care experienced, care leavers, memories, Poor Law, Reflection, residential child care, social work and child care, social work changes, Social work, child care and history of social work

Thoughts on a Strange evening

I love Lemn Sissay’s poetry and I loved the book, My Name is Why, if you are allowed to love a book that is a real life story of loss, anger, bewilderment and sadness. What I mean is that I have read many “lives of” books and blogs of those who have been unfortunate enough not to be able to live with their own families during their childhood years. This is probably the best of them. Not only does it have the precision and brevity of the poet but it incorporates the real, albeit as Lemn says filtered ,records from the social work files. There is anger but that is not the overriding emotion in the writing so it is not too hard for someone who was part of the Authority to read.

A few nights ago I saw him speak and read from his book on stage at the Holt Literary festival. Holt is in North Norfolk for those who don’t know. It was a perfect summer evening and there was a gathering of 100 or so people with a range of seating in this outdoor venue which is part of Gresham’s prep school playing field. Greshams is a mainstream independent senior day and boarding school with a linked junior school. Founded in 1555, it has its own theatre, boasts of being an all Steinway school and it has playing fields. It occurred to me that at £37,000 pa boarding fees this is hugely cheaper than keeping a child in the care system with many advantages that would not be obvious in the Good School Guide,

I left with many ideas and questions running through my mind that evening. At £20 a head for an hours talk and the type of audience that literary festivals attract would they really understand what the life of a child in care is really like. I am certain they would feel sympathy for the child who was abandoned and had such a traumatic time in institutions and be pleased that he had “made something of himself” after such dodgy beginnings but how can they have real empathy with that little boy standing against the wall in a big new institution having been plucked from a family that he thought was his forever. Or indeed the terror of walking into a ward in one of the old style psychiatric hospital day rooms when you are only 10. The latter is bad enough when you are an adult who is used to facing that situation. Did they? could they ? take away a real desire to make things better for the current cohort of children in the public care class? I doubt it somehow.

But was the intention of the evening to be a call to arms for those in the current care system? I am not sure. There was no attempt to suggest how things could be made better in the future from either speaker or audience during the question time. If witness writings and personal experience have become the province of literary festivals rather than social work conferences and training courses does this mean that their original purpose to change the system has become one of earning a living. I understand that everyone has to earn a living but can it not be at the expense of the opportunity to make a significant impact on the lives of those in care. I am not, I must add, making a direct comment about Lemn’s motives indeed I know that he does lots of other campaigning work. I am exploring , if you like , my concerns about the way some sections of the community choose to use these life memoirs and to offer patronage to the writers through their available middle class opportunities and events. Does this widen the gap between the care experienced and their patrons? Does it miss the opportunity to push a change agenda?

There is irrefutable evidence that our current system of care for children and young people has it roots in the workhouse system in both its underlying beliefs and in provision. In the minds of many sections of the public there are still the” deserving and undeserving poor”. There are children and parents whose misfortune brings with them sympathy for their plight and those who attract far less or indeed no sympathy at all although in fact they may be the most in need. Am I suggesting that there is a clear class issue in the provision of care for our children in public care? Yes I am. I am also suggesting that it is an issue that we have never properly addressed at any level in our professional training or work, or that our bosses whether political or organisational have addressed either . I am also suggesting that until we understand the roots of our welfare systems better and our reliance on centuries old principles that our current care system for all sections of society will remain unfit for purpose. There was some time ago a scheme that meant that some young people could access private boarding facilities but I don’t know that it was ever used successfully if at all. I wonder if it is still on the statute books. I imagine that until our general attitudes move to the genuine belief that everyone is deserving then it is not a scheme that should be revived perhaps just learning some lessons about how such excellent provision can be achieved at such low cost should be the first step. So maybe it is a long time off before children in care grace the playing fields of the public or independent schools of England.

Thank you Lemn for setting me off on that train of thought. If you read this it is rather like the way you suddenly follow a set of thoughts when you are speaking. If you the reader have not read Lemn’s book please do. My Name is Why is available through all the usual outlets.


If music be……..

joy of dance imageA question that has always bothered me but that I have not really crystallised until recent years is the one that asks is social work an art or a science. I recently reread, not every word I admit, Hugh England’s book “Social Work as Art” (1987 pub. Allen and Unwin) and whilst it had, as far as I can remember , little impact at the time I found it a helpful critique of why I and many others struggle with this dilemma. It quotes many academics and eminent thinkers in the profession in their recognition of the issue but they offer little solution. It then returns at the end of the book to some practice models which look very like something I learned on both my social work and counselling courses as process recording. What it does is explore more closely the feelings, body language, expressions, physical condition, and every aspect of the individuals appearance and behaviour as well as what they say and puts that alongside the feelings etc of the worker to construct a whole picture of any therapeutic intervention. As a learning tool it was invaluable to me particularly in understanding myself and my part in that intervention. But it has an “intellectual softness” to quote Hugh England that is unable to be quantified as evidence in reports which go to make decisions in the lives of our clients. It is not able to be offer scientifically based proof that courts for example require and therefore for purposes other than expanding our own understanding of both self and client or for helping to form a working relationship it is dismissed. Social work today wants evidence. Inspectors want measurable evidence of us being busy. We are pushed constantly towards the production of evidence , of fact, of research findings. It wants the intellectual hardness of social science. 

