care leavers, folk music, leaving home, social work and child care

Kinder Shores and the power of music

Can music change things? I hope so or else I am definitely heading down the wrong path at the moment. Kinder Shores is a CD and a concert to raise money for a project to provide specialist counselling for young parents who have been in care during their childhood. To find out all about it go to http://www.kindershores.org.

There were two inspirations for this project. The first my years in social work and my continuing contact with those who were in care as children and young people. I am privileged to still know them. I know that they may leave care but it never leaves them. The issues that come with being separated from parents as a child  continue on into adult life colouring a whole range of life experiences particularly those to do with relationships and parenting. I have long-held that if while in care more therapeutic help was available this would be partially resolved but I know too that sometimes we have to work on issues when we are ready. For some young people who, in their adult years, may want the help it is sparse in availability and certainly not specialist enough to deal with the specific issues about being parented outside your birth family. So this project is greatly needed in my opinion.

Having left care more than 30 years ago, and on the surface, a successful adult life, it was only when I became a father in my 50’s that I realised I still needed to talk about my childhood. I was lucky to have the ongoing support of my social worker who helped me through some of my issues. It amazes me that there isn’t counselling available to all care leavers. Not only to deal with issues that took us to care but often for the inhumane way we feel treated whilst in care, especially feelings of abandonment when we do leave, often without the skills to cope alone whilst so young.

These are the words of David Akinsanya brought up in care he is a journalist and campaigner now and they encapsulate perfectly the need for this counselling service.

The second inspiration came through my love of music. Much of the music in the folk and folk rock world is driven by exploration of injustices, by the world of the ordinary working man, of politics, of  opening up emotion and feeling, and the need to change the world for the better . Often the  songwriters observation of the world and people around them is unerringly accurate and it can connect us with  feelings we have hidden, ignored, or that simply relate to our experiences in life. More importantly they can sometimes connect us to other people’s feelings and life experience bringing awareness and understanding. And so there was a song that provided the final push to get this project underway, when I heard this song I knew exactly what it was about. It speaks of so many of the young people I have met, of their pain, their anger with the world that has treated them so poorly. It tells too,of the complex nature of the “rescue” of any adult attempts to make their world safe and secure and  of the nature of therapeutic endeavour in whatever arena. She’s the One written by Suffolk singer/songwriter Eric Sedge became both the inspiration and gave me the title for the CD, the concert and the project. Kinder Shores is exactly what I want to help to achieve for these young people, to find peace and tranquillity in their lives for them as individual adults and for their loved ones and children.  The words speak for themselves , here are the lyrics reproduced with Eric’s permission.

She’s The One

She’s the one with bad behaviour,

She’s the one who wants to fight,

She’s the one with the reputation,

She’s the one who bites.

She’s the one with all the bruises,

Tears in her eyes,

She’s the one who talks the loudest,

Covers up with lies.

Hush now Babe, I know you’re Frightened,

Hush now Babe I know you’re Scared,

Don’t you know your Daddy Loves You,

Don’t you know we all care,

 So breathe in and out again

 I saw you drowning off the headland with the waves coming in,

Shackled to your history, chained by your father’s sins,

So I raced into the shallows, to set you free,

But the undertow from long ago knocked me off my feet.

And the waters near engulfed me, but life has made me strong,

So I pulled you from the wreckage of a life gone wrong,

And we built you the finest clipper, now we’ll be your faithful crew,

So set a course to kinder shores may your path be true

Hush now Babe, I know you’re Frightened

Hush now Babe I know you’re Scared 

Don’t you know your mummy Loves You

Don’t you know we all care 

                                                         So breathe in and out again                                                          Eric Sedge

 

So can music change things? Yes it can. It can change how individuals feel, it can provide comfort in difficult times, it can offer explanations, it can make us dance and sing, give us joy, share our happiness, it can inform, explore and inspire. This CD has a narrative to the tracks that explores the issues that face these young people gthe world often without the skills and support to cope  but it also has songs that speak about the possibility that in overcoming the difficulties there will be a better future out there. This music informs and inspires hope. If we all come together and share this music it can change things for these young people and their futures.

For more information

http://www.kindershores.org      http://www.reesfoundation.org    http://www.ericsedgemusic.com

john lennon 2

 

 

 

 

 

christmas, Social work, child care and history of social work, winter festivals

When the world takes time to breathe: reflections on Christmas.

