christmas, Social work, child care and history of social work, winter festivals

When the world takes time to breathe: reflections on Christmas.

Nearby  a father and husband is dying, the nurses and family are coming more regularly as the days pass. My first love posts messages between bouts of chemo and my life’s love died of self neglect and depression in an age of outcome driven social welfare unable to be reached by anyone. I  switch on the TV for light relief and it reminds me of donkeys dying of thirst carrying their heavy loads of bricks, an albatross feeding its young with plastic from our seas, of orphans living on the streets,  a toddler in a cardboard box on a main street seemingly invisible to passing shoppers, refugees with nothing and no home, the homeless and friendless. A friend posts on social media that for no apparent reason she is overwhelmed by a great sadness. I understand this. It’s Christmas.

christmas image 3

I am driving home on Christmas Eve from Christmas celebrations , the cloak of darkness is pierced  by homes and houses covered in light, trees flicker at me in the night and inside I picture the families relieved after hours of shopping but with that twinge of anxiety that something which will make the day tomorrow perfect has been forgotten. The cranberry sauce, or the rum butter or more likely the indigestion pills for tomorrow tables and stomachs  will be groaning with food. This is the season of gluttony, of overindulgence, of celebration?? Celebration is often about feasting. I guess this harks back to a time when food was basic and for many in very short supply and for most just enough to keep body and soul together. Now it is not a rare and happy occasion to sample good, special or extra food but a time for eating and drinking ourselves into a stupor and of giving the supermarkets licence to tempt us to evermore extreme delights each year. Our overindulgence extends to present buying, to the yearly increase in the number of strings of lights attached to our homes, to the party bags and the number of gin varieties in fact to every aspect of what we could consider to be our already very well provisioned lives. So what exactly are we so heartily celebrating?

The possible options are numerous, the birth of a Saviour is one. Certainly churches  see an increased attendance at Christmas and that can only be a good thing  giving people a moments quiet and respite from the stress of world at Christmas. A festival of winter is another and certainly we need something to brighten the dark days of the year as we make the slow progress towards spring and the renewal of life. There is much talk of a time for families, of valuing the things that are important to us and of remembering those who we miss or are living away from their families.  There are flaws in all of these , if you do not share the beliefs of the Christian church, are not in tune with the changing seasons and the natural world, have no family or are separated from them, are alone, old or ill then all these reason to celebrate become difficult to accept. Remembering the losses may become very real and only add to the sadness of the daily unhappiness. So what exactly are we celebrating?

Perhaps we are all using our overindulgence to celebrate or remember something special and unique to each of us and the trick is to work out what and how best to use this time of celebration. To do this we need, it seems to me, to rid ourselves of the prescriptive demands of materialism and to develop our own rituals and special moments throughout our winter festival. For me it’s great value is that it is a quiet time, a time when the world stops for a day or so and breathes, of calm and reflection. There is no other moment quite like it, driving home from a family dinner or a Christmas concert in the dark with no one else about, to quote the carol,” All is calm, all is bright.” In the brightness of that reflection I can only conclude that the message of these festivities for me is in the sharpness of the contrasts. That while I am grateful for my good fortune and can celebrate that in whatever way I choose it is also the time to recommit to ensuring that the world is a better place for all those who are sad, lonely or suffering. It matters not that this commitment come from questioning the overindulgent and wasteful materialism of Christmas.  Dying, loss, loneliness and sorrow are in fact just the same whatever time of year the experiences visit us. It is sentiment that makes it seems worse. Or dare I suggest that these untoward events somehow blight the perfection we are led to believe is so important at this time of the year. It only matters that the desire to help lasts all year round. It only matters that we offer ourselves as agents of change , of help, company and solace at Christmas as at any other time. Just  think what could be achieved if we all had a little less and used the money for charitable purposes throughout the year. Or all visited a lonely person on Christmas day or simply stopped to say Happy Christmas and chat to the homeless man who is sitting in the same spot as every other day of his life.  It would be amazing.

christmas image 2

I do hope that you all have had a very Happy Christmas and wish all my readers the very best for 2018.

 

 

 

Homes, Social work, child care and history of social work

Home Sweet Home?

