Relationships between children & young people in the public care and the adults who look after them.

By Evelyn Daniel

 

Evelyn Daniel is the service manager for a child care organisation in the private sector which provides care and support (including residential child care) for children and young people in the London area. Evelyn has for many years written and spoken widely about residential child care matters

 

Relationships between children & young people in the public care and the adults who look after them.

 

Prologue

In September 2014 I met with Charles Sharpe in London. We were initially exchanging ideas about the nature of relationships in the field of social care with children and young people. Charles recorded our conversation and suggested I should write up my contribution to the conversation as an article. Accordingly Charles sent me a recording of our discussion and what follows is my adaptation of my remarks. As I hope you will understand it was not possible to contain my thoughts about relationships to my field of experience which has been in residential child care and in the support of young people leaving care. When I was talking about relationships in these settings it was difficult for not avoid recourse to what very roughly might be described as systemic thinking in that for instance it was impossible for me to see residential child care as something which stood alone. It was if you like simultaneously a system attached to other systems, a system overlapping with other systems and at the same time a system within other larger more complex systems. Still enough of systems this article is principally a very personal view about relationships between unique individuals. I hope it holds interest for you.

 

 Introduction

The relationships between children and young people and carers in residential child care and in services supporting those who are leaving care have to be committed. Both parties have to be emotionally involved. This is the nature of what John Cross (2013) calls the “real relationship” which all children need with an adult.

But the way residential child care is run these days predisposes residential child care workers to feel helpless because there is a disconnect between what they want to do and what their employers and local authorities are prepared to resource them to do. Accordingly genuine workers feel hopeless and move on to somewhere else, perhaps another child care organisation which initially promises to provide the right kind of environment, but too often, this turns out to be an empty promise and the environment is as barren as the previous one. And so it goes on.

What we have are scenarios where even at the best of times, it is impossible to offer a caring environment where it is possible to support real relationships.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some organisations that support the kind of relationship that meets the needs of children and where all the adults involved will go the extra mile in order to ensure that commitment and sincerity are exercised.

Unfortunately these organisations tend to be isolated cases carrying on a genuine crusade for children and sadly they don’t represent the norm. What I believe we should be looking for is a system that is designed to ensure all social care organisations are dedicated to giving sincere care and have people who are both committed and trained to a level which assures the provision of this kind of care.

Who can actually make sure that young people are given the right kind of care ? As I’ve suggested, there are some places where a good quality of care is evident and this happens despite the system and that’s what the real problem is. The people who really want to deliver these services properly are required to provide them in the context of a child care system which does not give them the time, space and resources to do the job.

 

 Failing communities and a failing child care system

 Community breakdown

Our care system is too impersonal and has little or no relationship with an awareness of a community in which the responsibility to look after children is owned locally. How often do you hear a representative of a community say, ”This kid is one of ours and we are going to look after him and he is going to be OK whatever happens.” There is seldom a sense these days of looking after our own. The perception of belonging to a community is gradually being lost. There is a lack of cohesion in many communities, perhaps because people are – for a variety of reasons – moving more frequently in and out of localities. When people don’t tend to stay a long time in a locality, cohesion is lost and community doesn’t get a chance to develop. People are not relating to each other and do not see themselves as having responsibilities for others and do not feel they have a duty to care for all children in their neighbourhoods.

We may have to accept that this is our way life now but it certainly creates a schism between the haves and have nots. Here we are talking about localities where the haves don’t stay around long enough to feel they have any responsibility to care for others and become part of a community.

At the other extreme there are those localities where increasing affluence and the concomitant increase in the cost of housing means that poorer families can no longer afford to live there and the unity of true community life is collapsing(see for instance).

Whether they like it or not those who are affluent are the ones who have the disposable financial resources to make things better for the less well to do but there is little evidence to suggest that this kind of social altruism is exercised. We do not hear these people saying we will make sure those in our community who are vulnerable will have all the support they need. This is not heard because there is not a community and the ‘cult’ of individualism appears to be the dominant narrative. There is no relationship between those who are doing all right and those who are suffering socially and financially. This is why we cannot assure children that when they leave public care that they will be able to return them to their home community.

