First published in issue 3 of SOLVE magazine, 2021
In late Victorian times, nearly half of the children with complex mental health problems (regarded at that time as ‘mentally deficient children’, ‘lunatics’, and ‘imbeciles’) and behavioural issues taken into care by the Church of England’s Waifs and Strays Society were either deemed as beyond help or ‘undeserving’ of support.
One hundred years later, children with complex mental health needs and behavioural issues, and their families, are still being judged unworthy of assistance – and at only a slightly lesser rate.
Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten, Reader (Associate Professor) in Childhood Studies in the School of Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth, discovered this disturbing intransigence while comparing the case files of 108 children taken into care between 1881 and 1918 with the results of 46 interviews with young care leavers and adults between 2015 and 2018.
Dr Sims-Schouten’s work has a particular focus on children’s mental health within her field of childhood studies, which spans the study of wellbeing, education and sociology and is informed by the disciplines of psychology, sociology and history.
“We still have this narrative that although we like to talk about mental health, we like to support vulnerable children, there is always this group of children who are perceived as ‘beyond help’, too difficult, too complex, their behaviour is all wrong and they’re bad children,” she says.
Dr Sims-Schouten is on a mission to stamp out this labelling by training professionals who work with vulnerable children, including refugees, children in care and care leavers, and lobbying for increased support funding.
“If there are not enough resources, if there are not enough practitioners or if there’s not enough training, then practitioners also become vulnerable groups themselves because they have to work with limited means,” she says.
We still have this narrative that although we like to talk about mental health, we like to support vulnerable children, there is always this group of children who are perceived as ‘beyond help', too difficult, too complex, their behaviour is all wrong and they’re bad children.
Training and response
Dr Sims-Schouten cites the case of a young mixed-race girl who had been excluded from school, indicating the school had given up on her. Further investigation revealed she had been acting out behaviour in response to severe bullying.
“I did a number of training sessions with the teachers because it turns out they had not had any diversity or inclusive-practice training,” she says. “So together with the Chair of the Racial Equality Council and an ethnic minority representative from the police, we did some training in the school.”
When all parties agreed the girl could return to school, the global pandemic hit and education institutions closed, not only cutting off education and that social infrastructure, but also the free school meals that many poor students rely on.
“There was a lot of fear, especially in ethnic minority communities, about going outside, about getting their food, about being stopped by the police – because we know that a large percentage of black children get stopped and searched by the police regularly – too regularly,” Dr Sims-Schouten says.
“And so we did sessions again with the police and the school and we managed to make sure that she could go to school safely to pick up her free school lunch without feeling intimidated by the police presence.”
While this is a local example, Dr Sims-Schouten says the failure of child welfare systems is a worldwide challenge. She has researched and worked in children’s care in Greece, Finland, Egypt and Canada: “The issue is about changing practices and creating awareness of what particular children need and also where practice fails,” she says.
Recently, Dr Sims-Schouten has been collaborating with colleagues from Jakarta and Surabaya universities in Indonesia, looking at how marginalised and disadvantaged groups there have been affected by the country’s lockdown restrictions. These people are usually casual and temporary workers who are not supported by Indonesia’s social safety net. Dr Sims-Schouten says a holistic approach is needed when it comes to the issue of children at risk.
“In my case that mostly revolves around providing safety and mental health support, to not accepting superficial assessments of a child being recalcitrant or beyond help and moving beyond Dickensian attitudes.”