As social workers we need to deal with every aspect of the person, the whole range of human emotion and interaction because these are the things that connect us , that make us human , that makes us whole. Not only do we need to understand all this in ourselves and others but we need to be able to use that understanding to help, to advise, to protect and to repair.  Simply we cannot experience all these things ourselves so how do we get nearer an understanding , a connection with the emotional world of others, an analysis of our intuitive self. Is this where the arts in all  forms come in? Music, art, literature, poetry, dramas, performance all have the power to help us understand, to help us feel, to explore hidden and difficult issues and feelings in a way that science cannot. Poetry for example can distill emotion and put it back to us in a way that descriptive cold academic or evidential style prose never could. Music can move us to tears, reawaken emotion we have long since buried or dispel the pressure of a long hard day. I am thinking here of the times I have driven home with very loud music playing. Art can equally move the viewer to emotional response, drawing them into the image, touching our core. To watch an actor get under the skin of a character can let us into a world we may never experience for ourselves. All of these have inspirational purpose and indeed are now frequently recognised as having a therapeutic value. As social workers we should recognise, experience and use the arts as tools of our trade.


In 2018 I started a very small organisation that aims to raise awareness in the reality of a life in public care and its impact throughout life . The inspiration for this was listening to a song by Eric Sedge a Suffolk singer/ songwriter and immediately connecting with the song. As a long time residential worker and someone who worked in the therapeutic tradition I was there with his struggle to make sense of the path forward for the unhappy child he had adopted. This is part of the words, the poetry of the struggle, of the intent.

I saw you drowning off the headland with the waves coming in, shackled to your history, chained by your father’s sins, So I raced into the shallows, to set you free, But the undertow from long ago knocked me off my feet.

And the waters near engulfed me, but life has made me strong, So I pulled you from the wreckage of a life gone wrong. And we built you the finest clipper, now we’ll be your faithful crew, So set a course for kinder shores and may your path be true.

Eric Sedge. She’s the One. Copyright Eric Sedge 2017.


I chose to use the arts as it seemed to me that this could connect people who have no experience of that world with a more intimate understanding than ever statistics and reports could give. It could dispel many of the misconceptions and yes, untruths , about the young people who live away from their birth families in a way that nothing else could. Maybe even improve things in a small way by shifting public opinion.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said” It is within the power of writers and artist to do much more: to defeat the lie”. There are so many misconceptions about life without your own family that block the way to providing a service that really meets the needs of these unfortunate people.  Many care experienced have used the power of words, of art and frequently of poetry to explore their own story and to share it with others and these first hand witness accounts have great power and offer insights that no one else can give. I have also heard the unconvinced deny these having validity as simply just that person’s view of their world and that therefore it is somehow invalid. And that as they have been in care there must be something about them that would make them a bad witness. Hence the need to dispel the lie. I hope that if someone who is not a care survivor was able to offer insight into this hidden world of childhood that it would be more accessible. When Steve Banks, writer and actor, wrote Kinder Shores the play in 2019 he was able as an outsider to the world of public care to bring the essence of the issues to the public in the most accessible way. It was so accurate, so poignant, that when I first read the script I cried. I then cried at rehearsal and at performance as the young actors were able to give life to the raw emotion. It touched the audience’s heart and consciousness.

So I am unashamedly  using art events to pull at heart strings, to share difficult emotions, pain and inspiration to change public perception, to make anyone who will listen feel the emotion of a damaged and chaotic childhood, not to preach or deliver blame, not to politicise or even to challenge the authorities but to make the feelings real so that they may then be translated into thoughts that will turn into actions.

“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words”        Robert Frost


If evidence is needed to back these actions then yes, facts and statistics can be employed but first let us get to the heart us the matter and begin where the client is at with their emotions, feelings, wishes and dreams, fears and pain, despair and hopes and work from there using our social science skills to analyse, plan and negotiate ways forward to a better life. But without that softness of intellect we will quickly lose our way.

carnival 1


Kinder Shores Arts formed in 2018 first produced a CD called Kinder Shores with songs that explore aspects of living away from home. It is still available on Amazon or via Folk on the Pier website. Then in 2019  Kinder Shores -the play written and directed by Steve Banks was produced at the Sheringham Little Theatre to great acclaim. 2020 was to see two art exhibitions by the incomparable  and hugely talented Paul Yusuf together with poetry readings and music in Norwich and Diss but was postponed due to Covid. These were to take place in 2021 but tragically Yusuf passed away recently from the virus. So plans are on hold as is another performance of the play planned for Great Yarmouth.



Thoughts from the storage boxes

The lockdown has not been a very productive writing time for me. A shame, as suddenly there was time on hand but between cottage renovation and moving my mind was otherwise occupied. However two things this week have left me “reviewing the situation ” to quote Fagin ( I loved that character). The first was a visit to Gressenhall Workhouse museum here in Norfolk to discuss a piece of work about the children boarded out from the workhouse. Who knew the origins of fostering were in the workhouse system, not me. I suppose I could have worked it out as our welfare structures today owe much to the Poor Law. It is  a piece of work I hope also to share with the social work archive that BASW (British Association of Social Workers )are doing for their 50th anniversary. The second was clearing out boxes of reports from my outhouse the majority of which were about improving the residential care of children and young people.

