About Childhood First

Childhood First is a charity that provides specialist therapeutic care, education and treatment to children suffering severe emotional and behavioural disturbance as the result of early life trauma. We also provide support to their networks of adult carers.

Our organisation was founded nearly a century ago to look after teenage boys who had got into trouble with the law. Over 40 years ago, the director Melvyn Rose and the charity’s trustees recognized that the young people coming for help invariably brought with them histories of family dysfunction, resulting in neglect, abuse and other trauma, that needed a deeper psychotherapeutic approach if they were to be healed and rehabilitated. So began the pioneering and renowned therapeutic work of Childhood First, which has continued to evolve over four decades in response to the needs of some of the most seriously troubled of children, young people and families. At the heart of our approach has been the conviction that:

  • The damage caused by relationships can most effectively be healed by relationships.
  • The more integrated and comprehensive an environment of therapeutic relationships and experiences that we can create, the quicker and more effective will be the child’s road to recovery.

These insights have been amply confirmed by the new brain science of the past decade. The children we look after will not be successfully healed in psychiatric hospitals or 1:1 therapy alone, and cannot manage the intimacy of a foster or adoptive family. They need an entire therapeutic environment, wall to wall and 24/7. They need to be surrounded by others, adults and children alike, working together to get to the bottom of their difficulties relating to one another, in the context of daily life, education, leisure and all the normal things that children do. Such therapeutically orchestrated environments are called ‘therapeutic communities’, which are now recognized by the Royal College of Psychiatrists as the most effective treatment for a range of attachment and personality disorders, other diagnoses and related symptoms, such as self-harm and addiction.

Our first therapeutic community for young people was founded at Peper Harow in Surrey in 1970. Its success attracted much attention from government, media and professionals. Sadly it was damaged by fire and closed in 1993, but not before Thornby Hall in Northamptonshire had also been established in 1986. Continued success led to the founding of Cumberlow Community in South Norwood in 1991. Cumberlow closed in 2005 when it became clear that its location was no longer suitable for such vulnerable young people. Dovecote House, a partnership with East Sussex local authority, lasted four years 1991-1994 and was closed due to local government reorganization. Since then a series of communities has opened, Earthsea House and School (1999) in Norfolk, Greenfields House and School (1999) in Kent, Abington House in Northampton (2000), Merrywood House in Norfolk (2005), and  The Gables in Kent opened in summer 2012. Our history demonstrates that we are the experts in the development of therapeutic communities for the treatment of seriously disturbed children and young people. These facilities remain extremely rare, and no other organization has the breadth and scale of experience, or the reputation, in this field that Childhood First enjoys. From our origins 90 years ago, we have become pioneering leaders in the field of mental health care for traumatised children and young people.

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