Being a keyworker in residential child care

By Jane Kenny

Originally posted on

Sunday, 13 June 2010

As I believe is the case with most people who work in residential
child care I started working with the children and young people in the
hope and with the belief that I could make a positive difference to the
lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged young people. This did not prepare
me for the tough job ahead and I did not even guess just how hard it
was going to be to achieve my goal.

Since the 1960s an important aspect of a residential child care
worker’s role has been keyworking. It is also perhaps the most
intrinsically rewarding aspect of being a residential child care worker
but when you start the job nothing can fully prepare you for the
difficulties that lie ahead as you begin to work with young people who
have come from emotionally impoverished backgrounds and whose lives have
so far, to say the least, been very difficult.

Alex is a fictional name for the young person I discuss and details
of his life have been substantially altered. For brevity’s sake I have
referred to young people as masculine and workers as feminine.


What does being a keyworker mean ?

A number of models have been developed to describe the keyworker’s
role in residential child care and some seem more intriguing than
others. Keyworkers are sometimes also known as linkworkers, special
workers and indeed I believe that at one time at Peper Harrow they were
called “gurus.” The role should also not be confused with the
keyworking role allocated in child protection procedures which is to
coordinate the multi-disciplinary team which ensures that child
protection plans are carried out.  My experience of working in
children’s homes has led me to develop an idea of a child’s keyworker as
the specified residential child care worker who is initially
responsible for establishing a relationship with a newly arrived child
and creating an attachment with the child in order that he or she can
begin to feel safe in the home. Experience has also led me to include
other more extended functions within my ideas of the role of keyworker.
These would include assuring the consistency and continuity of the care
the children’s home provides and to do this the keyworker has to involve
the child, his family, his school and other community agencies such as
the education and health services in order that his long term needs can
be met.  To carry out these functions it is essential that the keyworker
has the support of her colleagues and her supervisor.  In addition to
this I think it is important that the keyworker works in partnership
with the young person’s social worker.
First and foremost however I believe the keyworker must establish a
positive relationship with the child and over time develop this into a
sincere, caring, helpful and healthy relationship between child and
In trying to give the role of the keyworker a framework, what I have
written  may seem almost prescriptive and clinical and in practice it is
seldom so. My description of my keyworking relationship will
demonstrate this and I hope it will also show what a fulfilling role it
is for a residential child care worker.

Keyworking Alex

Alex was a young man of 14 years old when he came to the children’s
home I was working in. He was placed with us  because of his angry and
aggressive behaviour at home and concerns about his vulnerability in the
company of the people he was associating with outside of the family
home. These matters had arisen following the break up of the
relationship between his mother and father which had resulted in his
father leaving home. When he was admitted to our children’s  home Alex
had not seen his father since his parent’s relationship had ended 5
years previously. There was evidence to suggest that Alex was being
emotionally abused at home by his mother’s new partner and that he had
many unanswered questions about his father.   I keyworked him from the
time he arrived with us until the day he left at the age of 17 years old
and moved on to a care leavers’ project.

When I welcomed Alex as he walked through our front door I introduced
myself as his keyworker. He seemed very cheerful and open. He spoke
about being glad to be out of the difficult family situation he had just
left and he appeared relieved to have been admitted into care. The fact
that he expressed a desire to be in our care put me at ease not only
about him but also about myself. At that time my previous experience had
nearly always been with young people who had a suspicious resistance to
being admitted to our home. This was different. Alex wanted to be with
us. I began to fantasise that I was about to enjoy an easy and pleasant
keyworking experience. I was soon to find out that I had lulled myself
into a false sense of  security.

During the first few weeks Alex was at our children’s home he acted
as one would expect any young man of his age. He was interested in
football and was a fan of Manchester United. He was a “trekkie” and
could and did describe episodes of Star Trek in the greatest of detail.
He knew that his education was important even if he wasn’t very keen to
be overly conscientious about getting down to his studies. He was
intelligent and at times he seemed wise beyond his years. At this time
our relationship was a benign one. It seemed that we had become friends.
This was prove to be a “honeymoon” period for both of us.

As the weeks passed Alex and I discussed and explored his childhood
experiences. It soon became clear just how emotionally wounded he had
been by events in his life with his family and how far this damage had
impacted upon his development. These discoveries signalled the beginning
of the roller coaster ride that my keyworking relationship with Alex
was to become. I found myself increasingly the object of Alex’s anger.
He lost his temper with me over what appeared to me to be the smallest
of things. Occasionally Alex was violent towards me. He pushed me,
threw  things at me and also he spat in my face a couple of times.  His
behaviour was hard for me to take. I tried to remain calm, although this
was difficult. As a keyworker on the receiving end of such angry
outbursts I was left feeling helpless and emotionally, more than
physically, hurt. My initial reaction to this aggression was to feel
resentful that I was trying my hardest to help Alex and yet all I got
back in return was his anger and aggression. There was a part of me
which understood that in behaving this way Alex was trying to
communicate to me how bad he was feeling within himself. It seemed to me
then that I should go beyond my own feelings and help him work through
his anger and what I increasingly began to understand as his despair.
Containing and holding a young person’s extreme feelings –  taking what
seems like a ongoing emotional battering –   at the same time as
remaining consistent in your love for the young person is in my view
probably the most difficult challenge faced by a keyworker. There are no
practice manuals that explain how to deal with these things. There is a
need to dig deep within your own personal resources and to supplement
this with support from you supervisor and your colleagues. My sessions
with my supervisor were very important for me. These sessions made me
feel as if I was being held and they allowed me to syphon off the angry
feelings I felt I was suppressing in order to stay with Alex when he
projected all his bad feelings into me.