Clearing of course requires some reading too before dispatch and I was struck by the depth and wealth of research, advice, guidance, and working tools that were produced during the period between the 1970 and 1990’s. It covers every aspect of residential care, from management and staff support, daily routines, administration, admission policy, recruitment, children’s rights, discipline and control measures and all the aspects of direct work and daily care. Produced by some of the most eminent thinkers, writers, academics and practitioners of the period it should have meant that residential care was, to use a currently overused expression, world beating. A huge success in terms of its outcomes at every level for the young people, for the staff , the purses of the political masters and society. And yet we closed and cut and closed again. Counties like Warwickshire closing all residential facilities. The prevailing political dogma was that fostering and possibly adoption were the best option and significantly easier on the purse strings. Both are easy seductive arguments, saving money a no brainer and of course children will do better in a family environment. Indeed the Parish Officers responsible for orphaned and destitute children back as far as the mid 1700’s knew this to be the case and looked for local Christian families to take the younger workhouse parentless children. The Poor Law Commissioners and Guardians gave us the first Boarding Out regulations. And yet we largely rejected the residential group living option…why?

Of course there are many complex reasons but most of the work done during this period does not tackle the underlying belief systems brought forward from the earlier periods in history and still prevalent in our thinking and our welfare structures. They should have examined the history more closely and it would I think be helpful to teach welfare ,social and industrial history in some depth to social work students today. The historical context is one of the philanthropy of the upper class towards the unfortunate poor, ill and vulnerable at best, and of the punishment of the indolent, criminal, feckless, classes by the wealthy and the Churches at worst. This is still underpinning much of our thinking today.  So if residential  care of the largely working class children who cannot be cared for by their own families ,for all  the reasons we commonly understand and certainly not of their own making or choosing, is expensive to do well then why would this be the favoured option.

Sir William Utting in a report titled People Like Us in 1997  said ,”Everything that goes on in organisations with that objective….(the primary objective of promoting the welfare of the child)….should be put to the test of whether it serves the interests of children. If it does not….it is likely to harm their interests either directly or indirectly. The capacity to apply such a test depends on the organisations understanding of what constitutes welfare.” And so concepts of welfare are coloured by our individual belief systems, experience, societal norms, political thinking and dogma etc. Perhaps both understanding the roots of these and being open to self challenge and possibilities of  variation in that understanding might help us all to avoid the pitfalls of an historically driven belief system.

To be positive. Let us imagine for one moment that as one report suggests we view residential care/ group living as a distinct specialism within the social work profession. Could we then train those choosing that route differently? Offer placements in a range of institutional settings so that staff have a working  and theoretic knowledge of how institutions function. Institutions are extraordinary places and whatever their primary function there are similarities in how they exist. They have a life which does not easily transpose from our usual family based experience. In my early career many of us trained in group work and this would be a necessary part of the training of residential carers. One of the things that in my experience is so hard about group care is how the individual worker can experience their working relationships both with staff and young people, this is very different from that experienced in field work. Sorry that’s an old expression! I am not designing a course here but you understand the drift of the argument for a specialism.

It would have a knock on to recruitment , salaries, conditions of service of course. In another of the reports from the boxes it was suggested that workers in the residential specialism should undergo assessment in line with that of prospective foster carers . The suggestion was made in the basis that they too have 24 hour care of vulnerable young people and though more checks are made today than many years ago they may not be stringent enough particularly in the areas of personality, beliefs, internal strengths and weaknesses, the potential effects of individual life experiences etc. Our standardised interviewing techniques certainly do not allow exploration of many of these issues. I have long since held that residential workers should have a high level of education and academic ability as well as all the other attributes one would associate with a caring role. Salaries would of course have to reflect both these levels of achievement and training as well as the complexity of the work. They are living and working alongside some of the most damaged and vulnerable young people in our care.

I cannot redesign the whole system in detail in a blog so forgive me if the arguments are somewhat brief and therefore thin. I am floating an ideal and some ideas from the boxes, none of which ever really saw the light of day in the last century. A very respected manager of mine and latterly a Director of Social Services once told me that residential care was very scary to manage. Maybe as decisions are made by politicians who don’t understand or want to spend money on these difficult to like or love working class young people and managers who find it all scary these ideas will never see the light of day in this century but I can hope.


lockdown, Reflection, silence, Uncategorized, what we have lost

A silence in town tonight

There’s a silence I have never heard. Out here in the evening town I feel as if I am breaking some ill defined curfew, I expect to be taken off the street by armed men, I feel guilty. It’s just the dogs last walk and I have no garden will be my defence. There is no curfew yet we are hidden in our homes to deny an unseen viral enemy the pleasure of using us as a host for its evil intentions. I am walking through town and though my footsteps are gentle soled and softly trodden they echo between the closed shops.

Sorry closed until its safe to open again……..Closed on government advice……..Closed due to the virus…..Closed even to our most valued customers…….Closed…..closed…closed.

They all have their version of sorry we are closed some friendly and cheerful, others offered with great sadness and some just formal and direct but strangely they still,have their evening lights on inviting me to view goods I cannot buy, tempting and taunting me. Past the Church now the tower illuminated to light the way to roost for the peregrines and pigeons but no worship. It feels solid , stoic and as if it knows that this will pass as have other crisis and disasters in its long history. It has a catatonic feel, still and unmoved as if to say if I don’t move then I know everything will be OK. The faithful will be back.