I have had many homes and many lovers as I said in my last blog, but it is the homes and not the lovers that are the subject of this blog! Maybe the rest will come  later though perhaps not wise in the current climate. Several things that have happened recently have left me reflecting on the nature of “home”, a friend moving after twenty or so years from the house that had been her son’s childhood home, a visit to my “home” or do I mean “house” in Cornwall, a new chapter for a book about the meaning of home in relation to a children’s home, the movement of people across continents looking for a new  safe home, the rise in homelessness and the crisis in the availability of homes.

“Home is where you hang your hat”         home is where you hang your hat

I don’t think so! I have put my hat on many a coatpeg overnight but in no way did it constitute home. That may be a sentimental quotation designed to make anyone who is somewhat transient in their lifestyle feel more settled and easier about their lack of a more permanent base. Indeed all dictionaries  exclude temporary accommodation or residence from their definition of a home. This includes hospitals, prisons, care establishments and other institutions. This in itself is interesting as certainly care, nursing, convalescent and children’s homes have traditionally used the designation home. In the example of children’s homes this suggests that they cannot be that possibly amazing place we can know as home. This maybe supports the recent trend to transfer most public care for children to family based care.Both my research and experience would refute the idea that a children’s home cannot provide “a home “albeit temporary. There is a fundamental problem though with research which is based on individual experience and unable to be verified by any measurable statistical or quantitative evidence. What are we measuring? Does home mean the same to each person? Do we mean our childhood home, a geographic location, where our family live, does this change with phases in our lives, does it rely on the presence of certain people or possessions in that dwelling place, can one have more than one place that we consider as home? How we use the word may be relevant, do we mean somewhere that is homely  or feels like a home even though it is not our main residence. It is certain though that our first experience of a place called home was as a child.

 

“Home is where one starts from” (T.S.Eliot)

childhood home

Perhaps this is why it is, for better or worse, so fundamentally important to us all . Our home defines who we are  throughout the various phases in our life, it is part of our self-definition and the public face that we choose at any point in time. This need to provide an outward facing expression of our life probably accounts for the need in some for houses so much larger than required or the placing of Georgian styled porticos and reclining lions at the front of ex local authority housing after the right to buy sell off. So if indeed it is the root of ourselves what makes it so critical to each individuals life. Home can be anything from a cardboard box to a million pound mansion but it is so much more than an estate agents description of the building. It is where we find sanctuary, peace , comfort, safety and where the relationships that are the most important to us are centred. It is where we learn about the domestic detail  and patterns of living that will form the basis of our whole future life. In some ways home is a feeling rather than a description of a place which is why it is so difficult to quantify the elements that make it or to find set of general principles that would define it. Each of us has a sense of what makes our safe place, each of us can describe how it feels though increasingly it seems we choose descriptors that are to do with the style and materialistic content. However it seems so many images we might choose to illustrate home hark back to a less materialistic time and focus on family and friends gathered by the fireside in a picture of probably unrealistic nostalgia.

“Curses like chickens come home to roost” Old proverb

chickens on perch

My memories of my childhood home can be easily brought to mind by the smell of Sunday lunch cooking  as it takes me back to opening the back door after Sunday School to the warmth of a kitchen rich with roasting meat. While my memories of home are happy, warm , fun, and secure  it is not true of so many. Children and young people for whom home represents fear, hunger, pain, uncertainty, anxiety or sadness can be taken back to those times equally quickly by a wide range of triggers. For those of us who have chosen to live alongside young people in care and to make a home base for them know how sudden these changes can be and how sometimes they can be seemingly inexplicable. An excellent songwriter and folk singer from Suffolk Eric Sedge captures this perfectly in a song called “She’s the One”  when he talks of the “undertow from long ago” sweeping him off his feet when trying to reach a child who is drowning ” chained by the father’s sins”. We have to work from a very secure place ourselves to be able to work with these changes but I think we have to be prepared to recognise that whatever the horrors of that childhood place were it remains home to that child. Too often I have heard workers talk in disparaging terms about a child’s home, even tell the child that is was to awful a place to be a home.  Just about every young person I have lived alongside has wanted to go back there and many do just that when they leave care. It may be a fantasy that it will be OK or that it wasn’t as bad as they have been told, it may be that they want to make it OK somehow. Whatever the reason right there are relationships with the most important people in their lives, right there was the beginning , the defining moments of their lives. It matters not what curses there were and or even when their return is treated like a curse they have to return , to try, to see, to learn, because it is their home and theirs alone.