 

A child care system not fit for the task

 Our system for looking after our troubled children isn’t actually working. We should be able to devise a system where local communities as part of the wider, larger community are able to say we have a system that has adults in place who can make sure that these children have a realistic opportunity to develop as best they can. We should be able to say that we are going to put these services in place to make sure these children are provided with what they need, no matter how complex these needs may be. It should be a system that ensures their safety and assures them a healthy future.

Our current situation is that we can’t say we have a system like that, but those given authority in these matters, politicians and those of their servants who take the King’s shilling, always insist that they’re getting there but that the reason why they have not achieved their goal is “such and such” but they assure us “We’re learning the lessons,” but they never seem to quite learn the lessons and the same things happen over and over again. The lesson those of us involved in the social care of children learn is that child care is not at the top of the political agenda therefore does not get the attention it deserves.

 

Attachment issues and the importance of community

I’m from a background where a significant number my compatriots and I as children experienced a big disruption in our lives. As a child important people left my life to come to the United Kingdom with the idea of making a future for the whole family here. Dealing with this separation and loss was not easy but my extended family and my community supported me and kept me safe. When eventually I came over to the United Kingdom my parents were experiencing difficulties but nevertheless in my new home I continued to be in a family and was supported and loved not only by my family relations but by the community my mother in particular had been able to join and gather around her.

Looking at what happens in the United Kingdom now I do not feel this same strong sense of community be it in groups from a particular ethnic or national group (as much as they exist these days) or in what are notionally mixed communities. For me this is very strange. It sometimes feels like a wilderness. In my childhood the community cared for the child and the child belonged to the community. Here in the United Kingdom now, we have almost the dissolution of the community. While a child may be the responsibility of a parent, if that parent struggles the community seems to act in a way which might be called a ‘blame culture.” We spend a great deal of time condemning and demonizing the parent and forget that as members of a a community we perhaps ought to be saying, “There is a child here who needs our care and our community has a responsibility to shelter, feed, nurture and love him. No matter what has befallen this child or his parents, they are members of our community and as a community will take up our responsibility. We accept that if there is a failure it is the community’s failure as well as the parents.’ ”

We can argue that there are public services which are expected to deal with such a “problem” but these are at a distance and there is no sense of the community taking a real personal interest in a child .

In addition to this I have observed a tendency towards the promotion of individualism and in some ways this may be fine, but when it actually means “every person for her or his self” then I feel we have lost the value of a community which contains within its spirit, the idea that we will help anyone who has met with misfortune. It has become de rigeur now to say that this or that is “broken” and while I am not saying that “community is broken” there are large pieces breaking off its edges and there is need for repair.

Unfortunately we cannot with any sincerity say now that a child belongs to a community because “community” has become so fragmented as a notion and an entity that as far as it does exist, it will not be held accountable for other people’s children and so as I indicated earlier, it designates organisations which in turn appoint individual officials (for example, social workers) to take on these responsibilities. The trouble with this is that these individual officials do not feel they have the support of the community when they are left to deal with complex social and personal problems.

This phenomenon creates very anxious persons and anxious people have a tendency to distance themselves from what causes their anxieties. Many social workers have not only a thankless task, but also a fearful and hopeless one.

 It needs a group of people, in the main a family, supported by extended family and others to bring up a child. This is what gives a child a sense of belonging and of knowing who she is. For certain we cannot expect one social worker to do this unless she herself is safely contained and supported by the community.

 

Poverty in communities, child sexual abuse and a failure of leadership

If we consider the widely reported high incidences of child sexual abuse in recent years, particularly in areas where there is a great deal of poverty, we are left with the question, “How has this happened ? I don’t like singling out examples for fear of seeming to scapegoat. My belief is that what we are grappling with – the breakdown of relationships in communities – is a nationwide malaise, but in this instance, it may be worth briefly considering Rotherham and Doncaster where high incidences of child sexual abuse among children engaged in some way with children’s care services have been the object of detailed study. I am sure that 30 to 40 years ago these two communities would have considered themselves as tightly knit supportive communities. I am aware that the decline in major industries in steel and coal production may have sapped the morale and strength of these communities but should that have resulted in children, particularly vulnerable children becoming more at risk?