The pier stretches before me into a silky black sea, calm tonight with no wind. Its outline etched into the sea by lights which draw me towards a walk seaward to the theatre. I would, oh yes I would but it is barred, barricaded against me, against invaders or intruders on its calm. The theatre lies sleeping in the silence, dreaming of glory days to come again with just ghosts to fill the seats for now. Back towards home then and the pub has lights on at the bar. A lock in or a secret drinking club where a password or coded knock is needed to gain entry? I peer, sort of hopefully, through the windows and can see no one but I imagine I can hear faint laughter, football on the TV, glasses clinking as the boy collects them and a fight starting out back. Well it is Saturday night.

In this silence there are new and unfamiliar sounds accompanying my walk. In the flats and houses interspersed between the shops I can hear conversations, even a row or perhaps a heated debate, music, the TV, a dog barking. Mine barks back so loud it is as if he has brought with him his own small megaphone. It shatters the night, the silence. When the shattered pieces fall and settle I am comforted by the sounds of life trickling out through curtains and blinds.

walking aloneI can wandered the streets at will as there are no cars to avoid, no people with whom I have to engage in a strange courtly ritual dance in order to never meet. I can hear the sea, household life, my breath and the dogs name tags jingling. I can hear the town breathing and the sea washing the beaches clean and polishing the stones. I am walking in a post apocalyptic townscape not sure if it will ever be the same again wishing for the closeness of friends and family, for music to make my chest pound and my blood pressure rise and a play to make me cry into the darkness of the theatre.

I arrive home, it is warm and light but I cannot break the silence. The TV is off, free of prefect politicians trading transparency for truth, repeat programmes and celebrity endorsed ways of keeping busy. I have embraced the solitude and it has folded me into its peace so I sit ,reflective in the quiet while the dog sleeps, and write. I may never get this again.


silence quote


childhood, Getting older, handkerchiefs, memories, memory, Uncategorized, what we have lost

How Kleenex killed the handkerchief

Shock horror I have run out of tissues and there are none to buy. Just one of the things that we might run short of at the moment . So what are we to do? They are a token of how we have become reliant on certain products in our wonderfully materialistic lives. This huge loss in my 21st century existence led me to think about the loss of other things for example the splendid handkerchief.

Now rarely used it’s history goes back to Egypt in ancient times but became popular in Europe during the Middle Ages. In England it is recorded that Richard II( 1377-1399) used squared pieces of cloth to wipe his nose . I imagine they were not the neatly hemmed pieces of linen I remember my father using . These were beautifully white, boil washed and then perfectly ironed into a pile of neat squares to be placed in his bedside cabinet. Indeed they were part of my domestic education as the first attempts at ironing were to iron the handkerchiefs with progression to more complicated items once they were exactly square and flat with no creases.

My father’s usage generally complied with the usual definition of a handkerchief ” a form of kerchief typically a hemmed square of thin fabric which can be carried in a pocket or handbag and which is intended for personal hygiene such as wiping one’s hands ,face or blowing one’s nose”.  My mother’s handkerchiefs gave an indication of other uses as although she did use them for personal hygiene and for wiping our faces and hands as children usually accompanied by a little  motherly spit to dampen and us pulling faces were smaller and often very decorative.  They had embroidered motives, lace edges or corners, printed pictures of cats or dogs, images of somewhere that she or someone else had visited on holiday or a day trip. I recall one with an Swiss Chalet though I don’t recall who went on such an exotic holiday. These were often presents arriving in decorative flat boxes at Christmas or in a small packet as a holiday souvenir.

Fashion has dictated many of their uses. Made in silk , or some other expensive cloth and in a variety of colours and prints they were frequently used for decorative purposes. These had no practical purpose except perhaps as a symbol of the class and status of the wearer. In the 1930’s and 1940’s they were made very popular by film stars like James Cagney and Fred Astaire who had styles of folding and wearing named after them along with intriguingly named designs such as the Winged Puff.  In the 16th century ladies of status would use them as fashion accessories though they may have also used them to occasionally discretely cover their noses! In the 18th century they were often dropped as a sign of flirtation or courtship or given as a keepsake, a charming custom.  Of course fashion will dictate colours and prints, Disney prints for children, floral and lace for a lady, silk for the gentleman.

Practicality has encouraged many other uses. The large spotted handkerchief that carried a piece of bread and cheese in a children’s adventure story; my Gran wrapping leftover food at a cafe to take home; carrying and wrapping of various treasures; wrapping round the face for protection against dust or smells or dare I say viruses; a bandage over a small injury; clearing spills; wiping away tears; even hiding behind, or waving to get attention or in excitement. They have been used in dancing, think Morris here,although most of the white handkerchiefs waved at the worlds biggest Morris dance directed by the wonderful Richard Digance at Fairport Conventions cropredy morrisfestival every year are now paper not neatly hemmed linen.  Today commemorative hankies are popular for weddings, christenings etc. Crafts people have invented ways of using vintage hankies as tablecloths, bedspreads or dolls and angels for the Christmas tree. And of course not to forget the ageless image of the holiday maker with the knotted handkerchief sunhat. A knot reminder, tie a knot in your hankie and  at best you may just remember that you have forgotten something!