Make yourself at home….make yourself a home….

home sweet home 3

As adults we can develop new contexts for our home with our own children, partners, friends, lovers, and so on.  But  as adults carers we have to develop a regime that will hold those young people for whom this coveted place home has terrors and at the same time teach them new ways of living  in a place that may offer security, safety, warmth, and good memories. In this way they may be able to move forward to build homes in adulthood that do not repeat the patterns learned in early life but where they are able to hold that first experience safely.  May be I have not answered my own question about what makes a home, but Debbie when I asked her about what made 11a Corve Lane Children’s home feel like home said “It was where I could curl up on the settee and watch TV”. Maybe there is an element of freedom and choice in the definition of home too. A place where we can be ourselves.  It is an ever-changing idea, not constant but changing with time , memories, age and the people who come and go in our lives. A complex concept so much more than concrete and brick that underpins so much of who and what we are.

 

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“She’s the One” Words and Music Eric Sedge on Plenty More Fish in the Sea Broadside Boys 2016.

 

Getting older, Social work, child care and history of social work

Slips, trips and falls.

It is not all about social work! This was not my first thought as I lay on the bathroom floor in pain surrounded by a variety of debris that I had knocked to the floor on my way down. My first thought was **** that hurts, followed swiftly by the notion that this was the beginning of something I did not want to face or think about. The first step being  waiting in A and E at the Norfolk and Norwich hospital with a suspected broken hip just another elderly person who had slipped and fallen at home. Indeed I had slipped and fallen while taking the nail varnish off my toes with my foot on the bath edge and on reflection it could actually have happened whether I was 40 or 60 plus.  Having decided that no matter how much it hurt I couldn’t stay there on the floor I hauled myself to my feet and made my way to lay on the bed through increasingly blue air.A few minutes later after taking stock and I  decided that while it hurt I had not broken my hip nor anything else. Relief.

General friendly advice seemed sure that “at my age” it would be sensible to get it checked out and so I found myself sitting in the relative peace and quiet of Cromer Minor Injuries unit. Accompanied in the waiting area by two more “fallers” of an age to need bumps and bruises  checked out and a young man with a sports injury, I began to wonder how I had slipped,if you’ll excuse the pun, seamlessly from the category of having had an accident to the slipped and fallen descriptor. Age. It’s an ageism. The script goes something like this.

“Take a seat “       “I’d rather stand it hurts to sit.”   “Oh bless you. A fall?”                              All delivered by a gentle lowered voice and a kind, benign smile reserved for babies, small children and the elderly.

To the sports injury.    “Now what have you been up to.” Big broad grin and a louder and altogether jollier tone of voice.   “We will get you sorted out and back on that football field soon.

Now I could kindly believe that this was a health worker consciously adjusting her responses to each individual who presents at her desk but I rather sense that there is something far less conscious at work.

” Take a seat in the waiting area please”

So I finally lower myself to a chair and look around at my other “fallers” and wonder what back stories we all have and how sadly we have now arrived at this waiting room with the resultant injuries of our trips, slips and falls. We are , of course ,taking this all stoically and with the required smiles and pleasantries to each other. We are not too bad, bit bruised and I understand why the elderly put up this front of being OK and not making a fuss. If we gave in to making a fuss and acknowledged everything that ached , creaked and didn’t work quite right we would be talking about it all day and never talk or think about anything else! So stoicism along with the aches , pains and now bruises becomes the order of the day. That way we can find space in our lives for  other things, funerals, outings, voluntary work, families, dogs,knitting and so on.  Already my conversations with my friends usually starts with who is dead, dying, ill or having their new hip before we get to the interesting stuff. We  are not quite old enough for the first category to be the predominate discussion but definitely old enough for the replacements updates.Perhaps its just a different kind of gossip but  I think I preferred the gossip that centered around whose doing what to whose partner that shouldn’t be, sexual goings on were much more exciting.

The gentleman with the painful shoulders’ wife gently asks him every few minutes if he is OK. Maybe they have been together since being teenage lovers, brought up their children, built a life between them and now enjoy grandchildren and the garden that they have kept beautifully for the past 50 years. They bought their house when the children were small and have lovingly cared for it all these years but maybe it is becoming too much and they have to face the inevitability of leaving all those memories and the garden and downsizing. That’s another word that comes into the aging vocabulary to avoid using shrinking, shrinkage or shrunk. Shrinkage of everything just about, the reduction of life and self in so many ways is the reality but we are downsizing when we leave our beloved family homes. Downsizing our lives is the truth.

