Social work, child care and history of social work

Black bins bags? A symbol of how we view children in care

Black bags are for rubbish. I use black bags for storage sometimes and when I have moved house for the less accommodating or bits and pieces that are left over and I don’t know how to fit into the usual packing boxes. None of these images fit well with the symbolic attachment that is made with young people and children moving from one placement to another carrying their world in black bags. Recently there was a campaign on Twitter about stopping the use of black bags as an alternative to suitcases and boxes in moving young people in care to new accommodation. I was dismayed, perhaps that is an understatement. In the late 1970’s when I was  a newish social worker in Basildon I was part of a Who Cares group together with the rather wonderful Charlotte Lodge who had been part of the Ad Lib group in Leeds with Mike Stein . Ad Lib was a group that became the forerunner of the Who Cares Movement  which ran from 1975-78 and then became the National Association of Young  in Care. These were young people led rights groups and among many issues they identified for change was “the bin bag move”. Since 1999 A National Voice has been campaigning  on the same ticket. In the late 70’s the Basildon Who Cares made a short training video and one image that will stay with me was a lad going up the path of New Century Road Children’s Home with two black bin liners full of his belongings. It was staged but the script was written by the young people. We wanted it to stop then! So why is it still an issue??

It is,I fear, the tip of an iceberg . The iceberg that is how we feel about and therefore treat our children and young people in public care.For certain there have been improvements, order books are no longer used for purchasing clothing, overnight visits with friends are easier, reviews are marginally more child friendly, placement moves are improving slowly, there are far less large institutions and we are much better at detecting and dealing with abuse in the care system. But…  and it is a big but, there is so far to go and it will not be solved by inspectors making dictates or pressurising for more boxes to be ticked on time. Quantitative not qualitative data is not the way forward.Nor will it be helped by politicians passing new pieces of legislation and attempting to take control of every aspect of the profession  because it is about attitudes. The attitudes of both the general public and of professional staff  the latter who are ,of course, also members of the general public.  We are subject to the same societal norms, values and beliefs as everyone else and we bring them into our work. Much of how we behave towards these youngsters for whom the state is responsible still owes more to the Poor Law than to 21st century values. There continues to be an element of deserving and undeserving in judgments made, and I have heard far too many times carers and social workers talk about how “they should be grateful”. The often stated public view that “they get everything given them and are still not grateful”. Really!! They see the school trips paid for, the new trainers bought by foster carers and equate that somehow with the council tax they pay. Some will choose to measure these material purchases against what they can afford to buy for their own children. What price would they put on having their own caring and safe family?  In times of austerity these attitudes harden. They also harden in times of political chaos when we all feel that we want to protect that which is ours in the face of difficult times. So now is not a good time for those whose childhood depends on the public purse and the resources of the public care system. So when cash strapped councils are debating cutting rubbish collections to fortnightly to save money no doubt cuts to childcare budgets are on the same agenda.

So what is to be done to move this debate on again.

 

There are 70,440 children in public care in England according to government statistics( as at 31.3.16) and the figure is rising steadily  year on year. Many have a good experience of their care childhood but for so many both their childhood and their adulthood are damaged further by public and corporate parenting experience. Lives that are already damaged by  their experiences prior to the states intervention. This is, in the great scheme of things, a small number of children and young people and easily put to one side in a political numbers games. But everyone is a precious life and everyone will continue on to hopefully a productive adulthood as part of the wider community and as part of their own family. They should have a future and currently outcomes are not good, they provide a higher  proportion of the homeless, of the prison population , of those struggling with addictions, of those suffering mental ill health. The picture is very poor and yet we still consider that they should somehow because of having been rescued be grateful and industrious. History has shown us that systems designed to make the poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised   grateful and industrious have been singularly unsuccessful.