So if this modest accessory has had such a place in our social history  what happened to it?  Well, Kleenex happened. Kleenex was developed in America in 1928 and in 1932 was marketed as ” The handkerchief you can throw away”. Its utility was going down, no more boil washing. It did however hang on in there as a fashion item for a while and even had something of a resurgence thanks to the pocket fashion of the stars and fashionable gentlemen.  And now it seems that we cannot do without it, we are panic buying tissues and stockpiling in case of shortage!!! Perhaps we could go back to the beautifully hemmed pieces of linen, even making them which could be an activity while we are isolated and teach children how to sew. A personal note here, my paternal grandmother had a one time worked in the household of a someone rather grand as an assistant seamstress and even when very old I recall her hemming squares of material in the smallest, neatest, most even stitching I have ever seen. Still never matched except by machine.

Maybe one of the lessons we may learn at the end of this period in our lives is that there are some things we can manage without and perfectly acceptable alternatives that are reusable, decorative and multi-use. The humble perfectly formed and ironed handkerchief being just one of those.obama with hankie


care experienced, care leavers, childhood, memory, social work and child care


I apologise to my followers for having stopped writing but last summer seemed to drain me and left me rather lacking in passion for writing anything. I will not bore you with the details but the political situation had much to do with it.  I felt that in the face of such a move to the right the most vulnerable in our society whose life chances are few anyway were really about to be lost to the tide of populism. That being so then anything I had to say was a waste of time.


“You may leave care but care never leaves you”

This is a quote that never leaves me. Just like my childhood has never left me so it is for  those who did not have such a fortunate childhood. It was the inspiration, along with Eric Sedge’s song, for the Kinder Shores charity. This week I became engaged in an online debate with a woman who spent her teenage years in care following an adoption breakdown, she is now nearly 50 and was meeting her family for the first time in more than 30 years.

The first thing that struck me was not just the mix of huge excitement and fear about this meeting but also the desperation that this would go well.  She would, at long last, belong to a real family, her family,  and not one made up of the care experienced and professional carers. The latter is not diminished by this statement at all because families are made up of many different threads of  life.  I have seen time and time again that desperation for a blood tie, the family seen as the real family and that no matter how difficult their previous history together has been there is always that longing and the hope of reconciliation.

“The silver link, the silken tie,

                                                           Which heart to heart, and mind to mind,

In body and soul can bind.”

This is a quote from Sir Walter Scott used by the now much discredited Bruno Bettleheim in a ” Good Enough Parent”. Just for the record I still feel his work and writing has much to offer us despite his alleged dishonesty about himself. I used this in my Masters dissertation in 1989 which reading now shows that I had somewhat naive ideas. These have been developed with years of experience and with the advantage of age giving insights into the ongoing trauma and distress of those who are care experienced as children. How right it is that that silver link is so very strong and that it’s exploration , often couched as a search for truth, is critical to being able to really belong in this world. It is not always immediately seen as a route to repair and to being able to move forward but this is sometimes an unintended consequence. This requires another element to enter the arena that of forgiveness and this is most difficult for both parents and children.

This meeting may have been hugely anticipated by both parties but in a premeeting  phone call it became clear that each had developed a narrative about the initial care event and the intervening years that did not match. The most serious element of this is that her parents believed that her leaving the family for care was due to her inability to cope with being adopted not the significant and serious abuse that had been the definition of her childhood.  I am certain that it would not be advisable to share all of the events in her life since leaving her family home as they would be too much for a parent to hear in the early days of an evolving relationship. However this denial is so fundamental to the establishment of any future together and has underpinned every single aspect of life for her  being such a destructive force it is difficult to see how this could possibly be overcome. I have to ask myself as a social worker at the time of these events whether we did enough to work with both parties? Is this current situation also the responsibility of the professional who intervened in these lives as well as the individual members of the family? Should we have some obligation to assist with the reconciliation at this stage or simply ignore it and let them get on with it supposedly as “grown-ups”? This is not a question to be answered by a comment on resources but a question of humanity and professional responsibility for our actions as rescuers. I leave it open to debate.

Adoption is a difficult place to find yourself too. These are her adoptive parents who are also part of her extended family. Adoption services cannot hide behind the ” forever family” nonsense. Who exactly do you belong to? And who, when these issues interfere with your adult life in a significant and serious way is going to help resolve these complex issues? In a parallel online conversation this woman’s son,  also adopted, began a conversation on Facebook about his unresolved issues around adoption and asked for those who were in a similar position to contact him hoping to find some answers and support. His simple quest was to understand why he was so angry and how his mother was unable to offer him any support to resolve his questions.  The answer to the latter question is simple from the outside.

If we even begin to believe that care is a simple act of rescue and then finding a suitable placement preferably with that forever family, of getting reviews done on time and keeping the statistics on placement moves and exams on course, then we are deluding ourselves. We are leaving a legacy of hurt, anguish and pain for so many and offering no help with resolution. Of course not for everyone but for a significant number, those over represented in the prison population, in addiction services, mental health facilities and among the homeless. We owe them, their chaotic lives are not entirely down to them. Maybe there needs to be “forever “care teams offering specialised support to care   experienced adults. Ah….. I hear the chorus gathering about lack of resources.

siutcase image


care leavers, childhood, homelessness, leaving home, memory, social work and child care, social work changes, Social work, child care and history of social work, Uncategorized

The rain it falls not so sweetly

I’m laying in bed listening to the rain falling, gentle, steady soothing rain the sort of rain that falls softly into a summers evening and makes the world smell sweet and clean after a warm day. I am returned momentarily to my childhood and the memory of a bedroom at our home in Stanford-le-hope where I am laying listening to just such rain feeling warm, safe and secure. It is a memory that is so sharp and the feelings are so clear that I can see the wallpaper in that room and how the light used to stream through the window and the view onto the garden with its lawn and scalloped beds so neat and tidy. I am always stunned by the strength of memories triggered in adulthood especially now I am experiencing them from such a distance.

