Strengths-based work with children and families

A new set of resources and guides from SCIE sets out how to use a strengths-based approach in working with children and families. My blog on this is on the SCIE website and reproduced here:

Children’s services professionals dedicate themselves to helping children have good childhoods, but a recent Children’s Commissioner report estimates that “the majority of looked-after children – 74% – experienced some form of change during 2016-17: a placement move, a school move or change of worker. This is equivalent to 53,500 children”. Antony Corrigan, now an adult, said of his experience of moving around as a ‘looked after’ child: “You find it difficult to make a friendship group and you become alienated….I had at least 10 placements, including two children’s homes and in terms of social workers, I lost count, but I probably had about 10 in total. I just wish there was more consistency in the care I was given. It’s so easy to get lost in the system, no-one’s pushing you or encouraging you.”

Around the same time, a Times Educational Supplement (TES) article drew fire for labelling parents of children with Special Needs as “challenging”, advising Special Educational Needs coordinators in schools on how to manage three kinds of “challenging” parent: angry, pandering and non-engaging.

These felt like two examples of where a ‘strengths’ or ‘asset-based’ ethos was needed within children and families support services. These concepts are based on the simple idea that support services need to look for what people can or could do, and the naturally-occurring resources around them, not only for what their needs or problems are. Our close relationships are one of our most important assets, even where a family or household is under pressure or some things are not working as they should.

Some families become so dysfunctional that the children within them are harmed and need to be elsewhere. But we should set the level of risk or actual harm being caused to a child against the inability of state care to provide the key strength of consistent family relationships to the majority of looked-after children. Responses from parents to the TES article pointed out that parents of children with special educational needs typically contribute vastly more to the wellbeing and education of their children than even the best professional can do in their limited time with that child. Professionals should set the challenge they experience from parents, or their ‘over-protectiveness’, in the context of the very real barriers they may have experienced from professionals who do not always reflect carefully enough on the amount of relative power they hold, and how they wield it. Some families break under the pressures they face, but are they always given every chance and all the support they need to have a chance to fix themselves?

Children and families support professionals aim to empower children and their families, but there can be a gap between that aim and the way that families experience the help offered to them, or the impact of that help. Bridging that gap requires us to be willing to share our power, resources and knowledge, in ways that do not always feel comfortable. This is about the personal skills and values of professionals: having the humility to listen, learn and change, but it is also about the values of the systems we work within: do they give us the space and time we need to form real relationships with people, or do they pressure us to churn people through as quickly as possible? Do they talk about positive risk taking but swiftly turn to blame if something goes wrong? A strengths-based culture is one which does not just build on the strengths of children and families, but also on the strengths and potential of its workforce at every level.

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I lost count

Children’s services professionals dedicate themselves to helping children have good childhoods, but a recent Children’s Commissioner report estimates that “the majority of looked-after children – 74% – experienced some form of change during 2016-17: a placement move, a school move or change of worker. This is equivalent to 53,500 children”. Antony Corrigan, now an adult, said of his experience of moving around as a ‘looked after’ child: “You find it difficult to make a friendship group and you become alienated….I had at least 10 placements, including two children’s homes and in terms of social workers, I lost count, but I probably had about 10 in total. I just wish there was more consistency in the care I was given. It’s so easy to get lost in the system, no-one’s pushing you or encouraging you.”

Read full blog on the Social Care Institute for Excellence blog here.

Imagine having another 8 minutes of social interaction a day

CMM reports that “Just ten minutes of social interaction a day improves wellbeing in dementia care”, according to a study by researchers at University of Exeter Medical School, King’s College London and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE). “The Wellbeing and Health for people with Dementia (WHELD) programme trained care home staff to increase social interaction from two minutes a day to ten, combined with a programme of personalised care. It involves simple measures such as talking to residents about their interests and involving them in decisions around their care.”