So we have to have a sea change in how we deal with this most vulnerable group of youngsters, quick political fixes do not work when attitudes are so embedded in our collective consciousness. We must challenge every time we hear views which are misinformed or misunderstood. We must look to the language we use to describe children in public care  and their families. Professionalization of our language patterns frequently both discredit and demean our children and their families. Think about the word contact for example. What is wrong with ” meeting up with Mum”, “visiting Dad this afternoon” or “going to see his Nan”. It is as sad for me to hear a child use the word contact for visit as it was to see the young man travel that path with his black bags. We must come out from under our professional cloak and learn to behave towards these children as we would our own, with general humanity, care and friendship. None of this means that we cannot continue to be boundaried, ethical professionals with a clear role and job in relation to  our clients and the community we serve. We must be their advocates , their protectors, their temporary parent. We must believe in them and fight against the system and our employers for them if that is what is needed. We must become politically aware and active. We must be their champions and act as though they were our own children. Nothing less will change their world and the public attitude toward the public care of children and young people. We can then lose those black bags for ever or perhaps just keep one for moving the duvet!

.suitcases 2

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

Transitions:Face up and jump…….

Hemingway said “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed”. I have been struggling for the past week or two to write anything. I have struggled to write the Corve Lane book or this blog. Several blogs have been started but none finished. I am beginning to understand why thanks to Mr Hemingway.  There are good, and bad, things about having been brought up in the psychodynamic tradition of social work. One is the understanding that a block in one area of your life is often related to something going on in another area of your inner world. Locate and deal with the real issue and things may come right. The anxiety manifesting itself may reduce and the block be removed. This creates a struggle for the individual in this case me. We are much better at dealing with his process in others as there is no personal emotional agenda to muddy the process. It is why social workers and therapists require good psychological support and supervision as any processing of our internal world is very complex. But that may be a topic for another day. Today I bleed a little. Blood letting is required. This will be a new experience for me and many who know me. Stay with me it will soon be over!

The irrational fear is that if I complete the book then that will be the end, of my career, of everything as I have previously known it thus creating a very scary space or even a vacuum. The real problem is that I need to revisit my past to establish whether or not I made good decisions, have any regrets, or indeed whether or not the productive period of my working life stands up to scrutiny. Not the judgement of others but by my own standards and to my satisfaction. I know that until I could do that, write this piece and begin the transition to the next phase of my life then everything else is pushed to one side.I knew when I left Lostwithiel temporarily that I needed to make a physical move to wake up my thinking, to reawaken my self to begin this work. To begin with this was simply a sense of what I needed, I was not clear about the next steps or how it would proceed.

What I have come to understand is that I have not just begun a major period of transition in my life but that I am suffering from the series of losses that comes with that transition. Transitions are continuous throughout our lives. Clearly some more major than others, puberty, marriage, parenthood, death of parents, leaving school or jobs, the list is very long. Some are sudden, unpredictable and have immediate life changing implications, some are of our own choosing, and some have unintended consequences. Frequently they cross over every aspect of our life, physical, emotional, financial, relationships, attitudes, abilities, interests or our place in the world. I respect the fact that many organisations and employers now provide pre retirement courses, and I know that I thought and planned many things I would do to take me through the transition. But each transition is unique and though there are many generalizations that apply there was so much I didn’t and couldn’t have predicted. There are two choices it seems when faced with life changing events the first is to do nothing, the second is to face it, create  the struggle and work towards an understanding that will help develop a new stage in your life. No brainer for me, so I have quietly been facing the struggle. I am beginning to emerge with a new understanding not just of myself but of the later stages of my life. I had to “run away” to do it and that may be a bit extreme for some but my sense that it would work for me was right. I have had to  abandon avoidance as a strategy.

For me the first understanding was to give myself permission to grieve for the losses that middle age and retirement bring and to understand them in the same way as any other serious loss in our lives. I remember the struggle I had when I realized that I had become the older generation in my family ,that I was effectively an orphan ,with no parents still living. There are layers of grief to this and it was a while before I got to the real issue for me.  The child in my adulthood was alone. I had to let go of the child at long last and was totally responsible for my adult self. This time I am letting go of my years of being at the height of my productive self , both as a woman and as a worker. I’m not going to list all the obvious changes in any detail, we can all recognize them. Those I have planned for and can deal with. The big and critical questions were for my inner self. I didn’t want to retire. Nothing to do with less money but because the space it would create for me would open me up to those issues . Had work simply been an avoidance of some sort? Had  my dedication to my work been  more self-serving than self-sacrificing? It had been my life. Cut me and I have social worker stamped through me.