I reflect that it is no different for those who have only bad memories to recall and that those will last on throughout life in the same way and probably with the same intensity. Sadly they will also bring with them the reliving of some of the traumas and sadness that visited them at the original event of their life. It is a great sadness for me that in the public care of young people we frequently neglect to acknowledge these memories believing that they will be expunged by the rescue or the provision of material comforts in a good alternative home with those who will show care and affection. The shame and the pain remain underneath a life appearing to be well lived and at least superficially enjoyed.

Imagine for one moment those for whom that back bedroom with the view of the neat garden brings back the horrors of lock doors, a room filled with abuse and pain with the ever present fear of footsteps coming up the stairs praying that they are passing the door to go to the bathroom. Instead of listening for the rain, trying to block out the sound of drunken shouting, of the thud of the punches thrown and a body hitting the wall followed by the creams of pain. Laying lonely, ill, despairing knowing no one will come to sooth and comfort or not knowing where the next bed will be or if indeed there will be anywhere to sleep , no bed , no warmth and the fear that accompanies street life. If anyone reading thinks this is too dramatic or over egging the case for effect I beg you to believe the unbelievable in today’s society. This is not a story of Victorian England. It is today’s reality for so many living in poverty and despair.

I recall visiting a small boy living with carers prior to an adoptive placement who at the age of 4 got out of bed every morning and put on his shoes before doing anything else. Even though he was in a safe and secure place with a delightful bedroom full of toys and books with a warm comfortable bed designed like a car, the pattern of days on the street with his Mum were firmly imprinted. They were homeless for most of his life always moving on. He had never known any sense of security or safety. don’t imagine his mother didn’t love him, I believe firmly that she did, he was not malnourished though chips and Mars bars may not have been the healthiest of diets and she had found the safest place she could every night, getting him a doctor when he was ill and giving him as much love as her desperate self could spare him. I hope someone told him this after his adoption. But these days will be his memories for ever no matter how much better his childhood becomes his shoes will always be at the ready.

As social workers and carers we face with these young people and adults totally impossible and desperate situations and we must recognise that our attempts to rescue and then provide services are only the beginning of the process of repair. We focus on these elements but do not appear to recognise or deal with their past in a way that will mean as adults every abused child can find an accommodation with their history and memories, settle these memories , adapt to their history, revisit the bits which need to be travelled through many times before peace can be found, find justice for their hurt, sometimes find the truth, find parents and siblings, find a place in the world where they fit. To achieve any of this helpers need time, time to build trusting relationships, time to talk , to visit old children’s home or family homes and schools and so on. Life story books are only a start, they are a sanitised version designed to tick another box. Often done by specialist workers for which read yet another new person. We need to be genealogists, explorers, travellers, photographers, and the archaeologists of individuals lives.

But first we need to recognise the signs and work with them. Note the girl who when admitted to a children’s  home didn’t take her coat off for months and don’t just encourage her to take it off but start slowly to enquire about this behaviour. I know of care experienced adults who can only sleep facing the wall, who suffer interminable nightmares that they think will never leave them, have to have lights on at night, wake to every footstep  or sleep with radios on. There are a million different behaviours alerting us to the need to help restore peace in the lives of the care experienced but we must pay attention. Paying attention to the detail in an individuals life will not only pay dividends for them but will also mean that those scarred    childhoods will not result in adult lives that need to call on mental health services and other public services. 

 For some the rain falls softly for many the rain that falls is so scary that it blights adult life and we need to stop worrying about ticking boxes and start to focus on the real issues and provide a meaningful, life enhancing service to our young people and care experienced adults.


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

Sitting still.

How hard can it be to sit still for a morning to have your portrait painted by a group of budding amateur artists? Well actually not too hard but occupying the  mind while remaining still  can be a bit tricky. I began to think about the resultant pictures and how these artists would interpret me,not just the physical ,the outward presence but what would they see of me, of my soul, of who I was.

Perhaps nothing past the hair colour, the wrinkles, laughter lines and grey hairs but I hoped that they would see something else, something that maybe each individual would recognise and connect with, something that only they would see or better still something universal that anyone would see. They all knew very little about me other than a few public facts. I own a dog, who my partner is, a few friends maybe in common, that I am retired, and a few of the class knew that I was once the manager of the children’s home in the village only a few yards from where the class is held. And a guess at my age I suppose.  Of course they can make up a back story from these few facts but it would be a bit thin and say nothing of the real me.

But what would I want them to see or not see . I would want them to see more than the good bits,more than the ready smile and kind word generally offered. I want them to see that those open parts of me are borne from many hard experiences not from an easy path through life because that is where I believe compassion and kindness spring from. If we are genuinely to understand the desires, wishes and needs of the vulnerable and less fortunate in life then we need to have experienced some hardship ourselves. This does not mean that only those who have experienced, for example, homelessness can aid the homeless or that you must have had your own children to be able to work alongside children and families. I have often been told that I don’t understand because I am not a parent . I recalled a young person once asking me if I was running a children’s home because I couldn’t have my own children when asked where she had got that idea from it transpired that this was a commonly held view among the staff. A back story born out of very few facts and a bit of imagination which fitted their own life scripts. They were mostly married women with children.

