By Douglas Cameron
Date Posted: Sunday, 22 June 2008
Douglas Cameron spent most of his childhood in Nairn in the north of Scotland and after leaving school he had a number of jobs including a period as a chef and another as a security guard and it was while he was working for a private youth custodial service that he decided he wanted to work with young people but in a different way. He enrolled at the West Lothian College in Scotland and gained a qualification in social care. After this Dougas worked as a volunteer befriender before moving to London to take up a post working with young people preparing to leave the care system. He now works as a residential child care worker in a children’s home in the southeast of England.
In this article Douglas explores the different elements of the relationship between a young person in care and the people who in various roles represent the care system. He illuminates the aspects of a young person’s experience of being looked after in the care system which in his view work against necessary and consistent concerned attachment relationships being formed. He argues that this produces an environment which is conducive to placement breakdown. In reading Douglas’ unique analysis of the causes of placement breakdown for children and young people in the care in England and Wales, it is tempting to understand it as an interesting polemic in which Douglas expresses the frustrations experienced by many of us who are charged with the care of young people no longer able to live with their families. It becomes much more than this when the reader has to confront the experiences of Ian, the young man whose story Douglas tells.
Disrupted relationships : a personal view of the causes of placement breakdown for children and young people in care.
The causes of placement breakdown for children and young people in care: a personal view
In this article I am making a personal exploration of some of the factors which lead to the all too frequent breakdowns inwhich children and young people in the care system in the United Kingdom experience. In a vignette of my work with a young man who was placed with the leaving care project for which I work I attempt to illustrate some of the issues I raise, and I highlight the significance building good relationships has – even in the face of resistance – in preventing a placement breakdown.
Inconsistencies in the care system
Changes in social work personnel
Overloaded social workers
Forming a relationship
Often too we can find that some of the experiences the young people we look after stir up memories of painful periods in our own past which in turn can make us feel as hopeless and helpless as the young people. In such situations I have found it important to take time to reflect on why I am feeling what I am feeling in order to overcome my own anxieties and contain my own feelings so that I don’t fall apart in the face of a troubled young person. This has allowed me to stay with the feelings of the young people and contain them for him or her. It seems to me that it is this often quite extended period of containment that the young person and I can find common ground where a trusting relationship and working together can begin to take place. It is when professional carers do not feel able to contain a young person emotionally and when they feel that the young person is out of their control that the young person is at greatest risk of being rejected and moved on to another placement.
There are other reasons why a young person in care may experience repeated placement breakdowns but my main thrust has been to I demonstrate the importance of relationships in a placement. If we choose to ignore this phenomenon – that a failure to engage in a real relationship with a young person will lead to a placement breakdown – then in my view we would not be doing our jobs satisfactorily. Forming relationships is an important factor in everyone’ psychological development. For the young people who we look after, forming a relationship is no longer as straightforward as it should be, and so we should be patient with them. In order to illuminate and summarise the views I have expressed, what follows is an account of work my colleagues and I did with a young man who came into our care.
Ian, a young person I worked with was 16 years old when he came into our care, had experienced two placement breakdowns before he came into our care. Since his birth Ian’s father had been absent from his life and his mother had not told Ian anything about his father. However when he was 13 years old Ian’s father returned to the family home but shortly after his return his father died. After I had got to know Ian he was able to tell me that he felt both feelings of confusion and loss at this time. His relationship with his mother broke down and his relationship with his father’s family was not good. His behaviour deteriorated and he became less and less welcome in the family home to the extent that he was placed in care when he was 15 years old. Ian took this rejection very badly not only did he miss being at home but he said the loss of seeing his little brother every day made him at times sad and at times angry. Before coming to us Ian had two different placements which broke down. One was with foster parents who found it difficult to cope with Ian’s anger and his unwillingness to join in the activities of the family. Ian was then placed in a children’s home but he failed to engage with the staff their and he was asked to leave because of his angry and aggressive behaviour towards the staff. Ian has since said that in neither of the placements did he feel he was given a chance and that every time he got into any sort of trouble he was told that if he didn’t improve his behaviour he would have to leave. It seemed to me that Ian felt (whether his judgment was factually right or not) that his placements were under threat as soon as he arrived at them. This threat to his need for emotional security combined with his feelings of loss, separation and rejection from his family home, in my view makes it becomes understandable that he might have feelings of frustration and anger. This should have been better understood by his carers.
When Ian was placed with us, a project whose function is to prepare young people of over 16 years of age for leaving care, he was moved into his own flat and I was appointed as his keyworker. To begin with he was very suspicious of me and the other staff, and was reluctant at first to accept our caring intentions but he seemed to settle down and the only serious problem we encountered was Ian’s poor relationship with his social worker. The latter’s unwillingness to meet with Ian on his own without a member of staff being present was not really conducive to developing a relationship. Ian’s reluctance to engage with his social worker appeared to stem from his anger with the local authority for taking him into care in the first place. After some weeks I began to feel, like the carers in his previous placements, that Ian did not engage with me and that I did not have a real relationship with him. I did not mention this but allowed things to remain as they were, yet making sure that I met with him regularly. At this time Ian became ill and was found to be suffering from a serious kidney complaint which required Ian to be in hospital for a number of weeks. Ian was alarmed at this prospect and was unsure why he had been placed in hospital. I spent a great deal of time holding his anxieties and trying to re-assure him. Nevertheless, Ian was very frightened about going into hospital. Here was another change in his life, but a change of a frightening kind that he had not experienced before. At this time I still did not feel I had made an effective relationship with but during a supervision session with my manager she mentioned to me that Ian had told her that I was a good keyworker. This really encouraged me and though all was not plain sailing through either Ian’s period in the hospital, or after he was discharged, I thought that for the first time Ian was beginning to be more sure of himself and his worth. Getting used to taking medication every day frustrated him but he managed to accept our help in establishing a routine to look after himself. He managed to adapt to staff sleeping over in his flat while his condition remained delicate. Around this time too his relationship with his mother improved and he was now welcome to visit the family home again. Furthermore his relationship with his social worker improved.
I do not wish to give the impression that a miracle occurred for Ian. He did not return permanently to his family home but he had re-established his relationship with his mother and his brother and has since been able to cope with that situation as it stands. He still finds it difficult to make relationships but he has found that in trusting my colleagues and I through what was a difficult period for him he found he was able to survive.
Sharpe, C. (2005) ‘Residential Child Care Can Do With All The Help It Can Get’ in http://human-nature.com/free-associations/sharpe.html ed. Young, R.M. Accessed 8.1.07.
Ward, A. (1998) ‘Help and the personal response’ in Intuition is not Enough eds. Ward, A., and McMahon, L. London Routledge pp 34-35