My feeling is that this tendency is largely the result of failure of leadership. The people who were in control, the people who could have done something about this and drawn the community in, for some reason, didn’t. It seems that when these matters were reported to them they took on the unspoken attitude “Problems are not our business, they’re yours. We only want to hear good news which we can use for our own political purposes.” This kind of “washing my hands of it” leadership or indeed leadership at an extreme as exercised by a tinpot general figure leading us into battle against the innocents are not styles of leadership which a community needs. The kind of leadership I believe a good community will have is one which acknowledges the role of relationships in holding a community together, which keeps ideas and ideals to the forefront of a community’s collective psyche and which encourages everyone to act in the spirit of that much devalued and lampooned phrase “We’re all in it together.”

 

Broken communication and defensive practice

 A consequence of the lack of the right kind of leadership is a breakdown of relationships at all levels of community. We should be communicating with each other – all of us in a community – about sustaining good things and dealing immediately with difficulties rather than allowing them, as we do now, to fester raising the alarm only when a major disaster has occurred and at this stage as Mark Smith (2012) has suggested, a public moral panic erupts and scapegoats are sought out.

This process is one important explanation about why people working in child care are feeling oppressed and constricted in what it is they can do. The sad irony is they can become so fearful when something goes wrong that the accusing finger will be pointed at them, that they feel it is better to let things run on however mediocre they are, than risk public opprobrium.

As a consequence, in the field of the social care of children and young people, we find that care workers, social workers and their managers are in many cases inclined toward defensive practice rather than creative practice. Conscientious box ticking takes the place of real relationships. Making real relationships with children may demand that risks be taken, but another sad irony is, if workers behave defensively by covering their professional backs, relationships with children become more distant and the children tend to become more at risk because they do not have, to use Urie Bronfenbrenner’s notion, “at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about them “(Bronfenbrenner,1991).

There are so many ways in which defensive practice can divert us from providing children with what they really need. A recent example is the case of the care workers who felt they could not report their fears about children being exploited for sexual purposes because those they believed to be the perpetrators of the abuse were from an ethnic minority and the workers felt they would be accused of racism if they reported what was happening. Now this is not to deny that institutional racism exists and that we must work against it but we should not be manipulated to the extent that we “throw the baby out with the bath water.” In my opinion playing this racist card was merely a way of looking for any excuse to avoid exercising the judgment of a sound mature adult : that judgment being, to be certain – whatever the adult might be subsequently be accused of – she had ensured that children were protected.

 

Coming to terms with social media and relationships in the presence of others

We have to come to terms with new developments that impact our lives and make the necessary adjustments for the common weal. Here I would cite for instance, social media. Many of the children and young people I have met in recent years have assured me that they have many friends sometimes running into hundreds. When I ask how many of them they have met the answer is invariably, “very few”. They met these friends over the internet. We know this can carry dangers but we shouldn’t I think be closed to the possible benefits of this, giving as it does young people an opportunity to learn more about the planet they inhabit than we ever did as we were growing up.

At the risk of being called a dinosaur it also seems important to me, particularly in my field of work, that we continue to provide children and young people with opportunities to develop relationships with people other than by cyberspace. By this I mean learning how to get on with others while we are in their presence ; learning the necessary adaptations we make for it to be possible to live in reasonable harmony with another ; learning how we might reasonably assert ourselves while knowing also there are times when it is good that we cede to another; learning how to live and work together in unity in a physical space. In terms of the children and young people I work with what I mean here is that I hope I can help them make safe, genuine relationships.

 

Preparing for the future : making a space for children and young people

I am really considering here what we might hope for our community in 15 or 20 years time and what today’s young people are going to do with it when they are making the big decisions and changes. I think that we do not really let them know how important they are for their and our futures. Life styles have becomes so individualist and to an extent hedonistic that somehow having a vision of the future is given little consideration nowadays. Perhaps this denial occurs because it is too painful for us to deal with the inevitable dire consequences of our behaviours towards each other and towards our planet.