It is not the exact or similar  event that must be experienced but the transferable feelings and emotions that are important to understanding. If I have felt loss, abandonment, hatred, overwhelming sadness, hopelessness, guilt, pain, anger, misery, then I can feel compassion for those with similar emotions. I can also believe that they are survivable even in the most dark and difficult circumstances. For those of us who can say that we have had good childhood who have experienced warmth, affection, security, friendship and unconditional love and always known our connection to the world we can just begin to understand all of these blessings in their absence if we can stand the pain for a moment. Because probably all of the people I have met during my career have and continue to experience the exact reverse. We can be brave enough to use our imagination and intellect to reverse our own story in order to share their pain. Because it is not our story we can return safely to our reality with renewed understanding. I have always tried to get in touch with the pain of those I worked with and I hope they knew that in some way. I know I can return safely to myself and that is probably why I have survived better than many of my peers and colleagues.

sitting still and thinking 3

But can all this be seen in the lines on my face or in my demeanour while I sit for my portrait painters? We are none of us simple, straight line life stories. We are hugely and endlessly complex. My mind racing through these thoughts has kept my body still but now I am allowed a break and to see the end products. The colours in my hair proved a challenge apparently and I see nothing of my thoughts while sitting in their work except for one that showed a distinct stoicism in my posture and another that made me look rather far away in my thoughts which was indeed exactly where I was.

Sometimes sitting still and letting ones thoughts meander is a really good thing to do. I enjoyed my morning sitting still and I hope the artists did too and invite me back again.

art class 1

care leavers, homelessness, social work and child care, social work changes, Social work, child care and history of social work, Uncategorized

Care Leavers etc Part 2. The fight goes on.

It is sad that I feel it to be a fight, I deleted that from the title twice because it seemed so negative.  Maybe I mean a struggle. After so many years  I still seem to be repeating myself so often about the way forward with the care system. When I saw the other day an article suggesting that a new social work model was to have consistent social workers who knew the individual and in whom they could trust I was lost, temporarily, for words! Well repeatable ones as least.

However there are some things that I think we could consider without setting about a whole system change which will never happen for all sorts of reasons which I do not have time to explore in this blog. Life is often about detail and there are many smaller things we could change that would make a significant difference to the lives of our children both during their care experience and later in life.

You may have noticed that in the last paragraph I used the term “our children” and that is exactly what they are. They belong to us all in the widest sense of community now and in the future but crucially they are children that the state has been given the responsibility of parenting sometimes together with parents or so often without. So my first plea in this January manifesto would be to consider the words we use in respect of those in public care and how we use them. I don’t have a problem with the term “in care” though there are those who are in care who might and they should be asked. I do have an issue with “the corporate parent” for example. There is no way that it is possible to be a corporate parent. It is a meaningless bureaucratic term only to be understood by the non care adults working in the system. It leads them to view the child  as a corporate commodity and to feel that it is therefore ok to argue between departments and authorities about areas of responsibility, blame each other and cause frequent lack of movement in cases were disputes are underway. How about changing that to collective parenting implying that everyone has equal responsibility across the board but clearly there will be defined tasks. The second term mirrors a good parenting arrangement where both parents share equal responsibility but have also have specific skill areas, the former mirrors the chaos, disputes and blame games so often present in families showing poor parenting.

fire and flood comunity

Here’s one for the statutory children’s agencies. Stop making teams divisions based on age. It is a nonsense for children to change social workers because they reach a certain age or the stage in their care “career”. There may be convenient administrative reasons for doing this but it is anything but child centred. And I don’t hold to the argument that it is because there are different skills sets required. Basic good social work skills are transferable to any situation, and the forms and specialist knowledge available within departments and via online information systems. As an agency worker I know that it takes little time to know the different administrative systems. What is not easily transferable is the trust, benefits of a stable relationship and the intimate knowledge and details of the client’s life all of which are more important at any transitional stage in life. How often have I heard young people say it is so hard having to start again with a new person who knows nothing about you or who you really are. Come on managers this should be an easy one to solve.

Social workers please pay attention to detail. Remember always to recognise important dates, not just birthdays and Christmas but the day Mum died or the child came into care, that they are getting their exam results, or get their degree. A text is enough and a beginning at least. Keep photos of friends and carers in files, the friends in a current school with names so that when they move they can recall these people who may have been important for that time. Keep things they made at school, souvenirs from a holiday with carers they no longer live with… get the picture.  See it as your job to help them with their family history and story , it may not be pleasant but it is theirs and will give them a sense of belonging, a sense of a place in the world.

And to the politics of all this. Stop privatisation of children’s services across the board. No company or individual should make a profit from these children’s sadness. They are our children. And these companies frequently promise great things but deliver a service much along the lines of public services. This is about money and political ideology. It is often not even cheaper  for local authorities.

Let us accept that residential care can be a sanctuary, a place of repair and a chance to move on positively into adulthood, shared together with others who understand. Good residential care can be a real asset. It can be expensive but so is moving around and picking up the damage done in the process. Fostering, adoption and kinship care is not for everyone.