I have had many lovers and many houses, made my home where ever I have landed at any one time, can they see this in me as I sit alone with my bruises. I have had a career that spans the 50 years of that garden’s life and has been as carefully nurtured and hopefully has given as much to the people who shared it with me. Can they see that too? Maybe the other faller a lady somewhat older than me but also alone with her bruise can see that in me. She has hurt her elbow. Slipped and fell on her front path she tells me. Her children told her that she should get it checked “at her age”. I guess her husband is dead and her home is a small immaculate cottage in a town that has been her life since childhood, married at the church she now attends every Sunday and where she helps with the flowers. Her elbow may curtail that for a while.

None of these people have been wanderers or travellers except for holidays but maybe the lad with the sports injury will make a football career and have a life full of adventures, excitement and many lovers too. It will be some long time before he succumbs to the language of the slippery slope into second childhood and sits with his thoughts, his memories and his bruises in minor injuries as part of the “has been cavalry”.

“Mrs Randall? This way please.”

“How did you fall?”

“Varnishing your toe nails?! Really at your age you must be more careful.”

 

Dylan Thomas

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Social work, child care and history of social work

What am I looking for?

It was Cromer Carnival recently and I went to watch the parade. The town was packed, people waiting  along the route looking towards the direction of the approaching procession and excitement could be felt in the air. Kids, some in fancy dress waved long  tails of  multicoloured fur on sticks and ate chips while they secured their place at the front of the pavement. Local people waited hoping to see their friends and relatives go by and holiday makers happy to have an evening’s entertainment for all the family. I was taken back to a holiday for young people that I had arranged many years ago , under the Intermediate Treatment funding,  to a youth camp site  near Cromer and our visit to the town to see the carnival.

The history footnote here is that in the very early days of Intermediate Treatment, the fore runner of Youth Justice, we used the funding rather non specifically for holidays for young people who we considered to be unlikely to have time away from the issues they were facing at home and to give them new and exciting experiences which maybe  be more attractive to them than criminal activity. This was usually done as part of a weekly activity programme and as a general preventative support strategy.

So we are waiting near the cinema and the group are pushing out into the street to look in the direction of the  expected parade and then one  young chap of about 12 or 13 looked at me and said” Miss what am I looking for?”

This memory prompted me to think about the nature of deprivation. The deprivation that is not obvious, not as visible as the scruffy and dirty clothes being worn to school or the sadly increasing queues at food banks, the kind of deprivation that cannot be measured by statisticians and inspectors. Indeed the kind of deprivation that social workers have long since ceased to address as part of their work due to lack of time, funding and the inability of anyone to be able to successfully measure the outcomes of their efforts. Fortunately there are some projects often run by charities, community groups and churches that fill this gap to some extent. This is the deprivation of social, cultural and life experiences, the opportunity to extend the boundaries of daily existence to learn new skills and ideas and to acquire through these experiences a sense of self and direction in life.

Of course education provides some of these opportunities but less so in the current educational climate geared to measurable success ie exams. It has always struggled to provide these experiences for the children of poorer families. They have not had the resources to pay for trips ,provide packed lunches or appropriate clothing and resources for their children to take part. Parents who themselves have had limited life experiences will make choices about opportunities for their children based on their own perspective of what would be worth the money. So if they have never been to the theatre for example they are likely to feel that their limited finances would not be best spent on that trip even when it is offered. I have never been a fan of the expression ” the cycle of deprivation” but it could be used to describe the passing on of a very limited life view from one generation to the next. It is , of course, creating a culture of its own and there is a view that no one should be trying to find ways to change that and to do so denies those families choice. I struggle with that knowing that there is so much wonder ,excitement and joy to be found in the world and hold to the opinion that everyone should have the chance to find their own way into sharing new experiences and  cultures. Not understanding the concept of a carnival or that milk comes from a cow in a field( same young man) is a level of poverty of life I find unacceptable. Today in the age of amazingly easy access to information and knowledge these examples are probably outdated and would not apply but the principle remains.opportunity 1

Is it any different for children in public care, many of whom will come from backgrounds with very little opportunity of any kind? Targets are certainly set for educational achievement and have made us more attentive to ensuring good school attendance and outcomes even though for some this is a struggle with all the other competing issues in their lives. But how would we measure the giving of life experience and its outcome which for some may be more important and critical to how they live their adult life, the job they choose and their sense of self belief than their O level tally. Perhaps it is why it is not a priority. Recording of a child’s care experience is now so sanitized that records are unlikely to contain more than a passing reference or request for funding. So it is difficult to measure retrospectively and for young people looking at their records to pick up threads of childhood experience extremely complicated. Those in good foster homes probably fare better as the family will have interests, hobbies, holidays etc that they will share. But I have known children in foster care who have not always been included or have been given the choice to reject activities and often that rejection is based on a fear of something new. For those in residential care their experience will be limited only by the imagination and previous experiences of the care staff and is therefore something of a lottery.

