Joy O’Neill is the Founder of Service Children Support Network (SCSN), a group of education and welfare professionals who work collaboratively with the Service community and associated organisations to encourage and facilitate the provision of high-quality support to Service children and their families. Joy has received a Child Bereavement UK 21 Champions Award in recognition of her dedication and commitment to improving outcomes for bereaved military children and their families.

1.4r Joy O'NeillWe started in 2008, initially as a community group of military family members and other professionals within the fields of education and health in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. The organisation was established because we felt that Service families were not being recognised as a group that might need support; the specific needs and challenges that arise in Service life are frequently overlooked because of a lack of understanding of the pressures placed upon these families and the context in which they live. The experiences of Service families are quite different from those in civilian life and, at times, these may have very significant impacts upon them and upon children’s educational attainment. In 2010, the organisation became so big that it was clear we needed a more formal structure – this is when SCSN became a not-for-profit social enterprise and took on a more national focus.

We have three main objectives: 1) to educate professionals so they are more able to give appropriate support to Service children; 2) to promote more research into their needs; and 3) to develop interventions directly with children in school and community settings. We have also evolved in an advisory capacity and are frequently consulted by policy-makers and other bodies when there are issues, for example, following the murder of drummer Lee Rigby, the helicopter crash in Afghanistan and the NHS 5 Year Strategy.

Our relationship with Child Bereavement UK began when they came along in 2008 as a speaker of interest at one of our meetings about how we bring the issues facing Service children to the wider agenda. We quickly made links with their Training service and they soon started delivering bereavement training for our Service Children Support Co-ordinators so they are well equipped and ready for their role. Child Bereavement UK is now one of a pool of 15 specialist consultants we work with. We provide speakers on key issues for each other’s conferences and we have had input into each other’s e-learning training packages, with Child Bereavement UK developing 1 of 10 modules for an online CPD course we are devising around Service children with Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department.

Bereavement is not our specialism, it’s CBUK’s, so working in partnership with them has ensured that Service children get the support they need, and we have been able to share expertise and develop and refine ideas together where it might have been difficult on our own.

Major military incidents have shaken the Service community. Children often don’t understand – especially the young ones – when they see the images on television. They say ‘Oh my goodness, that’s going to happen to my mum or dad.’ Helping schools find different ways to approach issues and making staff aware of them are key to our work. Child Bereavement UK has been instrumental in making schools aware that they need to be prepared and that they should have policies and procedures in place so they know what to do in case of an emergency. Many schools have implemented procedures as a result.

Bereaved Service children can disappear into the ether; some schools are not even aware they have veteran or reservist bereaved children in their school. When somebody in the military dies, children are not just losing a mum or a dad, but so much more – their house, their friends, their neighbours, the military community, their school, their sense of identity. Some families are well supported, but others are known to have had to move out of their home and be rushed off the base within weeks of a death. They can lose their culture and their way of life.

I’ve heard from families who have had a high level of support who say it has made a big, positive difference to them. Where they’ve not had it, there can be lots of anger, bitterness and anxiety about the future.

I would strongly encourage other organisations to link up with Child Bereavement UK. You never know what might happen, or when, so it is vital to be prepared.