Therapeutic parenting should be the model throughout the service, and inspectors rather than measuring the administration should be looking to ways of measuring the reparenting of our children. Administration  does not parent children, it supports it and we should not make it the primary measure of success. This model should be the baseline of every intervention at each moment in the child’s in care life. A model shared by social workers, administrators,carers, adopters, schools and inspectors. And understood by politicians across the party divides. Party ideologies should not change the models of care.

Let us stop the corporate mirroring of the chaos of broken family life. No child should ever feel abandoned, abused, neglected or lost in the care system. They have witnessed enough of that by the time we become collectively responsible for them in public care.

And if that is not enough. Back to terminology. The term often used about good social workers is that they “go the extra mile”. They are just doing their job well and theirs should be the standard  not the exception.

Happy New Year.


care leavers, christmas, homelessness, leaving home, media, memory, Social work, child care and history of social work, winter festivals

A Window on Christmas

It was nearly 8am this morning when I walked the dog. It was dark, wet and as thoroughly unpleasant a morning as it is possible to be at this time of the year. The dark dank days of November and December are only brightened for most of us by the prospect of Christmas. The expectation of a light-bright, warm fun-filled Christmas with our families, presents wrapped with jolly paper and love. As I walk past the Crescent with the dog, the sea rolling stones at near high tide to one side I can look in windows of the Christmas houses, with their beautifully decorated trees, blazing lights, presents under the trees and can imagine even smell the breakfast being cooked in the kitchen. I peer in not with the sentimentality of the bedraggled street child on a Victorian Christmas card  but with sadness, with concern,  and a heavy heart.

The media is full of a strange mixture of standard news and items asking us to think about the lonely elderly, the homeless young people, those struggling with physical and mental illness, animals left to fend for themselves during the festive season and to be a good neighbour, to check to see all is well, spend a few minutes of conversation or even invite them into our homes for dinner on Christmas day. Is this the same sentiment as that Victorian Christmas card?  Our wish to share our own good fortune with those less fortunate at this season of the year. Some time ago when I read the archives of St John’s School, once a reformatory built in the 1850’s, I recall reading an account of the Christmas day menu which was to include oranges,apples and plum pudding donated by the great and good of the county. The rest of the year the diet consisted of bread, potatoes, porridge, and occasionally a little cheese and meat; the same  every day. These were the poor children of the county who had landed in the reformatory usually as a result of criminal acts brought about by extreme poverty, hunger and homelessness. And so we continue the patronage of the more fortunate today. There are more of us  to donate today as living standards for the majority are so much better than in the late 1800’s so we are able to give even when we have overspent our credit on presents and Christmas extras. Here comes the BUT!….. But nothing really changes. We overindulge and give the leftovers to the poor and destitute.

I include myself in this and it is not intended as criticism of the excellent schemes, projects and charities who do such wonderful work all year round and who provide extra support at Christmas. I am simply dismayed that we cannot begin to tackle the root causes of the homelessness and poverty that plagues our society. I am equally dismayed that the focus for our charitable efforts should be Christmas and not the rest of the year. Bringing the issues into such prominence at this time somehow exposes the depth of despair that those who are without family, friends, good health , means or a home must feel. It exaggerates the loss and failure.

A few minutes later on  my dog walk I pass Michael, I do not know if this is his name even though I see him most days. Every day he walks the town slowly, very slowly so that the time should pass at a quicker pace to fill the day. I see him read the paper, or a book, raid the bins or wait at shops for charity, he stops for a chat with the dog who is always pleased to see him, he meets his friends for a drink they too are homeless, washes in the public toilets and sleeps I know not where. He once had trials  to be a professional footballer. This morning he is heading into the church carrying his food bank Christmas bag.  A Waitrose bag no less! I know what is in it as I saw them being packed up. The church as ever provides sanctuary  and a warm welcome and cup of tea at the end of the service. This morning it is probably the only dry place to be. I like him he has a friendly smile and a kind face. A gentleman of the road. My father always used this expression not in a patronising way but to convey, I thought, respect and a sense of dignity so often denied. Is Christmas Day any different for Michael? Well the world is shut and may become his alone but he will be able to witness the festivities through those windows while we all play Monopoly and get indigestion.

What does it bring back for him, or does he choose not to remember as the memories are overwhelmingly  painful. I don’t know his story. Maybe he has no family, in care as a child, moved around the care system, many people who said they would provide him with a home, rescue him from his own abusive family only later to reject him. Time in prison learning new tricks to survive , harsh treatment to punish him further and reinforce his sense of lack of worth, attempts to make a family of his own lost through mental ill-health or addiction. Only he knows, but the shadows of his past may be remembered through the haze of drink and the windows of the rest of the world. He may brush it all aside as just another day and drink until he can sleep. I do know from my own experience that loneliness at Christmas takes on an added dimension even when you know there are people who care and who would welcome you unconditionally. I cannot imagine how it feels without that backstop( how dare I use that word at the moment!!!). I too would drink untill I could sleep.

So my wish for Christmas is that we keep the sense of charity that Christmas imbues in us for all the year and do not return to demonizing Michael and his friends in the New Year. Also that we can find a way to tackle the causes of poverty, homelessness, despair and hopelessness in this our affluent society. It is a scandal of our modern day. I will not forget while I am feeling lucky to be with my family sharing good food, companionship and love because there will remain with me that underlying sense of sadness that there are other windows on this world.

traces and memory 2

A very happy Christmas to you all .