Digging into the dim and distant past of my career there was a time when social workers would put together ideas for trips, activities, experiences, theatre ,music, some free( I could always talk some freebies out of someone) holidays etc. I have tried all sorts of things from taking children on a trip to London who had not been on a mainline train never mind the tube even though they live only 20 miles away from the city,  to a UB40 concert at Wembley , climbed mountains, canoed, camped, cooked outdoors, theatre trips, stately homes, amusement parks and yes carnivals and everything in between. Funded largely by the Local Authority who to their credit thought that it was a good use of their finances, or from free offers and sometimes from local businesses who would want to support children in the community without  using it as a publicity stunt and guess what social workers gave their time for free or were able to take some time in lieu with their employers blessing. These may have been golden days but I now meet adults who have those memories, for whom the events opened doors that they have since used to further their careers, education or a life long interest and many who have shared something they did then with their own children.  It seems to me that even in these days of austerity and stricter health and safety requirements the lack of funds and the need for a risk assessment should not prevent us from giving such a gift to our young people.

PS We might even have some fun together!! xgreat experiences are better

Social work, child care and history of social work

A Desk of my very own please

Of course giving every social worker a desk of their very own is not a solution to the serious workplace issues faced by the profession but it is an indicator of how we are perceived and valued by our employers. In a report published this week by Dr Jermaine M Ravalier of Bath Spa University supported by BASW and the SWU he concludes ” that working conditions for social workers across the UK, irrespective of job role, are extremely poor”. Later in his report he goes further to describe them as “unacceptable” and likely to lead to both physical and mental ill-health. I know this to be true at both a personal level and anecdotally. So it’s not news but a good supportive piece of research nonetheless. But will it get us any further in making the changes required. As a profession we have been complaining about our work conditions for years. No one apparently listens and successive politicians and managers tighten the noose when there is a tragedy or mistake.

Can history, looking back, help us at all? I try not to look back over 50 years using my rose-coloured specs but to be more objective about how the past could help this undoubted crisis in our profession. First can I dismiss any debate about training, initial, continuing or anything else. Our training is good for the most part and is always an easy change target. Better than my training? Different but still relevant to the job. The good news is that Ravalier’s report highlights that we are “highly engaged with our job” despite the other negative aspects of our world. So our motivation is high, we want to help our very vulnerable members of society to improve their lives and we have the skills to do this. We do not according to the report even want lots more money! BUT, there is always a BUT in my writing. This BUT is that the systems and structures of our working world are, in my opinion, rubbish, as they almost exist as a separate entity and certainly are not fit for the purpose of getting the social work job done. The public image and perception of our work is equally bad but that is for another blog.

The first thing we need to do is to turn the whole thing on its head. We need to return to the principle of the primary task so eloquently described by the late Richard Balbernie in Residential Work with Children 1966. It is the task that the enterprise must perform to survive.  Social work has lost sight of it’s primary task, it is clouded by the agenda’s of many stakeholders, politicians, local councillors, Ofsted, managers, private enterprise shareholders and owners to name but a few. Each of these groups require information and proof of outcomes that suit their individual enterprises,  so we as social workers have our working days defined not by the needs of our clients but by the agenda’s of others.  We know why we joined the profession, we know why we get up in the morning and go to work, we know what we want to achieve together with our clients. We need to help others refocus on the social work task thus regaining control of our profession. We need to move back to the days I remember when the public understood what social workers did and thought it to be a highly regarded occupation.

Regaining control will mean reassessing how all management systems service that task, how processes  need to behave in order to achieve our assessed  and agreed outcomes for the client. This means that timescales,for example, will be set by the work we are doing not by outside influencers. We will be judged by those outcomes. Inevitably then there will be a shift to individual social workers taking responsibility for their own success or failure. The days of social workers blaming managers who do not understand their work will be gone and as professional individuals we will stand accountable to the public and to our employer. Taking professional control should then reduce caseloads, improve impossible timescales, and provide client centred administrative systems. Yes we will still face computers, fill in forms and provide quantitive data but we will be clear about why. Sadly I don’t think that anything will stop us having to work long hours some days, unsocial hours on others and occasionally when we are not feeling 100%. That is the nature of the work and the spirit of a social worker.