Nearby  a father and husband is dying, the nurses and family are coming more regularly as the days pass. My first love posts messages between bouts of chemo and my life’s love died of self neglect and depression in an age of outcome driven social welfare unable to be reached by anyone. I  switch on the TV for light relief and it reminds me of donkeys dying of thirst carrying their heavy loads of bricks, an albatross feeding its young with plastic from our seas, of orphans living on the streets,  a toddler in a cardboard box on a main street seemingly invisible to passing shoppers, refugees with nothing and no home, the homeless and friendless. A friend posts on social media that for no apparent reason she is overwhelmed by a great sadness. I understand this. It’s Christmas.

christmas image 3

I am driving home on Christmas Eve from Christmas celebrations , the cloak of darkness is pierced  by homes and houses covered in light, trees flicker at me in the night and inside I picture the families relieved after hours of shopping but with that twinge of anxiety that something which will make the day tomorrow perfect has been forgotten. The cranberry sauce, or the rum butter or more likely the indigestion pills for tomorrow tables and stomachs  will be groaning with food. This is the season of gluttony, of overindulgence, of celebration?? Celebration is often about feasting. I guess this harks back to a time when food was basic and for many in very short supply and for most just enough to keep body and soul together. Now it is not a rare and happy occasion to sample good, special or extra food but a time for eating and drinking ourselves into a stupor and of giving the supermarkets licence to tempt us to evermore extreme delights each year. Our overindulgence extends to present buying, to the yearly increase in the number of strings of lights attached to our homes, to the party bags and the number of gin varieties in fact to every aspect of what we could consider to be our already very well provisioned lives. So what exactly are we so heartily celebrating?

The possible options are numerous, the birth of a Saviour is one. Certainly churches  see an increased attendance at Christmas and that can only be a good thing  giving people a moments quiet and respite from the stress of world at Christmas. A festival of winter is another and certainly we need something to brighten the dark days of the year as we make the slow progress towards spring and the renewal of life. There is much talk of a time for families, of valuing the things that are important to us and of remembering those who we miss or are living away from their families.  There are flaws in all of these , if you do not share the beliefs of the Christian church, are not in tune with the changing seasons and the natural world, have no family or are separated from them, are alone, old or ill then all these reason to celebrate become difficult to accept. Remembering the losses may become very real and only add to the sadness of the daily unhappiness. So what exactly are we celebrating?

Perhaps we are all using our overindulgence to celebrate or remember something special and unique to each of us and the trick is to work out what and how best to use this time of celebration. To do this we need, it seems to me, to rid ourselves of the prescriptive demands of materialism and to develop our own rituals and special moments throughout our winter festival. For me it’s great value is that it is a quiet time, a time when the world stops for a day or so and breathes, of calm and reflection. There is no other moment quite like it, driving home from a family dinner or a Christmas concert in the dark with no one else about, to quote the carol,” All is calm, all is bright.” In the brightness of that reflection I can only conclude that the message of these festivities for me is in the sharpness of the contrasts. That while I am grateful for my good fortune and can celebrate that in whatever way I choose it is also the time to recommit to ensuring that the world is a better place for all those who are sad, lonely or suffering. It matters not that this commitment come from questioning the overindulgent and wasteful materialism of Christmas.  Dying, loss, loneliness and sorrow are in fact just the same whatever time of year the experiences visit us. It is sentiment that makes it seems worse. Or dare I suggest that these untoward events somehow blight the perfection we are led to believe is so important at this time of the year. It only matters that the desire to help lasts all year round. It only matters that we offer ourselves as agents of change , of help, company and solace at Christmas as at any other time. Just  think what could be achieved if we all had a little less and used the money for charitable purposes throughout the year. Or all visited a lonely person on Christmas day or simply stopped to say Happy Christmas and chat to the homeless man who is sitting in the same spot as every other day of his life.  It would be amazing.

christmas image 2

I do hope that you all have had a very Happy Christmas and wish all my readers the very best for 2018.

 

 

 

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

A Desk of my very own please

Of course giving every social worker a desk of their very own is not a solution to the serious workplace issues faced by the profession but it is an indicator of how we are perceived and valued by our employers. In a report published this week by Dr Jermaine M Ravalier of Bath Spa University supported by BASW and the SWU he concludes ” that working conditions for social workers across the UK, irrespective of job role, are extremely poor”. Later in his report he goes further to describe them as “unacceptable” and likely to lead to both physical and mental ill-health. I know this to be true at both a personal level and anecdotally. So it’s not news but a good supportive piece of research nonetheless. But will it get us any further in making the changes required. As a profession we have been complaining about our work conditions for years. No one apparently listens and successive politicians and managers tighten the noose when there is a tragedy or mistake.

Can history, looking back, help us at all? I try not to look back over 50 years using my rose-coloured specs but to be more objective about how the past could help this undoubted crisis in our profession. First can I dismiss any debate about training, initial, continuing or anything else. Our training is good for the most part and is always an easy change target. Better than my training? Different but still relevant to the job. The good news is that Ravalier’s report highlights that we are “highly engaged with our job” despite the other negative aspects of our world. So our motivation is high, we want to help our very vulnerable members of society to improve their lives and we have the skills to do this. We do not according to the report even want lots more money! BUT, there is always a BUT in my writing. This BUT is that the systems and structures of our working world are, in my opinion, rubbish, as they almost exist as a separate entity and certainly are not fit for the purpose of getting the social work job done. The public image and perception of our work is equally bad but that is for another blog.

