By Cynthia Cross
Date Posted: Saturday, 12 December 2009
Cynthia Cross is a freelance child care consultant and trainer. In this her second article for the goodenoughcaring Journal Cynthia challenges us to question what have become the defensive and risk free orthodoxies of child care recent child care practice.
The Voice for the Child in Care (VCC now “Voice”) started in 1975, it campaigned to try to get complaints procedures established with an independent element involved and also for children to be involved in decisions about their lives. I was one of the earliest members of the VCC.
Both aims were achieved in the 1989 Children Act, complaints procedures, known as representations procedures in Section 26(3) – (8) and a legal requirement to ascertain the “wishes and feelings of the child in any decision made about his life” Section 1(3), 20(6)(a) & (b), 22(4) & (5), 26(2)(d), 61(2) and 64(2). However over the years I have seen that there are difficulties in implementing these very laudable objectives.
One of the difficulties facing “Independent Persons” and “Investigators” in Complaints Procedures is, even if they have a good knowledge of child development and understand about the internal life of the child, they cannot possibly come to grips with the very often complex dynamics of situations and relationships and the effects transference may have on the child’s perception of what is happening.
Thus I have known a number of children who have complained about and thereby lost the only person who could probably help them. Learning to make trusting relationships is very hard and often distressing for both child and adult and for a child making a complaint about someone is one way of escaping from the unhappiness that is involved. Likewise for the adult in a residential team we get the argument that “this is not the right place for this child “we cannot meet his/her needs”, I believe it is when a relationship reaches this difficult testing stage that a breakthrough in our work with a child is near and if staff hold firm and resist the rejection of the child, then the child will feel emotionally held.
I am still in touch with a woman now in her fifties who I formed a primary relationship with when she was 10 years old. She had been in care from the age of 6 weeks and the way she had learned to cope was to treat life as a game of adults versus children ; adults try to control you and you try to “get away with things”. My job was to try to give her a primary experience, to help her to allow herself to become dependent, to form an identity, and to see me as a person who she could trust and love. She says that if complaints procedures had been around during her time in care she would have made a complaint about me; she also says if she had not had a relationship with me, “I would now probably be in Rampton !”
Another problem that arises is the failure to recognise that the right of children to have their basic needs met should supersede all other rights. Children who have unmet basic needs will often pick upon minor details of daily life and attach to them their feelings of deprivation and loss, thereby creating more upset and chaos in their lives. It may be positively harmful for children to have these issues taken up while the more fundamental issue that of meeting their basic needs still remains unaddressed. This can happen when a child makes a complaint about such an issue and a well meaning adult takes it at face value and gets very indignant if it looks as if it seems it is being ignored.
A fourteen years old boy in a foster home complained that he was not getting all the pocket money he was entitled to. The foster carer explained that, as with her own children, he got a proportion of his pocket money to spend himself and the rest was spent on family outings and things like renting DVDs. The money spent far exceeded the allowance set by the local authority concerned. Regardless of this his complaint was upheld and the foster carer instructed to give the boy all his pocket money and comply with the Foster Care Regulations. The boy became increasingly remote from the family going out on his own, getting drunk and getting into fights. The foster home broke down and the boy became part of the juvenile justice system; of course we cannot say that this would not have happened anyway, but somehow I doubt it.
All too often children’s rights campaigners seem to believe, and encourage children to believe, that they can only get their rights in opposition to adults where of course the opposite is true as children get their needs met with and by adults. When complaints procedures started, every local authority was expected to publicise them and many did through a booklet supplemented by posters and leaflets. I remember some of these posters, one in particular showed a group of children with placards saying “We have Rights” with a boy at the front thumbing his nose at adults.
A child with an underdeveloped or damaged ego may need an adult to take decisions for him /her, and to take the responsibility and sometimes the blame for making those decisions. However, such decisions must be taken by somebody who really knows what that means. Such listening skills are rare, but are enhanced by reliability and commitment.
I have known children asked about which foster home they should be placed in when the adults don’t want to or can’t make the decision. Children should and must be involved when decisions are being made about their futures but only at a level which they can cope with. The cry goes up, the child knows what is best or right for them, and sometimes they might, but often they don’t. I wonder how many of us could make the decisions children in care are asked to make? Do we feel we always know what is right or best for us?
An area which is very difficult is deciding when should a young person leave care. Young people often feel that everything will be better when they get out of the care system, but of course they take themselves and their troubles with them. The adults who are looking after them and are responsible for them should, when appropriate, hang on and keep them safe, but it is often easier to give in rather than face the anger. We should remember that in most families young people and young adults often stay at home into their 20s or go away and come back home later even if only for a short period. There are rarely such options for a child leaving care.
How can we try to make judgements in the best interests of the child and also be seen to be just and fair? Children should be able to complain and be listened to and should be allowed to make decisions and mistakes but where is the balance?
When the VCC first started a number of “Children’s Spokesmen” were trained, with the idea that they would visit children’s homes and be a person who could see what was going on, speak to children and when necessary speak up on their behalf. Unfortunately this never got off the ground as there was too much hostility to the idea from the local authority concerned. However “Voice” and some other children’s charities do now run schemes where an independent visitor goes every week or so into a children’s home, or into a secure accommodation facility and spends time in the establishment, making themselves available to children who want to talk to them, and taking up issues with, staff, social workers and when necessary help them make a formal complaint. This seems a step in the right direction provided that the people acting as independent visitors are trained to look behind the behaviour and see complaints or grumbles in the context of the relationships and ethos which prevail.
© goodenoughcaring.com and Cynthia Cross : December, 2009