Relationships: the golden thread

Last month the Care Inquiry representing eight charities working with children in or on the edge of care published a  report called ‘ Making not Breaking- Building relationships for our most vulnerable children‘. The report is rallying for a relational welfare approach to family support and the care system. Relationships are the ‘golden thread’ in the lives of vulnerable children. It argues “what has been missing is the determination to view relationships – their extent, their quality and the likelihood of their lasting – as the cornerstone of planning and practice”.

Reading it I was struck by how many of the recommendations echo those of our Life Programme. The Life Programmes purposefully work with families experiencing the most chronic crisis. This could mean continuing to work with a family who are ‘closed’ to other services such as social care and anti-social behaviour teams, but who still need help building their social and support networks in the community. Eventually this could just be the occasional phone call if that is what the family feel they need. At the other end of the scale it could mean supporting families in which children who have been taken into care through the transition to long-term foster care placements and contact arrangements.

As the report says, maintaining relationships across transitions makes a huge difference to children and families. Time and again we see that ‘closing’ a family after short-term changes can actually lead to setbacks as the relationships that helped to nurture these changes ends too prematurely. All too often this leads to a ‘revolving door’ of multiple and repeated service intervention for children and families, forcing them to repeatedly re-build relationships with new workers and leaving them fearful of opening up again to someone new, should they also move on. In this vein, the report recommends that more care is taken to ‘match’ children and workers.

In Life Programmes, families meet everyone in the Life Team and take part in activities to get to know each other before they choose who they would like to work with one to one. Families tell us that this contrasts sharply with their previous experiences of being ‘allocated’ a worker and having to start their relationship by being assessed and ‘filling out forms’. Families are encouraged to stay in touch with workers who matter to them, echoing the reports recommendation for effort to be made to sustain positive relationships between children and workers even when the latter have moved on; “the test for policy and practice should be whether they make or break relationships for vulnerable children”. Another recommendation is to the need to involve children and families more closely in the planning and making of decisions.

Our finding in Life, is that families become overwhelmed and alienated by the many plans and orders enforced on them, resulting withdrawal from engagement and a pervasive sense of helplessness and fear. The Life Programme has developed a series of simple tools to involve families in making their own plans and tracking their own progress. Families can complete these on Lifeboard, a technology platform for case recording that aims to drastically reduce the administrative burden on workers, and promote more collaboration and transparency between teams and family members.

Finally, the report notes that spending cuts have reduced frontline family support services, putting even more pressure on vulnerable children and families and over-stretched teams. It concludes “we need a renewed focus on using resources and approaches that will nurture positive relationships for children who cannot live with their parents. This must drive practice in the future – moving away from the focus on process and on administrative requirements that have come to dominate practice in recent year”. Here at Life HQ, we can only concur and hope that more people join this movement for change, which puts relationships front- and- centre in these services.

Rachel James
Life HQ Programme Lead


This little miracle happens one relationship at a time…

At Switchback, we are working to enable young men in their transition from prison back to North East London. We support them to participate in and enjoy the society they are returning to; to see it in a different light and in turn be seen by it in a different light.

We did something extraordinary last week. We invited people from the Prison Service alongside chefs and owners of independent London restaurants to come to our turf and be hosted by Switchback staff and Trainees. Only a few weeks before, these same Trainees had been in prisons and young offenders institutes while they (their now guests) held the keys. The Trainees – who had been in positions of very little control as prisoners – were now asked to welcome these people into their café and hand round food they had made. Not a comfortable prospect.

The prison staff too must have been feeling trepidation about the shift in roles and loci of control. Attending the event involved being exposed; a reneging of authority. Out in public amongst young men who had previously been prisoners who had to do as they were told, these were now guests able to rely on nothing but fundamental human relationship to hold the space and contain any previous ill-feeling.

As the guests started to arrive the Trainees slunk towards the kitchen. Back of house is useful for dipping out of view. But gradually, with encouragement from Switchback Mentors, the Trainees began to step forward one by one and little miracles began to occur.

Using their Switchback Mentor as a conduit, slowly slowly they began to take a chance and trust they would be treated with kindness by the guests.

Switchback Trainees can find it very difficult not to take things personally. Confrontation as an outlet for an ever-present anger is easily found when someone ‘talks down to’ them or says something that might be read as disrespectful. This street code is hard to shake and a lot of the work we do is breaking down what it means to talk with different people and how, for instance, being managed in a work environment is distinct from how to negotiate with an officer on the wing. Communication, when to bite your tongue, reliability, trying new things, old things in a new way… are some of the skills that are practiced within the relationship with the Switchback Mentor and then built on outside of that relationship.

Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 11.46.56

There was evidence of it being a big leap for many Trainees to be asked to hand food around to their former custodians. To have been asked to put themselves in that position would -in any previously known context- be seen as the biggest disrespect. It may have felt like a slight; impossible to recover from. We asked them to do it.

Steven found it tough. He said he was not the kind of person who could go around handing things to people. He has spent time in the gym; making himself big. This level of humility was incomprehensible to him. How could it not equate to making yourself small and insignificant? I asked him to come with me, to meet some people. He brought the sausage rolls.