As a woman I am childless, a subject no doubt of much speculation over the years, but strangely less so to my clients than others. It was a choice on my part nothing else. Here was a question to be revisited in the face of the menopause and all the delights that brings with it not the least in my case the loss of my sexual self. I’ll spare you the details. Not going that far! My personal and intimate relationships have been dodgy( but fun) to say the least, the long-standing one that would have persisted ending in a very unhappy situation. So what does all that say about the person who dedicated her life to the difficulties others face and to helping the vulnerable and to addressing their relationship issues. I have had to revisited my motivation in a deeply personal way that I have not had to do before.

It is worth every step of the struggle. This is the way forward for me. Not to deal with the obvious, yes money is tight and the bones don’t move as quickly as they did but  taking up marathons, all night clubbing, facelifts, tattoos, fast cars and all the other things that people do was not the option for me. It would be a superficial and empty gesture to my past life, to its pleasures, glories, happiness, successes and failures. Checking it out, revisiting decisions, examining the big questions in my individual existence, sifting through the mistakes , recognizing the losses was for me the way to move through this transition to a new understanding of myself. I will continue to work towards peace with myself as my life progresses. But I have removed the block. This needed to be written and acknowledged . I am still learning and working but in a very different way. I agree with George Burns ” Retirement at 65 is ridiculous. When I was 65 I still had pimples”change image 2

Back to the writing. Coming up . More lessons from the past. More comment on the state of social work and best of all some guest blogs from adults who have been in care offering their thoughts looking back at their lives.

 

Social work, child care and history of social work

Oh help it’s Mothers Day ! About Family Celebrations.

We seem to be almost overwhelmed with days designated for the celebration of one thing or another, last  week saw Mothers day and National Puppy Day. There may have been  more that I have missed if so I am rather pleased as I find them a little problematic. I expect part of my resistance is that they are now so focussed on the material symbolism of each occasion that the commercial opportunities  override the sentiment behind the day. Many have lost their roots in this commercialism Christmas being the main example. Mothers Day,though started in the USA in the early 20th century as a holiday celebration of motherhood ,has its roots here in the Christian tradition of returning to the mother church every year. While this was not a celebration directly related to motherhood it frequently meant that parents met up with their children who were away from home in apprenticeships or service and were released from work for that day.

But my main issue is with the fact that these days are mostly based on the family and its place as our most important institution. This is not the case for so many. In our society the family is seen as the place where we can find all the things we value most in life. It is the place where we find safety, security, love, support, peace from the trials of the rest of the world, rest from work and the pressures of making a living, a place to relax and enjoy the company of our nearest and dearest at the end of a day. It is seen a the most successful place to rear our children and to develop lifelong partnerships. It is with our family that we should celebrate the important stages of our lives, moments of great joy and find solace and support on times of difficulty and hardship. It is the place where we can flourish throughout our life and find the best of everything we value. There is an almost Victorian sentimentality about our attachment to the family which is certainly not based in historic fact. For Victorians and others the family was not as depicted on Christmas cards. Other celebratory days including Mothers Day have the same falseness for many, because families can be places of  profound unhappiness. They can be the place where a family member can be the most scared and unsafe, were relationships are fraught and difficult, were violence and abuse are the norm. Where being together for a celebration can be such an unhappy experience. I have removed many a young person from a greatly anticipated home visit over Christmas when after a few hours  the tension  and pain is too much for them all. So how can Mothers Day, Fathers day, Siblings Day etc be a good thing.

