‘The Verbatim Formula: Methods of Dialogue in the Twenty-first Century Care System’
Extract from Conference Paper, Theatre and Attachment, QMUL, June 2016.
“I’ve literally become a catalogue of statistics, and just irrelevant facts and info. And it’s dehumanizing to be honest. And if adults don’t really view you as a human then how can you view yourself?”
Maya, 14 years old, TVF co-researcher
As to be expected, official statistics provide evidence that young people entering care are much needier than the equivalent cohort in the general population. In 2015, a House of Commons Briefing Paper reported that in 61% of cases, social services first engaged with looked after children because of abuse or neglect.1 An Education Committee report, Mental Health and Well-being of Looked-after Children (2016) found that half of children in care have a diagnosable mental health disorder.2 Yet some practices within the care system exacerbate rather than alleviate some of these young people’s difficulties. An outbreak of risk aversion following the case of Baby P, and scandals in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxfordshire, have led to an even greater emphasis on protection and safeguarding, putting barriers up to the expression of love and care. This context is made worse by austerity policies that put the social work profession under extreme pressure, with a chronic shortage of experienced social workers and increasing workloads.3 Ofsted, which currently has responsibility for inspecting social care, has found that high caseloads make it impossible for social workers to do their jobs effectively.4 Concerns have already been expressed that the reform of social work announced in the 2016 Queen’s Speech will do nothing to address the societal issues that cause children to enter care in the first place, nor alleviate the high turnover of staff in the system and its reliance on short term agency workers.5
Within the care system, care workers are compelled to follow procedures that can be bureaucratic and dehumanizing at worst, contributing to the feeling of young people of being ‘dealt with’ and the absence of ‘feeling, love, warmth, emotion and physical care’ that is identified by our testimony. In 2010 Eileen Munro’s first report in her Review of Child Protection drew attention to the ‘defensive, nature of a system that puts so much emphasis on procedures and recording that insufficient attention is given to the development of the right skills for care workers to work effectively with children, young and families.6 In 2015, the Centre for Social Justice identified ‘systemic failure’ and the need for reform.7 Painting a bleak picture of the mechanical and rigid treatment of children by its ‘administrative machinery’, applied practitioner Claire MacNeill sees social workers under pressure to maintain a system ‘defunct and devoid of human emotion and opportunities for natural connection’.8 Alienating language, like ‘placement’ instead of ‘home’, and files in which social workers scribble data and assessments, make children feel isolated and angry. Their stability and relationships with new foster carers are undermined as they are moved from place to place, transforming a circle of disturbed behaviour into a vicious one. In 2015, 33% of children had been ‘placed’ more than once in a year in a children’s home or with a foster family, and 10% had three placements or more.9
For adolescents, already dealing with the trauma of family breakdown and entering care, more pressures develop. Difficulties in planning ahead brought about by lack of stability at this crucial time and a sense of a ‘foreshortened’ or meaningless future – collide with the demands of an inflexible education and qualification system, predicated on chronological rather than emotional age.10 There is pressure on young people to make important life choices, this is a stage of life where more self-determination is expected. As peer attachments and a public identity, beyond an immediate family or care giving circle become more important, group attachments can support adolescents not only in becoming agentic and proactive in society, but also in building solidarity and support around a sense of self-identity.11 The stigma and shame associated with care for looked after children can develop a schism between an internal sense of who they are and their sense of public self.
In our practice, we seek to build in the positive effects of participation in arts and in a peer group. And our research has intrinsic aims that concern the relationships that are at the heart of children’s experience, and which can also be framed by the liberal ideology of rights and empowerment which follows from the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This centres around the expression of children’s voices and is present the statutory obligations placed on those with responsibility for children in care – termed unhelpfully, ‘corporate parents’.12 The DfE document 2015, Promoting the Health and Well-being of Looked-after Children states: ‘A culture must be in place ‘where looked after children are listened to’, where their views are taken into account and that helps others to understand the importance of listening to and taking account of the child’s wishes and feelings’.13 Such advice recurs through the statutory documents.14 Further, a 2015 survey by the Children’s Commissioner’s Office, legally obliged by the 2014 Children and Families Act to solicit and publicise children’s views, found that for children what makes care good and what would make it better is ‘being listened to’. Other factors identified were, ‘having good and supportive relationships with caring adults’, ‘making progress personally with your life’, ‘making sense of the past’, and ‘being normal’.15 Everywhere it seems in official guidance, the onus and obligation on adults to listen to young people is pervasive, but children themselves report feeling unloved and ignored.