In considering our child care system, for things to become right, we must keep in mind wider aspects of our community. I am tempted to say that because as a community we have fallen so far back in achieving what is good for children, we should take a root and branch approach to “growing’ a new child care system. For sure it must be one which is there for the children and for those whose job it is to have committed relationships with them. It should not be a system which is created so that it falls in line with current political and economic conditions but one which each one of us – every citizen I mean – is content to be a part of; one which we feel in relationship with. It should be capable of speedy adaptation to deal with all the unique personal and social conditions which emerge, and be able to rise and subside through the vicissitudes of community life.

If we are to build a community based upon everyone having an equal influence, we must ensure that the parents of troubled children and young people have a voice. At the moment we indirectly yet subtly communicate with them in a way that makes it clear that we don’t think they are important and because in so many other areas of their lives they are powerless, they do not speak out for they are certain they will not be heard. At best we can only say that at the moment in this country that those of us who live in some comfort in our communities have a kind of accommodation with those we have made into an “underclass”. As a community we can change this – internet pressure groups like 38 degrees have shown us interesting possibilities towards achieving change – and we should ensure that struggling families feel included in our community and do have a voice in it.

We should not exclude children and young people from this process either. Children and young people are excluded from the political process – though it is encouraging that young people from the age of 16 were allowed to vote in the recent Scottish referendum – and they too do not have sufficient of a voice. A section of society which contains its most powerful adults makes decisions which will change all aspects of the lives of these children lives but they are seldom consulted.

This is not a plea for democratization. I am not yet saying that a child should have a vote from the moment he or she knows the difference between a “yes” button and a “no” button. More it is plea for adults to get involved with children and young people. I don’t mean in a way that is controlling to the extent that we don’t allow young people to take any risks but in a way that means we will not let them disappear entirely into a sub-culture on the streets and neither will we let them disappear entirely unchecked into their bedrooms into a life on the internet.

As adults we should also establish a place for ourselves in the lives of our children and particularly the lives of our adolescents who need us to be taking care for them while they are on their quest for an adult identity.

 

Identity and its battle with marketing and consumerism

We are in a battle here not with our kids but with the forces of consumerism and its blatant targeting of children and young people in their marketing strategies. I believe this leads to young people feeling a lack of identity and if parents retreat from this ground, all that is left for the young person is the two dimensional stereotypes that marketing companies provide them with.

In the 1940s and 1950s I think we, children and adults, knew our place in our communities. Of course these things cannot and perhaps should not stand still, but I think we have lost some of the stability “knowing our place” gave us. As parenting adults we tend now to be ambivalent about how we should be relating to our children. Are we friends or parents ? In truth we should be both while ensuring we meet the responsibilities of a parent.

 

Concluding remarks

Returning to my own work I would like the adults who have a caring role with young people who are not living with their own families, and all those adults who support and teach young people who are excluded from mainstream education, to be thinking reflectively about how we are with young people; about how we impact upon young people and from this decide what kind of relationships we as adults would like to have with young people. I am not suggesting this in order that we can write a new policy or a new regulation or indeed to write a manual on how to have a relationship. This is about each one of us feeling and recognizing our emotions and our attachment with a young person.

 

References

Bronfenbrenner,U.(1991)”What do families do ?” Institute for American Values, Winter/Spring p.2 .

Cross, J. (2013) From unpublished text of interview with Charles Sharpe, September, 2013.

Hall, K. (2014) Real or imagined : Racism ‘fear’ over Rotherham Child Abuse BBC News Sheffield & South Yorkshire, 24.8.14. Accessed on 26.9.14 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-28951612

Smith, M. (2012) “Moral Panics’ in goodenoughcaring Journal Issue 12 December, 2012 Accessed on 30.9.14 at http://www.goodenoughcaring.com/the-journal/moral-panics/