I am not saying that it should not be celebrated by those with reason to enjoy it. But imagine if you will the children and young people who cannot, for whatever reason, live with their family of origin who have each day to pass the shops and supermarkets full of prominently displayed Mothers Day cards and gifts . They are the children who at Christmas spend their time avoiding explaining why they will not be with their family  or making up stories to cover up the fact that they have not had a present from their Mum. I have known a child to resort to stealing and wrapping that present to prove to others that there is a caring parent remembering them. Each of these family based events is yet another challenge in the life of those who are already surrounded by trauma, sadness and loss not simply because they are not able to join in but because the inference is that they are somehow failing to meet the expected norm. They are failing to achieve the prefect image and many give up trying. And so might I ,it would seem impossible in the face of the many challenges of their life.

This , of course, applies  to the adults involved in these chaotic and disengaged families too. I wrote on Facebook on Sunday that I thought we should remember to the parents who cannot be with their children for whatever reason. Rarely have I met parents of children who have been adopted or who are being brought up in public care who do not miss them and still love them even though they may have been quite unable to provide for them or protect them. They cannot take part in these days, they have failed spectacularly in achieving the desired state of a happy safe family for their children. But we should not judge that they therefore have no feelings about their inability to be part of our family based society. For both parents and children I see these celebrations as further alienating an already disenfranchised and vulnerable minority.

As social workers we should at the very  least recognise these days and what they may mean to those we work with. When in a child is living away from home these may be days of opportunity to reopen or keep open lines of communication, to use the making and sending of a card as a way of helping keep contact even in difficult situations. There may not be a reciprocal action but we all need to learn that we can only be responsible for our own actions and intentions not for how those are received. And we should keep trying. We should not ignore the family days because they are fraught or assessed as somehow destructive and unsettling, they are probably that anyway. As good public parents we should help our children to be open about the things that upset them and help them to find ways to deal with them. These days are part of the detail in life which can be so important to us all. In 24 hour care it is possible to create new traditions for these occasions. Traditions that lend themselves , as the originals , to offering some security and ordinariness around these days.

happy mothers day 1

So maybe these days can have a positive purpose for young people and families separated from each other as did the original Mothering Sunday. They can be used as a way in to other issues, to communication around difficult feelings, but mostly it may be a comfort to have them recognised as a days that can be stressful. Even National Puppy Day could result in a chat about that puppy they used to have and who was , of course, a family member.

Social work, child care and history of social work

Holding history. Who do they think they are?

This week I have been in my Uncles home sorting out some of my late Aunts papers. She kept everything and inevitably there were, along with the birthday cards, wedding invitations and funeral service sheets kept for so many years ,pieces of family history and treasures witnessing her life. An envelope which simply said “Look in the garage”had contained the keys to a  sports car ,a surprise present from her husband 50 years ago.  A beautiful leather wallet  still contained a note from my mother,her sister,  wishing her a happy birthday. A note that had survived at least 70 years and said much about the relationship and the power of that family connection. These moments when I hold these scraps of history in my hands are the times when I know for certain who I am and where I belong. They are a powerful connection with my roots.  If I had been in a chaotic and dysfunctional family who were unable to care for me and I had been brought up in public care, the care of the state, I would have no old photos or frail pieces of paper to connect me to my history.  And yet as corporate parents we pay very little attention to this vital part of our parental responsibilities.

Who holds the history for these children? Obviously for some young people in care their families hold their past and to differing extents their future story, and for many children who return to their family there is not such a void as for those who have no substantial family ties. Every carer and social worker  they  have ever known hold fragments, threads of their past and future. The corporate parent are the curators of their history. It can be a lifetime’s quest for many ; for some there are no answers now as the information they seek has been lost or destroyed; for others it is too painful to explore ever; for many there is a time when they feel they can face that pain and we have to ensure that there is access to their past whenever they feel the need. That is our parental duty, which should not expire at 21 or 25. I have been in contact with many adults in care as young people and they all seek answers, they seek their own story. This is partly to understand what happened to them, but there is an underlying need to belong, to find roots and a sense of self, a place in the world. They deal daily with our preoccupation with the ideal of family life and that this is at the core of every ounce of happiness and joy in our lives. They may not know such a  family or worse they may have had an abusive and damaging family experience. Even those who have good care experiences feel the need to understand their own family story. I have witnessed the pure joy of someone finding their family, or parts of their story they didn’t understand even when it is not perfect or as they had believed for many years. What matters is they know. It has frequently brought me to tears and it changes people. It is more fundamental and complex than my simple excitement when I find out something new about my family. So we must attend to this as part of our professional task. Taking histories and drawing genograms are not just for the court papers.

