“I am glad that you are trying to improve the overall situation in care homes, but I also hope you are doing this with love, because… the only ones who can change something in the system are those people who are ready to really dig in and say ‘I’ll change things because I really care that children who are in a care home don’t have a home of their own.” – a young person
This quote is from a new survey of young people’s thoughts on growing up in care and how care professionals can best help them heal from childhood trauma.
The survey finds that more than half of caregivers lack the training and resources to understand how trauma affects children’s development and behaviour. The survey also emphasises the importance of stability and love in helping children who have been severely abused and neglected form new trusting relationships.
Building on SOS Children’s Villages expertise in training over 300 alternative care professionals in trauma-informed care, this research will shape the next stages of “Safe Places, Thriving Children”, a project of SOS Children’s Villages and CELCIS, co-funded by the European Union.
With three out of four children in care having experienced trauma, the goal of the “Safe Places, Thriving Children” project is to equip a wide community of care professionals with the knowledge, tools and training they need to help children leave the past behind them.
“Childhood trauma does not get as much attention in the training of professionals in the field of alternative care,” says Lubos Tibensky, a psychologist working as a programme advisor for SOS Children’s Villages in Europe, Middle East and Central Asia. “Through the project, we hope to bridge the current gap through direct training and awareness raising so that young people can get the nurturing care they need to heal.”
The goal is to train 500 care professionals as well as advocate for changes in the alternative care system in six European countries.
‘Care for us, understand us, love us’
The survey, conducted by the Centre for Excellence for Children's Care and Protection (CELCIS) at the University of Strathclyde, UK, supports the project by giving young people who grew up in alternative care an opportunity to voice their needs.
Irene Stevens, a child care consultant for CELCIS, says her team interviewed 91 young people who had spent an average of 10 years in care, including SOS Children’s Villages in Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary and Serbia. The average age was 22.
Some key findings from the survey of youth:
- Most of the young people surveyed had been in three different care placements, up to as many as eight. “That has implications for working with trauma,” said Dr Stevens, “because when kids are moved it disrupts the whole caring experience”.
- Two thirds of young people felt a sense of belonging in care, and 80% had an adult to talk to. A sense of belonging is important for dealing with trauma, because trauma recovery needs good relationships.
- However, only 25% had consistent contact with their birth parents, and just under half struggled to maintain friendships.This indicates that more work could be done to try and maintain family relationships.
“Overall, the message coming from young people was ‘care for us, understand us, love us’. And it showed the importance of holding on to children and sticking with them through thick and thin,” Dr Stevens says.
‘Carrying a broken system on our backs’
Many of the 143 care professionals surveyed mentioned big caseloads, a lack of staff, specialist therapeutic services and proper supervision. “We’re carrying a broken system on our backs,” said one participant.
Some of the key findings from the survey of professionals:
- Within their professional training, 81 reported that the topic of childhood trauma had little or no coverage.
- Less than half (49%) were offered formal opportunities during work to learn more about childhood trauma and how it affects children, parents and professionals themselves.
- Around one third felt they were very or extremely knowledgeable in helping children to understand their personal history and care journey.
Mr Tibensky of SOS Children’s Villages acknowledges that care professionals do their best, but the reality is that children with severe trauma need special care. For example, when caregivers do not understand what is going on with children and placements break down, this can lead to children reliving their trauma, experiencing more abandonment and neglect.
“If a child with trauma misbehaves there’s a high probability that there’s a connection,” he adds. “And this is why we need training: to help children learn more functional coping mechanisms over time.”
Investing in children’s mental health
By putting the voices of children at the heart of the “Safe Places, Thriving Children” project, it sends a message to young people that they are being listened, says Mr Tibensky.
“We have to invest now in treating children’s mental health,” he adds. “If you feel safe and well you will fulfil your potential. The benefits are clear – not just for each child but for the whole of society.”
“If you can provide a stable, loving and trusting place for a child the more chance they have of having a good life and breaking the intergenerational cycle,” concludes Dr Stevens. “That’s the whole driving force of this work for me.”