Applied arts interventions, – practitioners claim, can support processes of self-narration and ‘coming to be seen’.16 Group work can provide a sense that others are like you, and share some of your experience.17 This is certainly our experience of working with a group of child migrants. A 16 year old Sudanese migrant told me, ‘when you meet people from new communities, or people same as you, you feel more comfortable…we’re all together and I’m happy to be this close because when you have more friends you are more good with people….everyone has his different story and difficult life…same as you, so you are not the only one. You can’t feel that you are not like everyone. That’s why it’s very comfortable here’.18
Listening to children’s voices and involving them in decisions regarding their care raises questions regarding the power dynamics, and adults’ assumptions regarding children. In their book, The Mental Health Needs of Looked After Children, Joanna Richardson and Carol Joughin tell us, ‘the single most important source of information about a child’s needs’ is ‘what the child themself is capable of telling us’.19
But what do young people feel capable of telling those adults who are legally required to listen to them? The emphasis on the word capable here is ours. Richardson and Joughin’s thinking arguably betrays an adult tendency to assume that children may not be capable of communicating all their needs. This assumption itself can be damaging, and suggests longstanding adult cultural habits of thinking about children. Sociologist Karen Winter points to the universal and invariant age-related developmental stages on which the looked-after children legal framework is based. A passive model of childhood that casts children as recipients of services, she argues, is perpetuated by a needs-based discourse that fails to recognize and treat children as active agents, robbing young people of the qualities that both they and society need.20
Our experience of working with adolescents with care experience is that while they are more than capable of communicating, what varies greatly is their motivation to do so. It is perhaps not really children at all who cannot communicate, but adults who fail to hear well enough. In particular when it comes to communication, there are a range of benefits from adults listening better.21 Without listening, how can there be the trust that attachment theory suggests is necessary for healthy relationships to develop? Without listening, how can the care system, and time poor adults who are expected to look after children, really act on the wishes and desires of children? Most pertinently for our research, the self-identified need of children for being listened to suggests the possibility of improving children’s experience of care by intervening in the everyday communicative structures and bureaucratic practices which are central to young people’s experience. What if a practice-based research project combines the support that young people find in arts-based strategies to support their personal development, while also giving them agency to intervene in the habitual listening practices that administer their experience of care? We hope that The Verbatim Formula project provides care-experienced young people with just such opportunities.
1 The proportion being looked after due to family dysfunction has increased from 14% in 2011 to 16% in 2015. Yago Zayed and Rachael Harker, Children in Care in England: Statistics (House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper 04470, October 2015), p. 4.
2 Provision in many areas across England is identified as poor, often – crucially – because children are not in a stable placement. More ‘whole school’ training is needed in schools, as well as more support for foster and residential carers. Education Committee, Mental Health and Well-being of Looked-after Children: Fourth Report of Session 2015-6 (House of Commons, 2016), p.3.
4 The watchdog body itself, after a reform of the inspection system in 2013, struggles under the obligation to examine vast amounts of statistical data. Tristan Donovan, ‘High Case Loads Are A Problem In Almost All Below-par Auhtorities, Says Ofsted’, 3 June 2014, http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2014/06/03/high-caseloads-problem-almost-par-authorities-says-ofsted/ [accessed 18 August 2015].
6 Eileen Munro, The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report. A Child-Centered System (Department for Education, 2011).
7 Finding Their Feet: Equipping Care Leavers to Reach Their Potential (Centre for Social Justice, Jan. 2015).
8 MacNeill, pp.107-8.
9 Spring Consortium, Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme: Interim Learning Report January 2016 (Department for Education, 2016).
10 Matthew Ratcliffe, Mark Ruddell and Benedict Smith, ‘What is a “sense of foreshortened future?”: A Phenomenological Study of Trauma, Trust and Time’, Frontiers in Psychology, 5 (2014), 1-11 (1-2).
11 Furnivall. During this time, parents ‘continue to be a secure base and safe haven’.
12 The UK’s 1989 Children’s Act required local authorities to give due regard to children’s wishes and feelings in matters affecting them. DfE, Child Protection, Social Work Reform and Intervention: Research Priorities and Questions (DfE, March 2014); Working Together to Safeguard Children: March 2013, http://www.workingtogetheronline.co.uk/chapters/intro.html [accessed 8th February 2015].
13 Department for Education, Promoting the Health and Well-being of Looked-after Children: Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities, Clinical Commissioning Groups and NHS England (DfE, March 2015), p.7. The Education Committee’s 2016 mental health report concludes, ‘…the voices of the children and young people in the care system must be heard at every stage. Their input into care planning and the services they receive is crucial to ensuring placements and the formation of lasting relationships with the many professionals in their life.’
14 National Children’s Bureau, Delivering the Health Reforms for Looked After Children (2013). In 2013 the Department for Education (DfE) and Care Quality Commission (CQC) both emphasized this obligation for the care system to be more responsive to children. Care Quality Commission, State of Care 2013/4: Infographic, http://www.cqc.org.uk/content/statcare-2013-14-infographic [accessed 9th February 2015]; DfE, Overview Report: Department for Education Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme (DfE: April 2014).
15 State of the Nation: Report 1, Children in Care and Care Leavers Survey 2015 (Children’s Commissioner for England, 2015), https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Care%20monitor%20v12.pdf [18 August 2015].
16 Work of Olivia Sagan and Antigonos Sochos ‘Group Attachment Through Art Practice: A Phenomenological Analysis of Being Seen and Showing’, Therapeutic Communities: The International Journal of Therapeutic Communities 37 (2016).
17 After working with a group of boys in care in Malta, Damien Spiteri draws on self-determination theory of Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan to suggest that participants’ growth was supported by participating in activities that they enjoyed, and which enhanced positive relations with others. Damien Spiteri, ‘Citizenship Education as An Educational Outcome for Young People in Care: A Phenomenological Account’, Theory and Research in Education 10 (2012), 39-55.
18 16 year old boy, March 2016, QMUL-PPP Audio Archive.
19 See also, Joanna Richardson and Carol Joughin, The Mental Health Needs of Looked After Children (Dorchester, The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2000), p.6.
20 Karen Winter, ‘Widening our Knowledge Concerning Young Looked After Children: The Case for Research Using Sociological Models of Childhood’, Child and Family Social Work, 11, (2006), 55-64 (54-5).
21 Certainly the intersubjectivity emphasized in Dan Hughes’ therapeutic model of Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy, where adults match a child’s affective state and join a child in his or her experience, is unlikely to take place unless there is time and space for listening. Elizabeth Andrew et al, ‘Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and Attachment’, p.508.