So what can we do? There are two parts to consider. The first  is taking care of the birth family history and making a record in a usable form. Genograms do not cover this in enough detail nor does most life story work both of these tools have a more focussed usage. This may also include collecting photos and maybe small  material artefacts.  This may not be possible at the time of the crisis but can be done at later date. This is about detail.. what did granny do for a living and what day of the week was I born?The second part is  how we record  care histories, moves , carers,  schools and the social workers who have become part of their story. Social work records though accessible in theory are hardly fit for family story purposes. Again it is the detail that matters, school photos , holidays with a carer, the Christmas spent in a residential unit, who were those other children at the carers with the black  dog and what was the dogs name. If we think about what we want to know when looking at family photos then we can start to get to the kind of material required. Sometimes it will be uncomfortable, difficult material but it still belongs to that person. It is their story not ours to withhold only to be good custodians.

Of course there are implications for the Local Authority and for private companies who are contracted to provide services. I can hear the excuses now! Storage ,time and costs. All valid issues but this is crucial to every child for whom we care.What are we to do with this stuff? I would advocate keeping more rather than less. My Aunt had kept her school books,so maybe some sample school work, certainly school reports, even things made at school, and certificates would be appropriate. A holiday souvenir or a token from a family event, the name tag from a pet that was in a carers home, the list can be endless and requires some knowledge of the significance to the child now and in the future. Care authorities need to provide archiving, storage  and improved access. It is possible that young people want to take these things with them but maybe some of the papers can be copied. It is very difficult to hang on to these things when your future is uncertain and moving on is a feature of your life. Using  new technology maybe the answer. There is a brilliant new piece of kit for enabling young people to record their life in detail as called iLifemyLife. Check it out on http://www.ilifemylife.com. It is an online journal and memory box which could be equally applicable to all not just those in public care. If every care authority were to invest in this then the problem would be largely solved. Destroying care home records when closures occur must be stopped, so much information is held in log books and in the photos hidden in filing cabinets for years. Residential staff often keep “treasures” from the young people in their care.

family history quote

Maybe the first thing is that the “corporate parent”must accept that this is a crucial part of their role and not just a side issue, investment in the task of being guardians of their children’s history will surely follow. A  serious rethink of the process of accessing information is needed. It is a very difficult proving impossible for many. Managed by social workers it should seen as part of the ongoing parenting task. The desire to assist and support the applicants in their quest must be paramount making it more than an administrative exercise that covers the legal requirements. File redaction can vary widely and a review is long overdue. Most young people can fill in the gaps anyway, though not always quite accurately! They were there, it is their life.

Maybe that is the point. We are simply caretakers of their lives,  responsible for the safekeeping of their stories and we should remember it is THEIR life not ours. We need to treat their need to know and belong with respect and then maybe we will at last see this as a vital part of our therapeutic work with young people in public care.

me and Francis and Tramp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social work, child care and history of social work

“The Streets of London”. Apprenticeship Part 2

So why do we do it? We are in the middle of yet another crisis with a  government who wants to pass a bill to take control because they see us as a bunch of hand wringing lefties who believe in social justice and that we need somehow to rid this nonsense from the profession . That’s me paraphrasing Michael Gove! Our public profile must be at its lowest since my days in the old Welfare Department. There are lots of blogs and Fb posts that tell us about the pressures , why it is an awful job and how to take care of ourselves and survive. All of which is fine but the key to survival may be in understanding  why do we do it at all, our own individual motivation.

