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OF mental health care and mentally ill

Permanent care for children of parents with mental illness

Ideally, children grow up in a stable, predictable environment in which they experience a friendly and safe world. They need and are entitled to stability,consistency, safety and security in their upbringing. In situations in which the parents are unable to provide care to a ‘good enough’ level, it is appropriate that the child be placed in a permanent setting. Children coming into care at birth are more likely to experience the world as a friendly place than the older child who has experienced unpredictable behaviour on the part of the parent and disruption in care. Older children placed in permanent care generally have had to learn to rely upon themselves for emotional support, and have often had to care for their parent in times of crisis. Their view of the world directs the child to rely on him/herself, to avoid the unknown and to expect uncertainty.

A significant number of children with mentally ill parents come into care ata later age. By the time they are placed in permanent care, they have learned to protect themselves from hurt, to distrust adults and to seek control in order to make their environment predictable and therefore safer. They are oftendes cribed as children with attachment disorders or suffering from posttraumatic stress, but these terms do little to illuminate how the child perceives him/herself or the world.

For children, permanent care is a mystery, and after they have experiencedseveral placements and/or return to their parents before being placed inpermanent care, they may have learned not to trust any explanation regarding permanency. The experience of these children is that too many explanations made no sense, and too many promises were unfulfilled. Most children express that they want to feel they belong somewhere; they wish for a family,but their experience is of change. They may resist committing themselves tothe new family, fearing further hurt, but simultaneously seek to belong despite their fears. In most situations, given time, the children achieve asense of being part of a family and are supported by that family. They valuethat achievement and the new family’s commitment to them.

Most children do not understand how they came to be in care or how decisions have been made that place them in permanent care. Their behaviour often reflects the confusion they feel and the difficulty they havein understanding how the Protective Services, Children’s Court and care systems work. The children are generally anxious and vigilant. They may notknow what family life is like. They are loyal to and concerned for their birthparents, even if they are clear they do not want to live with them. They want contact with their birth family and want to know that their birth parents are alright. They are generally fearful of change and of committing themselves tothe new family, and may display considerable anger. The children may not understand why they act the way they do, and may fight against what they most want, a place to belong, or they may be so fearful of being moved againthat they over-conform.

The most frequently expressed wish of the older child coming into permanent care is that they want to be where they can remain. They want to feel that they belong, and to have security and stability in their lives. There is an underlying fear that they will be moved, and when their behaviour causesstress within the family, a fear that they will be sent away. They need reassurance of belonging. They often find the Court Order giving the carers guardianship assumes great importance, even when they continue to question whether they can be ‘sent back’.

Significantly for all children in care, there is a strong need to know that others share similar experiences. Being raised in a non-related family is in itself an isolating and alienating experience. A parent who is mentally ill adds an additional layer to the feelings of separateness and aloneness. Children and adolescents have a strong need to be like their peers and to know that they arenot facing situations alone. Many find it difficult to bridge the gap to feeling supported and connected to others.

How they handle the conflicting emotions related to their experience is individual, but there will be challenges for the persons who provide their care. Children can be loving and responsive, and can work creatively at becoming a part of the new family. At the same time, their behaviour may place stress on the carer’s commitment and motivation to provide care for the child. The children will almost certainly challenge their carers’ ideas regarding how to be a parent. The care and parenting style may be threateningto the child who both wants to belong and resists becoming part of the family.

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