An early helpful discovery I made was the importance of play in my
relationship with Alex. I was able to use play to build up my
relationship with him and this showed him another way to deal with his
anger. I think also by still being able to play with him despite all the
other unbearable feelings that were flying around Alex was able to see
that I could survive his onslaught and that I would still be there for
him.  Of course the anger Alex directed towards me was his way of
venting the anger and frustration of his situation and it was not at its
deepest about me. Although I am sure there were times when he did not
like the decisions I made and the boundaries I put in place, the
extremity of his angry outbursts went far beyond that.

Alex liked to play toy soldiers, detectives and as I’ve said he was
an enthusiast everything to do with Star Trek. It was his play that
showed the level of impact there had been on his emotional development.
When he had first arrived my impression of Alex had been one of what I
would have described as a “typical teenager” but it became apparent to
me that his play was often not age appropriate play. However it was
important for my colleagues and I to allow Alex to play so he could
comfortably progress from the place where he seemed to be stuck. So at
times I found myself playing  Star Trek characters or a detective. Alex
really got into his characters and appeared to become lost in his
fantasy role. One of the best times spent with Alex was when I took him
to an exhibition of one of his favourite films. It was amazing to see
how much it meant for him to be there and for me to be a part of it with
him. During our conversations it became more and more clear that he had
played and done these things with his father.

As Alex approached the age of 16 we began to talk about how it would
feel for him to move on from the children’s home and we began the long
preparation for the day he would leave us. We dealt with practical
issues by making sure he gained skills like managing money and cooking
meals. This was not easy. Although Alex was attracted to the idea of
taking on more responsibility for himself, and he was successful in
gaining many of these skills,  he was still operating on a level younger
than his physical age. He was, like other young people of his age,
attracted to the idea of moving on and looking after himself and getting
his own accommodation but there were other parts of moving on that he
was terrified about and at times he would talk about his concerns. What
lay behind these anxieties was his fear of leaving the children’s home
and his fear of being abandoned again but this time all on his own with
no one to help him. I saw his willingness to talk about his worries like
this as a sign of him growing up.

This period of helping Alex to prepare to move on was also a
difficult time for me as his keyworker.  I knew the outreach support
staff at his next placement would be attentive to his needs but they
would allow him – and it was right that they should do so –  much more
time to be responsible for the decisions he would need to make. I felt
Alex could really do with a few more years of our care before moving on
but external pressures would not allow this. The local authority which
had placed Alex with us became more reluctant to fund his placement and
increasingly insisted that he was of an age where he should be able to
cope with less intensive care. My view is that it would be difficult for
the vast majority of young people aged 16 or 17 to cope on their own. I
grudgingly accepted the need to be pragmatic and decided Alex and I
would have to do as much as we could to make sure he was as ready as he
could be when he moved on. At times this was an uphill struggle. Alex
was resistant to dealing with these matters.  Although he said that he
wanted to move on, he gave the unspoken impression he really hoped that
if he didn’t achieve the tasks we had set out to do then he could put
off being moved on. Alex was able to show he could do some of the tasks
that were necessary but he could not do so consistently as he still had
more important things to do such as playing !

Working together with Alex’ social worker we managed to hold off the
pressures from the local authority until Alex was 17 and this allowed us
further time to help Alex work through the fears that were holding him
back from moving on. On many occasions he made my colleagues and me
aware of his feelings of still needing to belong to us. Once after
returning from an overnight stay with his family, where he had been
sleeping on the couch in the living room because his new stepsister now
had his bedroom, he ran into our children’s home like an 9 or 10 years
old shouting out happily, “I’m home ! I’m home!”
My colleagues also made me aware that Alex had become attached to me.
While I was on duty, Alex was often quite critical of me and would
frequently tell me that in one way or another I was not caring for him
as I should or that I had let him down but when I was not on duty he
would vehemently defend me if any of the other young people criticised
me. In a sense I think that after a few months I was aware of this
attachment and certainly it was discussed during my supervision, but
this awareness could be quite fragile on those occasions when I was
under verbal assault from him. I would also say that I too was also
increasingly attached to Alex. I had to use my supervision to work
through this because there was a period when during shift handover
meetings or in staff meetings any of my colleagues described some
negative attribute of Alex’ behaviour I would experience it as a
personal assault. I had to separate what was healthy interpersonal
attachment from over-identification.

Eventually at the age of 17 Alex did move on to his accommodation
where he had the support of an outreach worker who offered him a very
creative programme. For the first few weeks in his new place he would
‘phone me regularly. I visited him on several occasions after his move
and although he did feel lonely at times and found it hard at first to
get a job he was very proud of what he was achieving and I was very
proud of the young man he had become. He soon got a job which caused him
to move out of the area and rented a house which he shared with two
other men he worked with. His telephone calls became less regular and
the last I heard from him he was complaining that his housemates were
messy and untidy and he was thinking of moving on.

Post script

I recently heard from a former colleague who had bumped
into him. that Alex has become a father.  I was amazed at the emotion
this aroused in me and made me realise how attached, although we often
don’t realise it or acknowledge it, we residential child care workers
become to our young people.

Published by Residential Forum

The Residential Forum is to promote the achievement of high standards of care and support for children and adults living in residential care and nursing homes, supported housing, residential schools and colleges, hospices and hostels. It contributes to improving the quality of service to the public. Members of the Forum are people of standing and experience drawn from the public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as some who can speak for service users and carers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: