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We are backing Homes at the Heart, a campaign led by the National Housing Federation

We are backing Homes at the Heart, a campaign led by the National Housing Federation to build cross-party consensus that social housing needs to be at the heart of the government’s plans for getting the country back on track.

The campaign highlights the social and economic benefits of investing in social housing and celebrates everything the sector brings to families and communities across the country.

This week’s theme is Homes at the Heart of Living Well. Nic McGrath, Communities Programme Director for Newground, explains how housing associations are well placed to support the most vulnerable young people and their families.

As a foster carer for Barnardo’s, I have seen first-hand the struggles vulnerable children and young people face. Young people who have experienced abuse, neglect or exploitation, those struggling with their mental health, children with additional needs, and those needing help to engage positively in a school environment.

As a short break carer, I provide respite not only to the young person but also their full time foster carers. Short term breaks are an opportunity for children and young people to gain new experiences and develop new bonds outside their everyday environment.

The idea is that it replicates family life. Consider me the cool auntie that provides a home away from home where the rule book isn’t exactly ripped up but the boundaries are a little softer. I offer young people opportunities to do the fun stuff they might not have a chance to do day to day and make choices about how they spend their ‘special’ time that’s all about them. That could be going to a football match together, letting them express themselves by painting a mural on their bedroom wall, indulging their choice of music in the car, going for a bike ride or just taking the dog for a walk with friends and family.

I’m often brought in to provide additional support to the family when times are tough. If a foster placement is at risk of breaking down, I provide time and space for both sides of the family to ease tension and allow them to get some perspective. One of the most damaging things that can happen to a looked after young person is to be moved from placement to placement; every move enhancing the feelings of rejection and abandonment and limiting the young person’s opportunity to feel the safety, security and nurturing that every child needs to thrive. In short, they need to feel the sense of being ‘at home’.

The reason I chose Barnardo’s rather than any other agency is because of their social enterprise model. Any profits they made by the fostering service are ploughed back into the work of the charity. 

It works on the same principles as Newground, which invests any profits made by the CIC into the charity Newground Together to deliver services in the community.

So when we heard about the chance to get involved with Barnardo’s to help children, young people and families in Calderdale and Blackburn with Darwen cope with the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis, it was a no-brainer. 

As a foster carer, I’ve been working with a young person who has been visiting for short breaks every month for the past four years.  He’s had a really tough time over the last few months with his final year at school coming to an abrupt, unplanned end, not being able to sit his GCSE exams, uncertainty about his future – not to mention not being able to play football, go to the gym or continue coaching football to children with additional needs. 

He’s also missed out on his weekend breaks as he’s not been allowed to stay at mine for over five months and he’s desperate for his ‘chill out time’. Luckily, we’ve been able to keep in touch on video calls so I’ve been able to offer regular support.  I even managed to arrange a surprise visit on his 16th birthday for a ‘socially distant’ picnic in the park which really raised his spirits.

But for many children and young people, the coronavirus pandemic has meant they are experiencing mental health issues for the first time and they, their parents and carers don’t know where to turn for support. And for those in the most vulnerable situations their circumstances have been ‘hidden’ from vital support services. They have been suffering in silence, behind closed doors and are at risk of long term impacts on their physical and mental health if their needs aren’t seen, heard and met.

As anchor institutions, housing associations are perfectly placed to be the eyes and eyes and refer those in need of help. We are part of a new programme, managed by Barnardo’s and funded by the Department for Education. See, Hear, Respond is a coalition of charities working alongside local authorities, schools, colleges, police forces and healthcare professionals across England to identify and support vulnerable children at risk of being missed.

The programme offers online 121 and group sessions and face-to-face support for children and young people struggling with the impact of the coronavirus lockdown. A telephone and online referral service will refer any concerns about a vulnerable child to us but we will also use our own networks to identify those potentially at risk. Most importantly, anyone who is concerned about the wellbeing of a young person can refer them to the service, which is free and confidential.

As a foster carer, I support young people who are already in the system and come to me at a time when they need some additional support to prevent their foster placement reaching breaking point. The principles of this new service are the same; to provide additional support to safeguard those at risk of harm early, prevent further harm and prevent their needs from escalating into crisis.  

What both services have in common is that at the heart of them is the belief that all children have the right to live happy, healthy lives, no matter who they are, or what they’ve been through.

In my position as Communities Programme Director, I am not on the frontline but in my role as a foster carer I am. I can empathise and use my insight to support my colleagues.

My team already do fantastic youth work out in the communities but I’m so excited for them to have the opportunity to work with Barnardo’s. We already know what we do makes a difference but being part of a national campaign and having the backing of a leading charity somehow validates everything we do and all that we stand for.

Children have too often been unseen and unheard during this crisis and they risk becoming the forgotten victims.

This initiative is a vital lifeline which will help them to navigate the pandemic and its aftermath, improving their long-term prospects so they can enjoy a happy and successful future.

For further information on the See, Hear and Respond service, visit www.barnardos.org.uk/see-hear-respond.

Helplines are open Monday-Friday from 9am-9pm and at weekends from 10am-6pm. Call 0800 157 7015.

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