Sunday, 2 March 2014

Have we lost hope?

It’s all about need really isn’t it? Well, perhaps need and labels.  Ok, need, labels and narratives. 

For the decision to have been made to separate the care pathways of young people in foster care from those in residential care I assume that it has been decided that the needs of both of these groups of young people differ.  I’m assuming this.  I mean, this MUST be the case right? This is how services are run surely?  It’s common sense.

I am used to working in a way that focuses on need.  I asses clients to find out about their needs, together we formulate an understanding of how their needs developed, what is maintaining the status quo and what role I can play in supporting them to address their needs.  It’s not ludicrous to suggest we do this with young people in/leaving care is it? I mean if it is tell me and I’ll stand corrected. But really, let’s not overcomplicate things (even though I know that can be a FANTASTIC distraction technique for those not wanting to address these issues).  Can we understand how the needs of young people in residential care have developed? Yes we can.  Can we work together with them and those important to them to put together a plan for how those needs can be met? Yes we can.  Does this differ from how we should work with young people in foster care? No it doesn’t. Right then. Oh, and the final, to me pivotal, question – do we really want to explore and acknowledge the needs of young people in residential care? Hmmmm.  Possibly not.

Which brings me on to labels and narratives (Hurrah I hear you cry….right?!) and an issue I’ve been considering for some time.  So, for example, you get a (typically) young child who has been subject to abuse or neglect and whose difficult behaviour is understood in this context as an understandable, albeit challenging, response to their environment and experiences.  Then at some point, and I don’t know when or how, the child them self is then labelled as the problem.  So the narrative and understanding of the (now) young person has switched from one which acknowledges and prioritises systemic and contextual factors, to one where individual factors, and individual labels, are prioritised. 

There’s a saying in narrative therapy: “the person isn’t the problem; the problem is the problem” (I’m pretty sure Michael White is credited for this). At some point with looked-after children, the young person seems to become the problem.  What also seems to happen, perhaps simultaneously, is that we (both as professionals and at, I believe, a societal level), begin telling young people that they “need to start taking some responsibility” and “need to start acting (their) age”.  And I hold my hands up – when I was a residential care worker I said these phrases or words to that effect many a time. So I guess once these socially-constructed age-based narratives and expectations of young people become dominant, or even exclusive, we are shifting responsibility of and for these young people from ourselves (and services) to them.  And if that is the case, then conceptualising these young people as needing – and deserving – support becomes very difficult as it does not fit with the dominant narrative of individual responsibility.

Why do we place so much stock in our socially constructed ideas of what young people should be capable of and should be doing at certain ages – 16, 18, 21? We KNOW that the brains of children who have been neglected and/or abused develop differently – WE KNOW THIS. We KNOW the potential functional implications on these brain differences on young people. So we would of course conclude that due to biological, social and psychological factors many young people in care are not where we would ‘expect’ their non-care based counterparts to be. So why are we remaining so fixed on AGE and using this to dictate our expectations of and demands on young people in care?

I guess the point I am trying to make is this – is there something about the narratives that exist about looked after children, particularly those in residential care, that are creating a barrier to their being able to access post-18 support? Do we believe that it’s about time they pulled their socks up and started taking some responsibility? Have we storied their behaviour, and indeed their lives, in such a way that they have been put in a box labelled ‘too far gone’ or even ‘menace to society’?.  Or, and perhaps even worse, have we lost hope for young people in residential care? I believe that a significant part of the role of those around children in care is holding the hope when they cannot.  If we don’t care for them after 18 what message are we giving them? Are we telling them that we too have lost hope?

By Helen Williams
Trainee Clinical Psychologist





  1. Understood! When you read this in black and white it is difficult to comprehend why thousands of young people will miss the opportunity to experience their potential. Surely its time governments (particularly those supporting the notion families should be responsible for children until the age of 25!), acknowledged the wide-spread (individual, organisational, societal) gain to be had from a legislative reform that would offer a chance to build protective factors and skills to counteract earlier deficit and promote self-sufficiency…If you could draft a policy or two that would be great.

  2. In my experience as an Education Welfare Officer and as a Social Work Support Worker I would have to agree that young people in care are definitely being sent the message that there is no hope. As "normal" young people get older they are encouraged to develop higher aspirations for their future as they progress through their academic life and towards independence. They often strive for success and independence and are secure in the knowledge that as they get older they will achieve these, with support, in easily manageable steps as they prepare to leave the family home . In contrast I believe children in care and in residential settings focus not on aspirations for the future and independence, but on where they will be placed next, where they belong, will they ever get fostered, adopted, how long will I be here before I get moved on. All the children I worked with see getting older as a negative contributing factor to having a more 'permanent' placement or support network. The core belief that is consolidated by the world around them is, the older you are the less malleable you are, the less able you are to change your behaviour and the less you are wanted!! After years of struggling to achieve 'belonging' they reach 18 and independence is forced upon them, rather than it being a positive goal to achieve independence is a failure to have achieved 'belonging' in your formative years. In 'normal' families the acceptable age to have left home is getting higher and higher, with many young adults in their 20s and even 30s still living at home. Surely this means the support for young people 18+ in residential placements or in care needs to mimic this change in society.