Wednesday 20 June 2018
Kenny McGhee is the Throughcare and Aftercare Lead at
CELCIS. Here he continues the conversation started in Gordon Main’s
recent blog Commitment, like love, is not enough.
“For some people, the emotional content of the work of residential
child care can be at times overwhelming and committing emotionally to a
healing therapeutic relationship can become an emotional risk for staff,
particularly given the uncertainty over their future.” (Steckley 2010)
In Gordon Main’s recent blog he touches on some really important
issues to think about when considering how to improve the care
experiences of children and young people. Like Gordon, these issues have
troubled me for many years and their current re-surfacing as part of an
emerging national narrative is both welcome and frankly long overdue.
We know that children and young people have a basic need to be
claimed especially when a return to their family has been discounted
(SCIE/NICE, 2010). Therefore, helping young people develop a sense of
‘felt security’ (Cashmore and Paxman, 2006) is fundamental to recovery
and emotional wellbeing.
This was a point reinforced by Michael Tarren-Sweeney in his illuminating keynote address to the ‘Changing the Narrative’ conference
held in Glasgow in the autumn of last year. He challenged us by
asserting that, despite our best intentions, the State continues to be a
poor substitute parent across the developed world. He specifically
talked about the reverberating impact of impermanence within the care
system, and the impact of placement instability on young people’s mental
health. Whilst this was perhaps an uncomfortable home truth, it is one
that needs re-stating.
The system needs to align with needs
When talking to workers and carers on the implementation of Continuing Care,
one of the recurring themes which causes great frustration and anxiety
is not around their personal or professional commitment as individual
workers or carers, but more how the ‘system’ so often works against
Our care system is by design and definition bureaucratic and
procedural. Processes and services tend to be built around chronological
thresholds and constructs, covering individual care planning as well as
service registration, which can consequently impact heavily on funding
decisions and priorities.
When is a young person ready?
This is incongruous with what we know about the development of
children and young people. It’s particularly problematic for care
experienced young people as they approach key legislative age triggers
such as 16, 18 or 21, and runs counter to the core and spirit of
I have yet to meet a colleague or carer who believes that their own
children are ready to make ill prepared and unsupported moves at such a
young age to (what we wrongly describe as) ‘independence’.
In fact they describe their own children’s need for predictability,
commitment and ‘felt security’ as even more important as they begin to
take steps into the adult world. And, they know that over the coming
years, as their kids begin to venture off perhaps to college or
University, or into the world of work and adult relationships, they’ll
need more emotional, practical and yes – financial support, not less.
But they also make those caring commitments, these emotional and
financial investments, based on a certain predictability about the
It’s hard to ‘claim’ young people when you have no control
The issue raised with me frequently by workers and carers is that
there’s often little or no ‘control’ or influence over when or how a
placement will end; little or no control over how and when their funding
and support will be cut (remember young adults tend to need more, not
less); and therefore their ability to claim young people and
offer that unconditional commitment that we would all take for granted
as the norm, is compromised. As Laura Steckley’s quote at the start of
this blog says, the inbuilt uncertainty over their future, and the
emotional risks to staff and carers can inhibit this claiming.
When interviewing residential staff as part of a research project
into continuing care, they echoed this very point – wanting to reach out
and claim, to give their teenagers a sense of “felt security“ into
adulthood but knowing that the chronological and bureaucratic triggers
in-built into the system too often work against that. As one said, “I
find that really challenging”.
Gordon’s blog opened with a quote by Mary Dozier saying what children
need most is the knowledge that their parents are committed to them. I
would add that this means parenting not just to late teens, but well
into adulthood too.
As a start we need our policies, regulations and associated registrations for care providers to align at least with the Children and Young People (Scot) Act 2014,
particularly in relation to Part 11 (Continuing Care). The mixed
messages inherent in having different age triggers as gateways, or
inhibitors to care and support, don’t take account of the developmental
needs of young adults, particularly those who carry the burden of
unresolved childhood trauma
Commitment into adulthood
We need to ensure our work in and around the permanence planning
agenda has this commitment into adulthood not just the legal age
cut-offs that too often inform practice at the moment. We need to
resolve, align and remove the bureaucratic and procedural constructs
which fuel the inbuilt impermanence that Tarren-Sweeney talks about. In
doing so we will be better able to create the context whereby
residential carers and foster carers can confidently predict that they
can provide that enduring commitment to their young people, to nurture
and support them into adulthood, rather than prepare them simply (and
inadequately) for ‘leaving care’ or ‘independence’.
And we need to resource it.
We have some great examples in Scotland, but these still tend to be
the exception rather than the norm, and that’s simply not good enough
for those young people whose need for love, security, and commitment go
Deeds not words
Scotland’s has a rightful focus on early intervention, on early
routes to permanence where this is assessed as the best option for a
child or young person. Our aspiration to be the best place to grow up,
must also include at its very heart, a commitment to support our care
experienced young people into adulthood.
This commitment must be matched by deeds, not just words. These are not either/or decisions.
Impermanence and unpredictability affects carers too. If we really
want our care experienced young people to have a sense of ‘felt
security’ – and yes, feel loved – we first need to enable and support
our carers to commit wholeheartedly for the long term regardless of
placement type or setting.
Our carers and our children and young people deserve no less.