Conference presentation : The place of love in recent developments in the care and education of troubled children : a view from a practitioner

By Evelyn Daniel

Date Posted: Friday, 16 January 2009

Evelyn Daniel is the registered Care Manager of the Mulberry House Children’s Home and the General Manager of Mulberry House Child Care Services.



The place of love in recent developments in the care and education of troubled children : a view from a practitioner.


When I was asked to speak about love in the care and education of troubled children, I was quite daunted about how we can use love in our child care services because as I think about it, I feel that I have arrived at the conclusion that ‘love’ is one of those words whose meaning has begun to migrate and as yet no new definition has been fixed in our consciousness. Quite clearly professionals have become uncomfortable with the use of the word in their practice and have set out to qualify or distance themselves from its use. Consequently it has become unprofessional and unwise to comfort a child through touch (even a pat on the shoulder) and professionals are more comfortable with tough love rather than love. In practice this means that Social Workers strive to be detached from their clients and teachers take refuge in the imperative to keep moving up the league tables while the education being delivered becomes ever more narrowly defined.


What do we understand ‘love ‘ to mean in this context?

In Maturana’s writing, love is the emotion in which others can be viewed without judgement. He is therefore not referring specifically to erotic love but to a much broader concept: the emotion that creates social interaction. As such, love is central to ethical action: Ethics arises in our concern for others, not in our compliance with a rational argument, and our concern for the other is emotional, not rational. Love is the emotion that constitutes social co-existence. It specifies our areas of concern in the communities that we create with other human beings (Maturana, 1987, pp. 78–9).

The problem with love is that we all see it differently, and because we are no longer speaking the same language, too often it seems that fear has become the medium through which we regulate our interactions with young people. This can create problems for those who are asked to look after troubled children in the care system. In the field child care, professionals are asked to put the child and its needs at the heart of the child care agenda by meeting the aspirations of Every Child Matters (DCSF,2009) which are represented by five outcomes which must contain these essential ingredients:

  • Be healthy; enjoying good physical and mental health
  • Stay Safe; being protected from harm and neglect and growing up able to look after themselves
  • Enjoy and achieve – getting the most out of life
  • Make a positive contribution to the community and society
  • Achieving economic wellbeing

Achieving these aims means that ethical action must be taken and the emotional driver for this must be love. Quite clearly we are not talking here about romantic love, or unconditional love without boundaries but love as the emotion that drives the actions necessary to achieve the outcomes. It is love that may last for an indeterminate unspecified period of time and has perhaps a single objective. It may be for just a brief intervention but what matters is that the quality of that involvement, the use of the relationship in the work will make a difference to the young person needing the help. So really for the professional it is pretty basic. It is about listening, keeping your promises, doing all in your power to do the best with your intervention.. It means continuous learning, keeping up-to-date, knowing where to find the right information. In short, it is being a good professional. There is no division between being the best at your job and expressing the kind of love we have been considering today to those entrusted to our care.

The problem within our present system is not its aspirations but its implementation. There is absolutely no doubt that most politicians would agree to a range of child care policies with the whole development of the child at the centre. The problem is making them work and we have all heard the reasons why they do not work, lack of finance, heavy case loads and shortage of staff. Social workers tell you that “It’s performance management, these days.” “It’s crisis work.” “It’s case management — we don’t actually work with people anymore.” “It’s all paperwork.” “It’s telling people what they can’t have.” A compelling reason why this is the case is that while politicians and practitioners agree broadly on the outcomes, they rarely agree on the same priorities. So teenage social disorder is given a higher priority than poverty by the government which in turn leads to practitioners working defensively in order to allay negative negative media responses.
If this is the case, the questions we should be asking ourselves and our managers are : is this good enough practice ? should we acquiesce to this agenda ? and whose needs are being ? And, moving on to what we have been considering today we should be asking ourselves : do the troubled young people in our care need love ? If so how can we be freed to give it without negative connotations being picked up?
All explorations of child development agree that children and young people if they are to thrive and flourish need the love of a good enough parent or at least of an adult who plays the role of a good enough parent. So not surprisingly, when a child in care asked an eminent Director of Social Services if she could have someone who loved her, the Director was thrown off balance. Love, said the Director, is a rare commodity and couldn’t just be given out. But she should have asked what that meant for the child, because love in social work at the very minimum if it is to mean anything is action. Remember, the person you love most in the world expects something from you and you expect something from them. In this sense love is seldom unconditional.
When children in a recent as yet unpublished study, Roger Morgan the Children’s Rights Director for England asked young people in care about what they wanted from Social Workers, their responses included them knowing,
“how to talk to young people without being patronising”
“what is safe for young people”
“that children need their families”
“how to deal with illness”
“about AIDS, tuberculosis, hygiene etc.”
“how to apply for benefits”
“culture and religion”
“feelings and how to deal with them.”
(Ofsted, 2009)

All these different things would give something to the child. Essentially, they are asking for ‘Love in action’. Love enables someone to flourish.


