Friends of the Scotsman on the interventions of skilled and dedicated staff in children's homes which save young lives.

In early February of this year, the Scottish press published details of the death of Kirsty McGregor in Dunoon, Argyll. At the time of her death, Kirsty lived in a children’s home in the town. She took her own life after battling with depression and self-harm for some time. In the previous months, Kirsty had shared some of her struggles via social media. What I found most upsetting about this story was the fact that she was just 13 years old, and that I had heard similar stories before.

Inevitably, there is an emotional response to reading about Kirsty’s death. The photographs that accompanied the news coverage enhanced this. They showed a beautiful and bright young girl, much like any other. After reading the news report, I felt that I could identify with Kirsty. I could see her youth and her potential in the photographs. My sympathy and my anger was triggered by such an obvious waste of life. So why would a 13 year old girl take this action, what could compel her to do the unthinkable?

There is evidence that there is a rising number of children in Scotland dealing with mental health issues. In August 2016, the NSPCC which runs Childline stated that it received a total of 934 calls and online enquiries in the previous year from Scottish children thinking about suicide. This equates to an average of 18 enquiries per week.

The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition campaigns regularly to raise the profile of children’s mental health. As a member, I am concerned that there are not enough specialist child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) to cope with the level of need. The average wait for an appointment in Scotland with a CAMHS team remains 10 weeks despite efforts to improve the national offer.

IRISS, a company responsible for improving social work practice and engagement in Scotland, has written on the subject of the increased vulnerability of Scottish children in care and care leavers. In her report for IRISS, Judy Furnivall wrote “Because of difficult and in many cases traumatising backgrounds, children in care and care leavers are more at risk both of hurting themselves and completing suicide.” In addition to the psychological impact of difficult family backgrounds, children in care are also more likely to have changes to where (and with whom) they live and to experience corresponding disruption to the support networks located close to home.

Furnivall writes that the self-harm and suicidal behaviour is likely to be as a result of underlying complex issues. The evidence shows that successful intervention is about more than removing the immediate risk, it also requires that the young person receives help to untangle and understand the emotional issues which are causing the distress.

Some of the most vulnerable children in care, like Kirsty, spend part of their childhood in a children’s home. I have experience of working in children’s homes with children similar to Kirsty for 25 years. My experience and contact with other professionals doing similar work has led me to have a clear view of what types of service works best.

A children’s home works best when it is as family like as possible. We would hope that all children and young people growing up in a children’s home receive parenting and affection from those who are looking after them. Preferably, there will be at least one staff member who each child feels they can confide in, and who will respond to the child’s expression of trust sensitively and appropriately.

In addition, children like Kirsty will also need access to clinical professionals with experience of recognising and responding to self-harm and suicidal thoughts. They will assist the staff team to respond in a containing way towards the child’s distress and not to be overwhelmed by their despair or their self-harm. The staff team will focus on issues of immediate safety and the underlying issues which may be driving the behaviour. The experience that the staff team gains from helping other children with similar needs can help them to support each child to work through their individual difficulties.

Even when all of these preventative factors are in place, some Scottish children and young people may still try to take their own lives, and some will succeed. For every tragic death like Kirsty’s, there are many others where the interventions of skilled and dedicated staff have saved a young life. Kirsty’s death has highlighted for all of us the importance of this work.

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