This is important work by the universities and SCIE, but how heartbreaking that a study is required to prove the need to people with dementia to have just ten minutes a day of social interaction, and that previously they could expect just two. What would the wellbeing and health of people with dementia be like if they received an hour a day of social interaction? What would any our wellbeing be like if we could look forward to just ten?

This is why we need socially-based models of support like Shared Lives and Homeshare, and why people consistently report that they are happier and healthier within them. We need as much investment in researching the groundbreaking impacts of these smaller, social models, as we have currently into tweaking existing models which can seem to offer people so little.

I’ve been on adventures and made new friends

Meg who spent five years in a mental health hospital, told an audience of MPs, Ministers and people involved in Shared Lives that we need to see people with mental ill health as “people with a future”, not as a risk or a case to be managed. Shared Lives was her route to feeling human again, “With the support of my clinician, I moved in with my Shared Lives carer in a new town. I was so scared, I didn’t know how to live in the community, but she taught me and she stood by my side. It’s been 22 months since I left hospital and I have achieved so much. I work three days a week, I run a self-harm support group in my town, I’ve been on adventures and made new friends. In January this year, I moved into my own house and my Shared Lives carer still supports me a few days a week.”

Meg’s journey from not being confident crossing a road to speaking in parliament was dramatic. Ali told us that she reads “all the inspirational stories about the amazing things that people in Shared Lives have achieved. And every time I think to myself ‘well me and Chris haven’t done anything like that’ and I feel like a bit of a fraud.” But Chris’ journey to living somewhere he could just be himself, after 19 years in residential care, is inspiring: “It was an excellent home. But there were staff. And there were residents. And there were lots of boundaries, and when Chris wanted to go for a drink in the pub he had to complete a risk assessment.”

“Well I’m not staff. I’m not even sure I am particularly a carer – I’m just me. And Chris is not a resident or a client or a service user, he’s just Chris. And we live together and learn from each other and drive each other mad and maybe, just maybe – though we’d both be far too embarrassed to admit it- we even love each other a tiny little bit.” Chris and Ali’s full speech is here. 

Meg asked us to think about all the most embarrassing things we’d ever done; the things we really regretted. And then to imagine they were all written down in a record we carried with us and had to show to every new person we met, with none of the good things we’d done included. That was what it was like to be within the system for her: never being able to grow beyond her past. Darren told us that he couldn’t remember much about his many years in nursing care: mainly just watching TV. Now he has a busy life with less medication, more exercise and activities, and most importantly, friends, in a household where he felt he fitted in.

We need services which care for people, but which think hard about all the impacts of that care, good and bad. As Ali put it, “I am learning all the time. In particular about how to tread that very fine line between ‘support’ and ‘control’ and how to just let Chris be himself.”

Our thanks to Liz Kendall MP for hosting our event, with speakers Norman Lamb MP and Kit Malthouse MP, all of whom pledged to help make sure our members are valued and celebrated as we try to bring Shared Lives to many more people.

 

The personal is political

My social media timelines are full of two very contrasting sets of stories today: the stories about people coming together, as Shared Lives organisations celebrate Shared Lives week, and images of distraught children being taken off their parents at the US border. There could hardly be a starker contrast: our capacity to unite and to divide.

People who choose to share their lives with people to whom they have no legal or family obligation are doing something both natural and radical. They are making a choice to build their whole lives around the idea of bringing people together. They send us a powerful message: one which feels more important now than ever, so we are fortunate to be able to take their messages into parliament tomorrow, for our annual parliamentary reception. It is a truly cross-party event, this year hosted by Liz Kendall MP, last year by Alistair Burt MP. Norman Lamb MP will be speaking alongside Kit Malthouse MP. We’re going on a day when politicians will once again be debating Brexit and bitter divides will be laid bare. Our stories of people supporting each other to live life to the full could be seen as light relief by the parliamentarians, but I hope they feel the power of those stories, their radicalism and how much we need people who bring people together right now.

The choices that our members make are very personal, but as feminist Carol Hanisch said in 1970, “the personal is political”. So this year, we are celebrating the personal stories of Shared Lives as usual, but also calling on politicians of all parties, locally and nationally, to value Shared Lives carers, ensuring they have the training, back-up and fair pay they need to carry on making their very personal contributions to the future of our health and care system, and to building stronger communities and a more unified society in these divided times.

Feeling settled

The Children’s Commissioner reports today that : “We estimate that the majority of looked-after children – 74% – experienced some form of change during 2016-17: a placement move, a school move or change of worker. This is equivalent to 53,500 children.” (via BBC article here) Antony Corrigan, now an adult, said of his experience of moving around as a ‘looked after’ child: “You find it difficult to make a friendship group and you become alienated….I had at least 10 placements, including two children’s homes and in terms of social workers, I lost count, but I probably had about 10 in total. I just wish there was more consistency in the care I was given. It’s so easy to get lost in the system, no-one’s pushing you or encouraging you.”

We are cautious about making comparisons between foster care and Shared Lives, despite some obvious similarities in how they are organised, because Shared Lives is not about treating adults like children, and fostering is associated in people’s minds with family breakdown, whereas Shared Lives is something that adults choose when they are looking for the mix of independence and support which most of us look for when we form a family or a household as an adult, and it is very often about two families working together.

But I was struck by the contrast between that high level of instability in children’s lives, at a time when stability is so vital, and the tendency of Shared Lives arrangements to last for years. I recently met a young woman who had had around 30 foster or children’s home placements as a child, but who was thankfully settled in her Shared Lives household as a young adult. I’ve never come across someone using Shared Lives who has had more than a handful of Shared Lives arrangements over a period of years, and I meet many who have lived in the same household for decades.

There is often an emergency, unplanned aspect to fostering, which will be one factor at play, but that cannot explain children who have been moved multiple times. I wonder how much the strong focus on matching – both parties choosing to live together – plays in the relative stability of Shared Lives, and whether there is a debate to be had about matching within fostering, where there is a greater focus on professionalisation and avoiding attachments that might not be maintained. I’d be interested to hear from people much more knowledgeable about children’s support than I am on that.

Ironically, stability in the adult support sector is not always seen as a good thing. Whilst it is recognised that someone whose support arrangements are constantly breaking down is not happy (and that those crises are very difficult and expensive to manage), being ‘too’ settled is also sometimes frowned upon by service managers. I hear regularly that people who are happily settled in a Shared Lives household are constantly being considered for moving on to ‘greater independence’, even if living by themselves is not what they are looking for at that stage of life (how many of us dream of always living alone?) Sometimes that unwanted move uproots them from the support networks they have built up and they wind up in the revolving door of failed support arrangements.

In both children’s and adults’ services, there is constant churn and movement, whether it is children being moved multiple times during an already troubled childhood, or adults getting intimate personal care from a succession of strangers on a staff rota. Whereas in ‘ordinary’ life, most of us crave some kind of attachment, mutual dependency and feeling settled. As in so many things, services could learn a great deal from ordinary family life, if only we had the humility.

‘Sarah is part of my family’

You can now watch our new film about how people with mental ill health use Shared Lives to recover:  two minute version and seven minute version. 

mental health film

Meanwhile, The Guardian shared some great Shared Lives stories in its feature on becoming a Shared Lives carer: 

One Shared Lives carer said of the woman with autism who came to live with her: “She didn’t want to leave the house and she didn’t really speak. Now she’s becoming much more independent, she walks everywhere and is always out and about.”

In Stafford, Chris Goodall was part of the Shared Lives and offenders scheme. An 18-year-old with a learning disability came to live with him after being released from youth custody, instead of going into an adult prison. “This was of course a better option for him,” Goodall says. “For the first three months, he was tagged and had an asbo and a curfew. But he stuck to it and the tag came off in due course. We got him a place at the nearby college and he received a certificate for 100% attendance in the first year.”