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A Place for Love in Public Care

By Margaret Davies, Sep 14 2015 01:31PM

The Children’s Homes Regulations and Quality Standards introduced in April 2015 place love, positive relationships and strong bonds between children and staff at the centre of what is required for children looked after in children’s homes. This seems both radical and obvious at the same time. Claire Owens from the Department for Education(now DfHealth), who wrote the Quality Standards for Children’s Homes, tells that she wrote them with her own children and love in mind. ( )

When you think of what you would want for your own children, should they need to be cared for by someone else, then of course you would want them to be loved.

Loved by a team of professional carers though? Loved by staff caring for children on a rota, possibly temporary staff brought in to fill in the gaps in an overstretched team? To have a close bond with people that you haven’t chosen? To bond with people who most likely will leave before your child grows up to be independent, and almost certainly will not be there to play a part in their adult life? Leaving aside the possibility of abusive staff, there are many reasons to be uneasy about a child being drawn into a loving relationship with the people who care for them on the public’s behalf.

Traditionally care staff were warned against becoming emotionally involved with the children they looked after. This was seen as unprofessional; ‘over attached’ staff would not be able to stay objective, might be seen to favour a child, and might not toe the line when difficult decisions were made in a child’s care planning. It is/was not unusual for staff who had become ‘over attached’ to be moved so that they were no longer involved in a child’s care, or even for children to be moved from one care home to another because a member of staff had become ‘over involved’.

Just writing this makes my heart beat faster, as I remember the sense of injustice I have felt listening to children’s stories about being moved or losing the one person they felt cared about them in the vast impersonal care system; or hearing the last ditch attempts of an ‘over involved’ worker or therapist trying one last time to get the best for the child they cared about, against the consensus of the professional team. A worker often made to feel ashamed and wrong for their stand, a worker’s professional reputation damaged, for feeling strongly about a child, and then standing up for the child, as they saw it, against the majority view.

It has taken strong workers with a clear and grounded sense of what is right to provide warm and nurturing care in many children’s homes up to now. I remember when we had 2 young children. My husband was working in a children’s home as an agency worker, having finished his History degree. He told me that a 5 year old girl had asked him to read her a story before bed time. Of course he responded as he would to his own daughters, recognising the healthy yearning in the child for the comfort and nurture that a story before bedtime gives, and knowing that she was lucky, in her circumstances, to still have trust in this need and the ability to ask for it to be satisfied. She climbed onto his lap, he scooped her in, put his arm around her and read the story, using the funny voices he would have used with his own daughters had he been at home for their bedtime that evening.

Of course he was reprimanded, and told in no uncertain terms that he should not have done that. He was on his own in a room with the girl, he could face allegations of abuse or be a risk to the child. Perhaps, but I doubt it, they worried about the child forming an attachment to a temporary worker. The reprimand has never stopped him from offering such care. Now, 20 years later, he is frequently stopped in town by adults he knew as children in care, or care leavers he has worked with, who remember his kindness, humour and warmth, as well as his determination to help them through difficult times. He has cried and been emotionally affected by the lives and experiences of the children and young people he has worked with; he has become attached, as have they, and the young people have, through the attachment, developed some independence potential to support them when the service ends and they must part. And there have been many he wishes he could have done more for.

I understand why he was reprimanded for the on-the-lap bedtime story. I have worked at Rape Crisis, I am thoroughly aware of the abuse of children in children’s homes; I worked in fostering where we used to caution carers against physical affection with children who may have been sexually abused. However, I also know that children cannot thrive without a warm, physical, emotional connection with someone. It is how a human being’s whole biological system is designed. This is not the place, but I could write in detail about the brain’s neuro-chemical systems which depend on a warm mutual attachment to function in healthy balance, and which underlie everything we think of as personality, social learning, cognitive ability and even physical health.

So public care has a huge challenge to face. How can we provide children with the kind of care they fundamentally need in order to develop – let alone recover from the trauma which brought them into care in the first place – in the context of our fears about abuse from staff, allegations from children, lack of resources which lead to staff shortages, pressures and turnover, and an institutional bias towards ‘objective (often resource led) decision making’ which may not be able to make the child’s emotional needs central in case planning?

When I think of good care staff who have navigated these dilemmas naturally, and managed to brighten children’s lives and touch their hearts, then the answer seems simple. Just be a loving caring adult meeting the needs of vulnerable, hurt, sad and lonely children. Just be yourself sensitively, and the love will shine through and do its job. Never underestimate your personal and emotional impact, no matter how brief your involvement with a child, maintain warmth and acceptance, in the face of all the disturbance, violence and aggression you will encounter.

When I think of the many poorly paid, inexperienced, emotionally wounded (most of us are) and unsupported staff working in children’s homes (or our public care sector in general) then it is not so simple. We need to recruit, train, support and supervise staff into the ability to maintain a warm and nurturing approach. We need to re-think the culture and rules in our children’s homes, to support and foster ongoing attached relationships with staff, and decision making from an open-hearted stance. We need to change everything, from the physical environment, sanctions regimes, therapy provided, care planning systems, key worker role, safer care guidelines and even the food we provide, to make children’s homes more homely and able to give our most vulnerable and hurt children the care they deserve.

I look forward to the day when an emotional, ‘stroppy’ care worker, fighting, like a parent, for a child in a professional decision making arena, is applauded and respected, rather than shamed. I look forward to the day when we can safely enable care staff to take children to their homes and into their families. I look forward to the day when a major supervision topic is the emotional connection between a key worker and their child and how to sustain and nurture it. These approaches are already being embraced by some fostering services. I hope that Children’s Homes and the Department for Education can rise to the challenge.

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