Confessions of a Keyworker : Feelings, Fears, Frustration and the Future

By Tracey Jarvis

Date Posted: December 15th 2012

For the last nine years Tracey Jarvis has worked in various children’s homes in Scotland. She is also a part-time postgraduate student in the final stages of completing her Masters in advanced residential child care.

Confessions of a Keyworker- Feelings, Fears, Frustration and the Future

by Tracey Jarvis

This article emerged from my experience of reading the goodenoughcaring journal, which I often turn to when I need some inspiration or encouragement. I decided to share some experiences from my own practice, to let off steam, to make some sense of my feelings in a place where I know I will not be misunderstood or deemed inappropriate for caring. Like many others who read and contribute to this journal, I am a keyworker within residential child care and have recently felt overwhelmed as we prepare a 16 year old resident for moving on.

For the past three years I have been working closely with this young person, Gemma, and she has made remarkable progress in the face of adversity. When she arrived at the children’s home where we met she had already suffered the loss of numerous family members, her father was an alcoholic and her mum had serious mental health problems. Gemma had lived in a number of different placements which had broken down due to her behaviour and it was immediately apparent that she had difficulties with social communication, though this is now more understandable as she has been diagnosed with autism. Since then both her parents have passed away and she is completely alone. She has no friends and finds it difficult to meet new people. She prefers adult company though this is very much initiated by those whom she chooses to engage with.

Over the years, on reflection, I now see that perhaps I may have invested too much of my ‘self’ in my duty as a key worker. I made a conscious effort from the start to attend every meeting and appointment to advocate on Gemma’s behalf, to support her and to help others understand her views. I recognised this was important as Gemma needed at least one adult in her life who she could begin to trust and rely on, someone who understood and believed in her, as she was (and still is) easily misunderstood. Given her character, she can present as aggressive and demanding of adult attention, she finds it difficult to see other people’s point of view and always puts herself before the needs of others. Gemma has been traumatised by the multiple placements which she has been torn away from without warning, she blames this on the social work department and therefore lives in fear that this will happen again. For this reason, I have always felt it was important to reassure her that her placement was stable and that no changes would happen unless we spoke to her first. Unfortunately, many other staff members have found her overwhelming at times and her placement has been threatened on numerous occasions. This has caused her to feel even more anxious and distrusting of anyone and she considered most adults to be either cruel or liars. It has taken time to overcome these issues; to demonstrate that what Gemma needed was unconditional support from adults who would not give up on her. We achieved this through many hours of training, team meetings and discussions amongst the staff team and before long Gemma seemed to be making progress in an environment that she felt was stable. She also settled into her first school placement in years and has done very well. We have rewarded her commitment to attending every day and she has gained more confidence, made academic progress, developed a positive, healthy routine and has generally been thriving.

However, since celebrating her 16th birthday, there has been a sudden change in Gemma, she has regressed in every way and it is obvious that this is due to her fear of getting older and moving on. The Local Authority where I work has a tendency to move children on almost immediately from residential care when they turn 16. These children have often been looked after most of their lives and this has given them 24/7 care and support from residential carers, a cook, a cleaner, between twenty and forty pounds per week for recreational outings, daily fares, pocket money and takeaways as well as a sixty pounds monthly allowance for clothes. They receive mobile phone top ups and most school attenders are transported by taxi or car- with a few exceptions. After leaving at age 16 in most cases, they are usually placed in supported accommodation. Most have no concept of money and have rarely witnessed adults doing a weekly shop or using a vacuum cleaner. Alone and with little support from adults they are left to survive. Care leavers can expect no contact with their previous carers unless they call the children’s home, though many struggle with this either because of having no money to phone or because they fear the rejection of being told that the staff member they want is too busy with new residents to talk. The idea of this happening to my key child is devastating for me. I cannot begin to imagine how she must feel, given that she knows how little support is on offer.

In my workplace, everyone has agreed that Gemma is not ready to leave and much more work needs to be done than is even possible- though her recent regression has been putting her at risk of being moved simply because she is assumed to be old enough to know better. In recent weeks I have been the one who has been a ‘trigger’ as she demands my whole attention for the entire shift and when I cannot give this to her she ends up in crisis. She feels rejected and turns on her younger peers or staff who try to intervene. This is overwhelming at times and my colleagues question why I continue to work with her. But how can I do anything else?

Despite our difficulties, Gemma openly admits that that I am her best friend because I am the one she trusts, who goes with her to meetings, to outings of her choice, who takes her on holiday and supports her at funerals. I have heard him being challenged about this, as adults point out that of course I am not the only one who has made an effort. I can understand their frustration because Gemma does not understand or accept that I work as part of a team. Gemma has also admitted that some adults have suggested she has an ‘unhealthy’ and ‘inappropriate’ attachment. Whilst recognising that it would be wrong if I were to reciprocate this level of attachment- I find it astounding that others can be so insensitive to Gemma and lack empathy or understanding about her limitations, as she has a very black and white point of view. Furthermore, I have been left questioning if our efforts to protect children may have caused us to forget the true meaning of child centred practice, as I recently heard Gemma refer to our ‘professional relationship’ simply because she fears the term ‘relationship’ could be misinterpreted or misunderstood by other carers.

And so whilst the idea of this young person moving on seems inevitable, I am at a loss as to how this can be done in a positive or healthy way. Given the sheer size of the local authority, the lack of resources and funding in leaving care services, the lack of trust in residential carers, the deep rooted fears of being accused of abuse or inappropriate relationships and the reluctance to challenge old rituals – it seems unlikely that the culture will change in time for Gemma to benefit from this. Admittedly, slowly things are changing and I am lucky enough to be amongst a team of fresh minds who believe we have the privilege and good fortune to make a difference in young people’s lives. But I am also aware that many dinosaurs are not yet extinct and therefore prehistoric ideas still live amongst us. I have no doubt that eventually these traditions will die out but until then I am struggling with the idea that Gemma might become, like so many others, an unheard voice or just a statistic. For anyone who is struggling to understand my point, I shall share one last account from my own experience of working with Gemma. During a recent episode of ‘crisis’ she asked (seeming out of the blue) why as a child she was allowed to live with a woman simply because she was a ‘foster carer’, yet as an adult care leaver she will not be allowed to meet with a residential carer for dinner? I know she is right, even if this was recorded and communicated through the appropriate channels it will be frowned upon. Unfortunately, I cannot provide any reasonable excuse.




Mairi Wallace writes :

I totally agree with what you have said. I feel there is a big let down for these young adults at a time of life which is difficult for all of us.


Charlie Norrie comments :

I think when you converse with people on a one to one basis about the needs of young people who are leaving care after some reflection they usually begin to see the need to invest in providing resources to support them both in a financial way and most importantly in a committed personal way. It is a well rehearsed argument that very few of us would not struggle if at the tender age of 16, 17, 18 and beyond we were cast adrift from the anchors which kept us safe Yet at a political level and in the entity we call “society” we seem to lose our sense of commitment and find other priorities,like spending a great deal of money on military action. It is this phenomenon of “a public loss of concern” which stops many young people leaving care from flourishing in the way they should and it is also this phenomenon which damns us a non-caring community. Of course there are honourable exceptions but they are too scarce to make a fundamental change in the wider world, but that does not mean that those who are trying to make the change should give up for they are our only hope. I admire the work and the determination of the author of this article.