Let’s think about our immediate work environment for a moment. I have worked in some awful old buildings mostly now sold off by local authorities and I have worked in newly built call centre style offices. The former may have been cold in the winter but were more conducive to the task than the modern call centre environment. If we are to be able to provide the reflective and responsive  supervision that being a social worker requires to develop personally and achieve professionally then we need supervisors at least to have their own offices. Spaces that have to be booked in advance may be fine for tasks that are more predictable in nature but frequently there is a need for space to talk and think with a senior/supervisor/manager on return from a visit in the here and now. Ravalier does state that peer support among social workers is good and the cynical part of me thinks that we have had to develop this in the face of such poor working conditions. I have had many supervision sessions going through a spreadsheet to see if I have completed all my timescales and never discussing the client or my direct work. However, back to the desks, hotdesking  is a non starter.  I do not want to share a computer or office space with trading standards, though I am sure they are very nice people. What does that do to confidentiality or should I have peer conversations in my car or the corridor? Hardly professional behaviour. Our employers clearly do not understand the nature of our work. I want to be able to come back to my own space and think and write, analyse and discuss, share despair and delight, understand and be understood, offload and relax. I am a professional  dealing with complex life changing work and my employers should treat me as such not as a local authority bureaucrat. Thankfully I have had this, now a luxury, all my working life and I cannot emphasis enough the value of sharing an office with my peers and having my own desk. This applied equally when I was a manager, having my own office and being able to be available when staff needed me or when difficult conversations were required.

These things were there for me in my early career as were administrative staff who understood the task, knew my individual clients, reminded me of deadlines, made me tea when I was upset after taking a child away and provided a dedicated service to a small group of staff and their clients for consistent periods of time. They were an invaluable support in good customer service. My managers were engaged with my work, they knew my clients, they remembered events in the young people’s lives and asked about their progress outside of any formal arrangement. It felt as if they were in this collaborative effort on the part of the organisation, working with me  not against me.  In this weeks PSW there is an article from Dr Andy Gill, the new chair of BASW England where he talks about slowing things down and returning to what brought us to the profession in the first place. I recommend it to you.

Let us turn things around. We can do this but we need to maybe look back to refocus on what really matters, to rediscover why the profession began, remains necessary, and why we choose to work in what should be the 4th emergency service( apologies AA).  By reclaiming our professional place we will significantly improve the outcomes for those we help and so many things will come right for us too.

vintage-sw-image-1

References

UK Social Workers: Working conditions and Wellbeing. Dr Jermaine M Ravalier. Bath Spa University pub 14.7.17 j.ravalier@bathspa.ac.uk

Slow down, you’re moving too fast. Dr Andy Gill. Professional Social Work pub British Assn of Social Work. July/August 2017 http://www.basw.co.uk

Social Workers Union. admin@swu-union.org.uk

Residential Work with Children. Richard Balbernie. Pergamon 1966

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social work, child care and history of social work

Flood and Fire: Some reflections

Countless words will be spent on the disastrous fire at Grenfell Tower over the coming weeks and months, together with many tears, much anger and an overwhelming desire for this never to happen again. The media, politicians, experts and others will analyse every moment , every inch of the building and no doubt at some point there will be legislation to ensure everyone living in highrise housing a safer future. All this will be necessary to move on from this catastrophic event, to answer the questions from the residents and the families of the dead, missing and injured and to prevent further such disasters involving seriously underfunded and neglected public housing.

I, along with everyone else, watched with horror and felt the panic rising in me for those trapped and dying. It is everyone’s worse nightmare and we cannot begin to imagine the horror.It is equally a nightmare for the rescue services whose sole motivation for choosing such a career is to help and save lives and who, in a tragedy of this scale, cannot save everyone. They will see things that no person should have to witness in civilian life. It is probably only paralleled by the witness of those in war zones. I can relate to the need to rescue, to help, even if as social workers the term rescue does not sit easily. It is however what we sometimes do and the desire to help is the reason we join the profession. As I watched the great and good come forward to visit and to offer condolence I recalled my own experience of being flooded out from my home and reflected on what may really matter to each individual in these grave circumstances. Way behind the media pictures and the high profile visits are individuals struggling with unthinkable losses, grief and desolation. It is pain that thankfully few of us ever have to experience and that in the normal framework of our lives we cannot imagine. Under all the hours of media coverage and bags of aid are individual stories , lives that have been lived and that have to be lived.

