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

Home Sweet Home?

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

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

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

 

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

childhood home

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

“Curses like chickens come home to roost” Old proverb

chickens on perch

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

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

home sweet home 3

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

 

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

 

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

Slips, trips and falls.

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

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

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

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

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

” Take a seat in the waiting area please”

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

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

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

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

“Mrs Randall? This way please.”

“How did you fall?”

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

 

Dylan Thomas

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Social work, child care and history of social work

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

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!

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