I can only really answer for me and I remember when I left St John’s in Tiffield the then Director, Ian Winter, saying he was curious about why I was in social work. It is difficult for us to explore our own motivation but maybe if we can it will help us to understand and develop personal patterns of resilience to the stresses of the work.  If we can, in the midst of chaos , remind ourselves of those original drives then we can pull ourselves through the difficult moments.Of course there is unlikely to be one single reason and for me there were many threads to my arrival at the apprentice’s desk.Oh yes… we all had our own desks then.

I have often held Ralph McTell, a brilliant folk singer /songwriter for those who don’t know, at least partly responsible. In 1969 “The Streets of London” was first recorded on the album Spiral Staircase and I could not get the images out of my head. They were brilliantly crafted and conveyed the reality of life for too many. I wanted to do something to change things for these lost people. McTell’s words connected with earlier pictures in my mind, experiences and feelings which I had not yet processed in a way that I could use. As a child I remember standing in our front room crying as I watched the family opposite evicted from their home. Dad told me to come away not because he didn’t want me to see but because he felt that their pain should not be intruded upon by observers. They stood on the pavement, furniture, bags, kids and dog, lost and ashamed. I had never witnessed such a scene. I worried for days about them. I was 11. I worried about the drunk and sick man I saw with Mum on the platform at Pitsea station, would he get home and be OK. I worried about the child lost in Woolworths in Grays  and what would happen if she could never find her parents. I worried about anyone I saw begging ,sleeping rough or fallen in the street. This was not uncontrolled anxiety but a genuine concern that they would come out of the crisis and be OK.  I wanted to know who was going to help them. I was a child and it could not be me.

My view of these individual images changed as I got older and widened to the political and societal view of injustice that I still hold today. Again music and to an increasing extent drama and literature helped to form my wider view of the injustice in the system for the vulnerable. The 1950s-60s saw the rise of “kitchen sink drama” and these plays and films has a huge impact on me. Cathy Come Home in 1966,stunned me and still does. Other pieces like Up the Junction , Poor Cow, Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey all drove home to me that there was such injustice in the system  it was not possible for the poor and vulnerable to fight against it alone. Of course many things have changed for the better since then, legislation on abortion and homelessness for example, but the underlying issue of the appalling treatment by the establishment of the less able and fortunate remains . “I Daniel Blake” showed this with a horrifying clarity recently and hopefully this will have the same impact on a new generation of social workers as the earlier works had on me.

It was all beginning to make sense to me. Is there a religious context to all of this? It is not to be dismissed. Many of the great philanthropists and pioneers of social welfare came from a religious perspective in their care of the needy, and our profession owes their brave pioneering spirit a very great deal. It is not always openly acknowledged as a driver to our work today but I expect that its teaching on brotherly love is embedded in many of our souls. My Christian upbringing  taught me a moral code that I have carried with me always. I was impressed as a child by stories of caring and healing and the idea that there was someone watching over everyone to keep them safe. ” He sees the meanest sparrow fall unnoticed in the street”. These ideas were refined later. But while I was held by these ideas I was also in the Girl Guides whose focus on community service appealed too. The Guide Law said I should try to do a good turn every day. Nothing wrong with that as a moral guideline.

Later I began to see that while I could make an individual difference there needed to be a political will to change the structure of society so that we eventually could get rid of the Victorian notion of the undeserving poor, that somehow it was all their own fault and if they simply behaved like the rest of us then everything would be well.I struggle with this view today; it makes me angry still. The notion that anyone I have met through my work is somehow a lesser person for their troubles hurts me .

So my motivations are threads that have run through my life from childhood. It is these memories and ideals that have sustained me through nearly 50 years and it is these I try and recall when faced with the chaos and traumas that we face daily. I also try to remember them when faced with bureaucratic nonsense and computer driven poor practice. It helps me focus on the important things.  My survival mechanism,or anchor, is to sing a verse or two of the Streets of London in my head and remember that there are those for whom there appears to be no route to a meal and a warm bed  at the end of a long day.