My own closest experience is now at some distance in my life but there are a few things that stay  with me. I lost no one, only things. It is the small personal moments that mattered not the grander gestures. I recognise the need in everyone to feel that they want to do something or is it that some fear censure of they are not seen to respond. Sorting through the remains of my music memorabilia irretrievably stuck together with a mixture of mud and water;the soundtrack of my life heading to the skip, I was not about to go out to see the Environment Minister and the local MP walking through town in their new wellies. Of course they had no answers and would have new jobs by the time any promises ‘to do something’ ever come to fruition. What did matter was the army of local people whose names I will never know who appeared with brooms and buckets to help clear the mud, water and debris from my home before moving on to the next home. What mattered was the lady I met in the park while walking the dog and who having listened to my story about the dog’s toys floating off to be lost left a  small bag of dog toys tied to my door handle. The note  saying they were from her dog reduced me to tears. I still have that note.  But during those endless midwinter days of clearing and cleaning with no heat or electricity the pizza man who was giving away food free in the first few days was nowhere to be seen!!

I was not found accommodation by officials, the dog proved a problem and I needed to declare myself homeless by going to the nearest council office some ten miles away. I was offered free wipes and masks to help with the cleaning though!! Another chat with another dog walker produced the offer of a dog friendly holiday cottage belonging to his friend.  I hear the complaints that the local community should not have been left to sort the immediate response to this current disaster but thinking back that is nearly always the case and isn’t that what our communities are about and do best. Isn’t that why we spend much of our time creating and maintaining a sense of belonging , of partnership, cooperation and friendship within our community? We are our community and they are us. We are together in both good times and bad, when we celebrate with street parties or open community centres in a disaster we are together. No statutory body can do what we can do. Their role is different and limited and we need to be clear about that. Later they provided flood doors to my house at no cost and made me feel much more secure but it took time. We need them to help us create our communities and to support our efforts by listening and understanding to what we need. There are many things that require statutory and official intervention and many that are best left to the people.

I have some reflections for the media too. I know you have a job to do. But I still have a picture in my head of the arc lights and cameras lined up waiting like vultures for high tide to come and demolish our medieval bridge. Waiting for that picture, that moment , the competitiveness between the networks; it would have been such a moment of sadness for the town but that was not important the story was all. I remember clearly a Sunday morning, cold miserable December and Christmas approaching, emptying dehumidifiers and cleaning , then hearing a live radio broadcast outside my house and a reporter saying that the town was back to normal and that all signs of the flood had gone. I wanted to scream out of the door…You want to come in here! You are a pretty insensitive bunch. If you can’t work with empathy then go away and remember that for those involved the trauma and tears go on quietly behind closed doors for years and for some for ever.

I have forgotten the material things I lost, much of the days events and the Environment Minister’s name but with me stays the sense of community, of neighbour helping and supporting neighbour, the broom and bucket army. The worth of recognising what is important to every individual cannot be over emphasised. It may seem small, insignificant and unimportant in the midst of the chaos. The dog’s toys meant nothing to anyone except me. The recognition of that detail for me was priceless. And when the public clamour of anger and grief has died down and the media have moved on the struggle to overcome and survive goes on behind the closed doors of the those caught in the maelstrom of such horror. fire and flood comunity

Social work, child care and history of social work

Then and Now – a manifesto for those with care experience

 

It is never over. The new Children and Social Work Act which has recently received Royal Assent  can congratulate itself on plans to increase the age to 25 for the provision of personal advisors on leaving care but it is not the end by any means. The damage done by an abusive and chaotic childhood and then frequently compounded by the care system does not resolve nicely and conveniently at 25. That is a system response to a human condition designed to make politicians look as if they understand and have a grip on the issue. Over the past couple of years I have been attempting to collect a series of stories from those, now adults, who experienced care as a child. I wanted to publish these,in their own words,but it has not been wholly successful. However one of the over-riding  messages from their writing is that into adulthood ,even in what appears to be a successful adult life, the damage remains an occasional interference at best and a constant life damaging or even life limiting burden at worst. We have had many witness stories from “survivors of care” in recent years generally from those who have managed to work through the worst of that damage to achieve personal or professional success. They can successfully share with others in books, articles, film ,poetry, setting up organisations, lecturing,etc. They become University Chancellors, Patrons of organisations and have an amazing platform to encourage and inspire others and to publicly raise the profile of the children who are brought up outside of their own families. I am in awe of them all. Can you feel the BUT coming here. Yes there is a but for me. What we don’t hear is the reality of life for the many who have not made successful careers from their care experience.