The first thing we need to do is to turn the whole thing on its head. We need to return to the principle of the primary task so eloquently described by the late Richard Balbernie in Residential Work with Children 1966. It is the task that the enterprise must perform to survive.  Social work has lost sight of it’s primary task, it is clouded by the agenda’s of many stakeholders, politicians, local councillors, Ofsted, managers, private enterprise shareholders and owners to name but a few. Each of these groups require information and proof of outcomes that suit their individual enterprises,  so we as social workers have our working days defined not by the needs of our clients but by the agenda’s of others.  We know why we joined the profession, we know why we get up in the morning and go to work, we know what we want to achieve together with our clients. We need to help others refocus on the social work task thus regaining control of our profession. We need to move back to the days I remember when the public understood what social workers did and thought it to be a highly regarded occupation.

Regaining control will mean reassessing how all management systems service that task, how processes  need to behave in order to achieve our assessed  and agreed outcomes for the client. This means that timescales,for example, will be set by the work we are doing not by outside influencers. We will be judged by those outcomes. Inevitably then there will be a shift to individual social workers taking responsibility for their own success or failure. The days of social workers blaming managers who do not understand their work will be gone and as professional individuals we will stand accountable to the public and to our employer. Taking professional control should then reduce caseloads, improve impossible timescales, and provide client centred administrative systems. Yes we will still face computers, fill in forms and provide quantitive data but we will be clear about why. Sadly I don’t think that anything will stop us having to work long hours some days, unsocial hours on others and occasionally when we are not feeling 100%. That is the nature of the work and the spirit of a social worker.

Let’s think about our immediate work environment for a moment. I have worked in some awful old buildings mostly now sold off by local authorities and I have worked in newly built call centre style offices. The former may have been cold in the winter but were more conducive to the task than the modern call centre environment. If we are to be able to provide the reflective and responsive  supervision that being a social worker requires to develop personally and achieve professionally then we need supervisors at least to have their own offices. Spaces that have to be booked in advance may be fine for tasks that are more predictable in nature but frequently there is a need for space to talk and think with a senior/supervisor/manager on return from a visit in the here and now. Ravalier does state that peer support among social workers is good and the cynical part of me thinks that we have had to develop this in the face of such poor working conditions. I have had many supervision sessions going through a spreadsheet to see if I have completed all my timescales and never discussing the client or my direct work. However, back to the desks, hotdesking  is a non starter.  I do not want to share a computer or office space with trading standards, though I am sure they are very nice people. What does that do to confidentiality or should I have peer conversations in my car or the corridor? Hardly professional behaviour. Our employers clearly do not understand the nature of our work. I want to be able to come back to my own space and think and write, analyse and discuss, share despair and delight, understand and be understood, offload and relax. I am a professional  dealing with complex life changing work and my employers should treat me as such not as a local authority bureaucrat. Thankfully I have had this, now a luxury, all my working life and I cannot emphasis enough the value of sharing an office with my peers and having my own desk. This applied equally when I was a manager, having my own office and being able to be available when staff needed me or when difficult conversations were required.

These things were there for me in my early career as were administrative staff who understood the task, knew my individual clients, reminded me of deadlines, made me tea when I was upset after taking a child away and provided a dedicated service to a small group of staff and their clients for consistent periods of time. They were an invaluable support in good customer service. My managers were engaged with my work, they knew my clients, they remembered events in the young people’s lives and asked about their progress outside of any formal arrangement. It felt as if they were in this collaborative effort on the part of the organisation, working with me  not against me.  In this weeks PSW there is an article from Dr Andy Gill, the new chair of BASW England where he talks about slowing things down and returning to what brought us to the profession in the first place. I recommend it to you.

Let us turn things around. We can do this but we need to maybe look back to refocus on what really matters, to rediscover why the profession began, remains necessary, and why we choose to work in what should be the 4th emergency service( apologies AA).  By reclaiming our professional place we will significantly improve the outcomes for those we help and so many things will come right for us too.

vintage-sw-image-1

References

UK Social Workers: Working conditions and Wellbeing. Dr Jermaine M Ravalier. Bath Spa University pub 14.7.17 j.ravalier@bathspa.ac.uk

Slow down, you’re moving too fast. Dr Andy Gill. Professional Social Work pub British Assn of Social Work. July/August 2017 http://www.basw.co.uk

Social Workers Union. admin@swu-union.org.uk

Residential Work with Children. Richard Balbernie. Pergamon 1966

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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