Thanks Ralph and all the others who got me to the apprentices desk and kept me more or less sane all this time.

 

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London homeless-2

I’ll show you something that will make you change your mind.

( Streets of London. McTell )

Check it out on You Tube or Ralph McTell’s web page

 

Uncategorized

Social Work is LOVE made visible

“All you need is Love”claimed Lennon and McCartney. Bruno Bettelheim in a famous misquote said ” Love is not enough”. Can both be true? Love is a difficult word for social work, it does not sit easily in our professional vocabulary. But I was curious about why that should be the case and how we managed to work as professional carers particularly in residential child care without a clear understanding of the role of love. It is an inquiry I began when I was doing a Masters in Social Work at UEA some years ago. I have only ideas and maybe can  open the debate. It is, I think ,too complex a topic for just one blog.  I would like to free us to use the word more comfortably and move it to a position central to our work.

Perhaps both statements are traps if we believe either to be a definitive statement. Love is a word we use glibly in the everyday, using it to describe how we feel about everything from our new shoes, lipstick or sofa to our dearest and closest relationships. We are immersed in the symbols, images and commercialization of love particularly at this time in February when Valentines Day is upon us. Specific attachment to a feeling in differing circumstances is an issue when we only have one word for such a complex emotion. One “word” does not fit all.  In Greek there are a number of words whose usage indicates the type of love  being described. This  gives that specificity that we are unable to achieve with our one word which is frequently too powerful  or too poor to match our dialogue.  During that research I came across a definition by Eric Fromm. Fromm (1900-1980) was a German psychologist and psychoanalyst whose most popular work was “The Art of Loving”. Coming  from that book it most adequately describes the love that both has motivated me through my career and describes what I feel and want for those I work alongside particularly those who are in public care where we are in a parental role.

” the most fundamental kind of love ,which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect and knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life.”

Camila Batmanghelidjh , of the now defunct Kids Club, once wrote that she felt “our structures are failing children because we are scared of love. The expression of our humanity terrifies us into political cowardice”. I believe we have become scared of the expression of our humanity and for very good reasons. But while we continue to fail to recognise our emotional connections to those we serve then we lose the opportunity to build the relationship that may make the qualitative difference to our therapeutic intent. Our requirements to measure and quantify our work may have sanitized it to a being an administrative exercise only.

There was an earlier point in working with young people in public care when love was a concept frequently caught into the design of therapeutic establishments and their programmes of care. Maurice Bridgeland(1927-2013) an educational psychologist in “Pioneer Work with Maladjusted Children”published in 1971, looked at many of these impressive pieces of work and they clearly look to the concept of love as both a motivational force and a core element to the repair and recovery of the youngsters in their care. It is interesting to note, and this is certainly an issue for another day, that there were a number of failures and closures of programmes and it would be interesting to understand why. Bettelheim’s work has been somewhat discredited and Kids Club folded fairly spectacularly in recent times, however there is much to learn from their work and maybe we need to be clear that “Love is not Enough” and it is not all we need to provide . As professional carers and corporate parents we need to pay attention to the rest of the Bettelheim quotation which continues to say that love “…must be supplemented by deliberate efforts on the part of the parents”. As professional social workers we have to use all our knowledge , skills and experience to make deliberate efforts to be the best parent or carer we can be  but never lose sight of why we are there and what quality we can add to those efforts by recognising the core of our emotional connection to those we serve. In this way we may hope never to see a poem like this again written by this young person in care.  (Leeds AD lib magazine 1973)

Unloved is to miss the love,lonley-child-imagethat all parents should give

Yet they put you aside

Put you out of their minds

They put you in care

There is no love there

Uncategorized

Loneliness and the SmallBIG things

Jo Cox’s campaign launched this week about the hidden epidemic of loneliness made me think about how this plays out in our child care practice. I understand a little about loneliness having lived and worked on my own for many years. The transitions are particularly difficult, retiring , moving house, leaving partners, loss of parents and these can touch us at any age. I was lucky, having a pretty grounded childhood my coping skills and emotional resilience allowed me to overcome the loneliness quota that these changes delivered. However in social work we are largely dealing with those whose lives and own childhoodhave not given them the skills to cope.I have rarely heard the word loneliness used in general description of the challenges our families face and yet it has such a devastating impact on every aspect of someone’s being.