Why then do professionals have difficulty doing the right thing ?

Our ability to act in oppressive and inhumane ways is usually associated with the need to dehumanise or makes invisible the subjects of our actions. So, to offer extreme examples, we know that soldiers are trained not to see their enemy as fellow human beings and oppressive regimes work hard to make those groups they oppress appear non-human. The implications for this in terms of the exercise of love in social work concerns our capacity to keep those we work to help visibly human and one of us. So, for example, when writing a court report, a key issue is to write about the subject in a way which makes their humanity visible to the magistrates or judges who will read it. Remember oppressive actions are often associated with an inability to see others as human beings. Parents of and by association the youngsters we look after themselves, are often described as drug addicts, drunkards and ‘gypsies’ and, in conversation sometimes pejorative references to ‘these people’ are made. Whilst families remain invisible, or blamed or less worthy a whole range of poor quality ‘solutions’ is the inadequate response to their difficulties. Helping to make parents and their needs more visible through emotional accounts of the humanity of families can open new possibilities for alternatives.


Love, as the emotional underpinning of social co-existence, is after all the basis of respect.

It is possible to identify the signs that tell us that we are acting towards people through through fearful and hateful emotions by reflection and by listening to our rationalisations and descriptions. When we are not seeing someone as whole person, we resort to the use of stereotypes, talking about them in the third person or we simply do not take them into account. When we see someone and act with respect, it may lead to a different understanding of their actions. This does not mean that we condone them particularly where they harm others ; what it means is that respect opens up the possibility of communication and change. Social workers and carers can become aware of their failures of respect by listening to how they refer to others in conversations and their inner dialogues. They can use this awareness to reflect on what they are doing.


Why are social workers, child care workers, social workers, teachers and other professionals reluctant to focus on love ?

Most of us here today will have explored, and tried to help with in one way or another, the inter-personal problems which can exist in the famlieis of the children and young people we work with. The worker/ client, teacher/ student, medical professional/ patient relationships are the focus point of all caring,healing and educative work. Yet our professional literature or research infrequently deals directly with love. Why is this? Why is there a reluctance to place love at th core of our response to troubled families and their children ?

Ricketts and Gochros (1987) suggest that the word love sounds romantic, unscientific and ephemeral and as such it is not consistent with the social work, social caring, health and education professions current attraction to the precise, the objective and the measurable. If you can’t count it, or tick the box, It doesn’t exist. Furthermore, love appears to be considered trivial in the face of what are considered more pressing issues confronting social workers ; issues such as poverty, unemployment, substance addiction and family violence. In recent times what has become increasingly evident is how in the face consistent and high profile criticism from the media social workers are attempting disavow their image as soft-headed, do-gooding bleeding hearts and replace it with an image which suggests tough love, objectivity and scientific detachment. To an extent love has become irrelevant, unless it is understood as a synonym for sexual appetite.
Social Workers are not the only professionals whose goals have shifted from care towards administration. Teachers, care workers, health workers and the police have felt impelled to place themselves outside the sphere of emotional response to the pressing problems they confront. Their complaint is of the amount of paperwork that has to be completed for every action, of working with systems that demand that all the prescribed documentation is complete and that correct percentages are passed or failed. Because of the lack of an emotional element, systems have been where ethics arise not in our concern for others, but in our compliance with a rational argument. Our concern for the other is not emotional, but rational. What is lost here is the understanding that love is the emotion that constitutes social co-existence.

In conclusion

Following today’s conference let’s hope that all of us here are thinking about the opportunities that can be afforded if we put love at the centre of our practice. We are clear that when we speak of love we are not referring to physical or romantic love but the love that a good enough parents has for their offspring or anyone else in their care. This love is the emotion that binds us together as a community and provides the basis for positive and ethical action which has respect at its foundation.

As professionals, if we are to deliver the outcomes we all agree are beneficial and win the respect of the young people and families we work with, we have to begin to alter our priorities and we must make these alterations visible to ourselves, our colleagues,other professionals and society at large so that we can co-exist in a less threatening society where help can be offered to those who truly need it and, because it is given through love it will be help which can be fully accepted.



Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009) Every Child Matters : Change for Children accessed online at

Maturana, H.&Varela F. (1987) The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala.

Morgan, R.(2008) cited in Ofsted News accessed online at

Ricketts, W. & Gochros, H. (1987) Intimate Relations : Some Social Work Perspectives on Love New York : Haworth Press