Social work, child care and history of social work

What am I looking for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social work, child care and history of social work

Flood and Fire: Some reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social work, child care and history of social work

Then and Now – a manifesto for those with care experience

 

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

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

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

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

Then and Now

Neglected Abused then Punished….

Why is no one holding my hand.

Abandoned Forgotten a Burden

Someone please hold my hand

Distrust Rebel Escape

I’m holding the wrong hand.

Self loathing Self harm Self pity

I’m screaming for someone to hold my hand

Worthless Ugly Irrelevant

Why would anyone want to hold my hand.

Broken Alone Empty

I don’t want to hold your hand.

Kaycie Hayley Eliza-Rose

Nanna will never let go of your hand.  

Christi 2017

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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