Let’s just consider some of the difficult transitions that our families and their children meet. Many of these can be considered to be of their own making and some are undoubtedly of our making , many have legal backing  but whatever the source they are none the less traumatic. Imagine for a moment the awful depth of silence in a house when your children have been taken from you, toys left where they  were  played with last and beds remaining unmade with crumpled pyjamas. Your days,which were filled by these children who are never coming home,  changed forever even though you know that you have not been the best of parents and your own issues have taken priority. It is hard to imagine how all this feels but we should try.

The world is just as empty in this scenario as it is for the elderly couple separated for the first time in their 60 year marriage by illness or death. In this case we rightly feel huge empathy and understanding but it is more difficult to feel the same for parents who have appeared through wanton fecklessness to be unable to care for their children. The distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor has been enshrined in our welfare consciousness since the Poor Laws in Elizabethan times and seems to still be with us in making some judgements today.  We see these parents as undeserving  but they too have a massive void to fill.  The chances of them turning their lives around given that desperate loneliness are slim and our perceptions of non compliance with our requirements may be explainable if seen in a different context. If we believe they do not care, are just angry with us , the system or being caught out, then we are kidding ourselves and need to reconnect with our simple humanity before recording behaviours and events for posterity. The pain of a review or a “contact” visit must be immense and unthinkable for most of us. Perhaps we should all engage in some role play and walk out of court  with the words of the Judge ringing in our ears saying that our children have been freed for adoption. It may be one of the loneliness places we have experienced.

Most of my professional life has been spent with young people living outside their birth families and in public care. I continue to be in touch with several “young people” now adults with their own families. They have between them experienced most forms of care from adoption to residential homes and prison. They experience a different form of loneliness. This is the loneliness of loss of roots, of belonging, of an assured place in the world, and of no family of their own. They are alone. Even when their care experience has been good they feel alone . They do not have the reassurance of a presence of unconditional love that will walk alongside them wherever life takes them. In this lonely existence we can begin to see how many of their poor life choices may relate to the filling of this chasm; choices that will fill the emptiness; that will drain the vacuum filled with despair, pain, anger and frequent self-hatred.

My friend David Akinsanya wrote recently in the Guardian( www. theguardian.com/profile/david-akinsanya)  of how the birth of his son gave him a reason to live, a reason to be and to experience real love and happiness at last. He was in care throughout his childhood  and apparently successful as an adult he had waited all his life to feel this love and sense of self. He is now in his 50’s. He is no longer alone in the world.

What can we do as social workers. First we need to reconnect with the idea that our families, children and young people are not just cases to be managed, and their lives not  just producers of statistics for inspectors and politicians but real,human,vulnerable and sharers of the same emotions as us. It may be a current buzz word but I am a fan of the ideas behind co-production or working together with our families in an equal relationship. But Jo Cox wanted us to think about the practical small things that we can all do every day that will make a BIG difference to others lives. We can do this as professionals. The next time we are in court with a family offer them a lift,  wait with them, buy them a coffee, walk with them out of court because that congratulatory talk with the barrister can wait. Be alongside them. Remember with a young person the day their parent died or to congratulate them on their exam results and send a personal card  rather than a text. How about being with parents on”contact” visits rather than using ancillary workers, drive them there and get rid of impersonal taxi rides. And never ever give bad news over the phone unless impossible to do otherwise, visit. I could go on but you get the idea.

These are smallBIG things that may for just a moment make the world seem a less lonely and scary place.