Jo Cox’s campaign launched this week about the hidden epidemic of loneliness made me think about how this plays out in our child care practice. I understand a little about loneliness having lived and worked on my own for many years. The transitions are particularly difficult, retiring , moving house, leaving partners, loss of parents and these can touch us at any age. I was lucky, having a pretty grounded childhood my coping skills and emotional resilience allowed me to overcome the loneliness quota that these changes delivered. However in social work we are largely dealing with those whose lives and own childhoodhave not given them the skills to cope.I have rarely heard the word loneliness used in general description of the challenges our families face and yet it has such a devastating impact on every aspect of someone’s being.
Let’s just consider some of the difficult transitions that our families and their children meet. Many of these can be considered to be of their own making and some are undoubtedly of our making , many have legal backing but whatever the source they are none the less traumatic. Imagine for a moment the awful depth of silence in a house when your children have been taken from you, toys left where they were played with last and beds remaining unmade with crumpled pyjamas. Your days,which were filled by these children who are never coming home, changed forever even though you know that you have not been the best of parents and your own issues have taken priority. It is hard to imagine how all this feels but we should try.
The world is just as empty in this scenario as it is for the elderly couple separated for the first time in their 60 year marriage by illness or death. In this case we rightly feel huge empathy and understanding but it is more difficult to feel the same for parents who have appeared through wanton fecklessness to be unable to care for their children. The distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor has been enshrined in our welfare consciousness since the Poor Laws in Elizabethan times and seems to still be with us in making some judgements today. We see these parents as undeserving but they too have a massive void to fill. The chances of them turning their lives around given that desperate loneliness are slim and our perceptions of non compliance with our requirements may be explainable if seen in a different context. If we believe they do not care, are just angry with us , the system or being caught out, then we are kidding ourselves and need to reconnect with our simple humanity before recording behaviours and events for posterity. The pain of a review or a “contact” visit must be immense and unthinkable for most of us. Perhaps we should all engage in some role play and walk out of court with the words of the Judge ringing in our ears saying that our children have been freed for adoption. It may be one of the loneliness places we have experienced.
Most of my professional life has been spent with young people living outside their birth families and in public care. I continue to be in touch with several “young people” now adults with their own families. They have between them experienced most forms of care from adoption to residential homes and prison. They experience a different form of loneliness. This is the loneliness of loss of roots, of belonging, of an assured place in the world, and of no family of their own. They are alone. Even when their care experience has been good they feel alone . They do not have the reassurance of a presence of unconditional love that will walk alongside them wherever life takes them. In this lonely existence we can begin to see how many of their poor life choices may relate to the filling of this chasm; choices that will fill the emptiness; that will drain the vacuum filled with despair, pain, anger and frequent self-hatred.
My friend David Akinsanya wrote recently in the Guardian( www. theguardian.com/profile/david-akinsanya) of how the birth of his son gave him a reason to live, a reason to be and to experience real love and happiness at last. He was in care throughout his childhood and apparently successful as an adult he had waited all his life to feel this love and sense of self. He is now in his 50’s. He is no longer alone in the world.
What can we do as social workers. First we need to reconnect with the idea that our families, children and young people are not just cases to be managed, and their lives not just producers of statistics for inspectors and politicians but real,human,vulnerable and sharers of the same emotions as us. It may be a current buzz word but I am a fan of the ideas behind co-production or working together with our families in an equal relationship. But Jo Cox wanted us to think about the practical small things that we can all do every day that will make a BIG difference to others lives. We can do this as professionals. The next time we are in court with a family offer them a lift, wait with them, buy them a coffee, walk with them out of court because that congratulatory talk with the barrister can wait. Be alongside them. Remember with a young person the day their parent died or to congratulate them on their exam results and send a personal card rather than a text. How about being with parents on”contact” visits rather than using ancillary workers, drive them there and get rid of impersonal taxi rides. And never ever give bad news over the phone unless impossible to do otherwise, visit. I could go on but you get the idea.
These are smallBIG things that may for just a moment make the world seem a less lonely and scary place.