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

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.