This other group, by far the majority, are among those who daily fight addictions, deal with homelessness, are friendless and have no family support, who frequently attach to destructive and often criminal friendships looking for companionship and belonging. They are also among the group referred to by politicians as the ordinary working man and woman whose concerns are giving their families and children a good life, holding down a job and keeping out of difficulties but for whom there are still deep unanswered questions about their past, birth family and their care life. There are some who can never speak about their experiences even though they have loving family and friends but for whom there  is a continuing internal struggle with these questions from the past. These are the parents, grandparents, partners, lovers and workers of the present and future. This is the grown up family of the corporate parent that is the state. For them it is not over at 25. They are clearly not a real concern to the majorityof politicians or to the current batch of prospective MP’s.

In the Huffington Post( 5.3.17) Chloe Cockett from Become charity said that children were not being discussed at this General Election because they do not vote.  The British Association of Social Workers ,who want to be the voice of social work and therefore by default that of our clients, have issued a manifesto for prospective candidates in the coming election. I applaud this.  It has 8 points with which I would wholeheartedly agree but not a word about the care experienced child or adult and our collective and corporate parenting responsibilities. The Labour manifesto contains the intention to look at “wholesale improvements of the care system” . The current administration having failed in this. This would include all children not just those who are considered for adoption. The Conservative manifesto was not available at time of writing though I doubt that it contains anything other than we have seen in the last parliament. So what would I want to see in such a  manifesto.

When Christi wrote this poignant poem for the ill-fated stories project she shows us deep sadness and trauma, the depth of which is is difficult for most of us to understand or feel. But hope to for the future if understanding and accommodation to her past can be found.

Then and Now

Neglected Abused then Punished….

Why is no one holding my hand.

Abandoned Forgotten a Burden

Someone please hold my hand

Distrust Rebel Escape

I’m holding the wrong hand.

Self loathing Self harm Self pity

I’m screaming for someone to hold my hand

Worthless Ugly Irrelevant

Why would anyone want to hold my hand.

Broken Alone Empty

I don’t want to hold your hand.

Kaycie Hayley Eliza-Rose

Nanna will never let go of your hand.  

Christi 2017

peace to the past imageFor me a manifesto for the future of care experienced young people and adults  would include  fast tracked access to counselling, mental health services and support from those who understand and can connect with their very specific care experience. Of course others may choose the normalization of use of general public services as their best option. Specialized support should be available throughout their life as the need is not age related nor predictable but can surface at any time in adult life. I recall interviewing a woman as part of the Corve Lane research who had significant mental health issues. She told me that during her recent hospital admission she had attended a series of care planning meetings and her care experience had not been discussed nor connected with her current and continuing  illness. She knew, but her attempts to suggest it as a causal factor had been dismissed. She felt they did not have any understanding of care or its continuing impact.  Other interviews led me to believe that another area for inclusion in this manifesto would be easier access to records. For some the need for information about  personal history, birth family and care experience can be overwhelming and not accessible elsewhere in social or familial networks. There should be financial, practical and emotional support for this exploration. It is the most difficult bureaucratic process although the local authorities are no doubt providing this service in line with current guidance. Make record access a priority so time scales improve, align adoption access with ordinary care records, make redaction a rarely used option( what are we really protecting them from), and make it mandatory for local authorities to provide an online memory box for all those in care kept safely for them and  accessible at any time they choose in the future eg ILifeMyLife Online Journal and Memory Centre(www.ilifemylife.com). These promises would be a good start.

There are political solutions to much of this but legislation needs to focus rather more on enabling social work to care and giving social workers more influence rather than on control of the profession. This would release those who care and who parent on behalf of the state to do a real job of parenting. Politicians should listen to the witness of those in a position to use their experience to influence thought and public policy so that care policies benefit all not just the few. Anything else is failing our grown up children. Being a parent, even a corporate parent, does not stop at 25.