When he came back to the kitchen ten minutes later, Steven’s plate was empty and his face was covered in smiles. He’d enjoyed being able be to tell the people he’d met about what he’d achieved since he got released. He realised he could go around and ‘grow’ himself in their (and, crucially, his own) eyes by talking about his achievements. All the good things he had done since release armed him against feeling small.

An officer who had worked in security in the Prison Service for over twenty years said it was the first time he’d been outside the gates to see ex-offenders in the community and was ‘totally blown away’. An officer from HMP Littlehey said ‘it is incredible for us to see the Trainees in such a different environment, appearing to enjoy life again’.

By the end of the evening, all the Trainees felt that they had been given the opportunity to help out and feel they were giving something back to Switchback and its future Trainees. They also had business cards from impressed employers in their pockets and the knowledge that they were able to speak to different people and hold their heads up high.

The ripple-effect of the confidence from a trusting, chosen relationship is far-reaching. At this event it was to be seen reaching prison staff but we know its power is that it can reach the Trainees’ children, their parents, their probation officers, future employers, and all those around them. They can find a way to participate in the society that once shut them out. And they can see it and be seen by it in a new way. And this little miracle happens one relationship at a time.

Alice Dawnay is Founding Director (Operations) at Switchback.

Photos courtesy of Switchback.

Parents, the industrial revolution and relational services.

Parenting is a team activity and good parenting is about good collaboration between the adults around children. How adults collaborate has a fundamental impact on individuals’ capacities of the adults to care and to earn; how adults collaborate impacts directly on the development of children.

And yet the entire infrastructure of supporting parents in our society is built on a radically contrasting idea – that parenting is about a “primary carer” with individual skills and needs and responsibilities. Everyone else is a helper, secondary.

The “primary carer” idea is a modern invention, a product of the Industrial Revolution. It came about because the Industrial Revolution did something very unusual to human families – it placed them in small housing units instead of within wider families, and it introduced a complete division of earning work outside the home and domestic work inside the home. The only possible solution to raising children was the “stay-at-home mother”. As the world has changed – women can now contribute to earning just as much as men and the work/home division is dissolving again – we are returning to a pattern that is a little more like how it has been for the rest of the 200,000 years of human history. The idea of a “working mother” still has a certain frisson about it, even though almost all mothers have worked for almost all of history.

In a brilliant study of human parenting, Mothers and Others, Sarah Hrdy demonstrates that collaboration between groups of adults is the salient feature of human parenting – in absolute contrast to the single-handed parenting of even our most closely related species, such as chimpanzees. This intense collaboration around the enormously expensive task of raising human infants (they hang around a very long time!) is a key reason for the success of the human race, as it adapts to hugely different environments and circumstances. But Hrdy goes further, with a yet more radical proposition. Babies’ amazing ability to attach with several adults and read the communication between them – a necessity in the context of team care – is a foundation for the unique quality of humans, the ability to empathise, to read each other’s minds. Human nature is fundamentally about relationship.

And, whilst men’s direct contribution to caring is highly variable depending on the environment, their involvement has been so frequent and so intense that they have adapted biologically as carers. Proximity to pregnant women and babies triggers hormonal changes that in turn trigger caring behaviours. Testosterone drops. The more a man is exposed in this way, the quicker and stronger the hormonal reaction as they are called to the task of caring.

The opposite “primary carer” model still reigns supreme. Parenting has been framed as a set of skills that mothers need to learn. Because parenting a human infant alone is actually impossible, mothers have, with the mass exodus of men back to work immediately after a baby has born, created enormous networks of mothers to secure essential mutual support. These networks and local groups are usually branded with the word “mum”, leaving in limbo the ever increasing number of men caring for children (needing just as much support as mothers). Commerce has targeted mothers, emphasizing their isolation and neediness and promising salvation. Hence Asda’s Christmas advertisement last year, ending with “Behind every mother this Christmas is…Asda.”

What has all this got to do with relational services? Everything. Because the way to support families is to support the functioning of the team. Picking out a parent in a family and providing them alone with support, as is the norm, is like coaching some members of a football team individually, then expecting the team to win a match.

And the superiority of support for the family team, as opposed to just primary carers, has been proven. In 30 years of brilliant longitudinal studies, Phil & Carolyn Cowan in USA have compared the impacts on child development of three kinds of support – one parent alone, two parents with a focus just on parenting skills, and two parents with the inclusion of a focus on relationship and teamwork. The last approach works better on all measures – the child’s outcomes (all the way up to adulthood), the family’s earning, and the stability of the couple relationship. This is not a surprise – going with the flow of human nature is bound to work better.

The old story of parenting remains deeply embedded both in our culture and in our minds. Working mothers still routinely feel guilty about disturbing some divine order; non-working fathers still routinely feel inadequate. One of the biggest barriers to effective parenting is the inability of women and men to let go of the ordained roles that somehow, deep down, they feel are “right” and to let themselves go with the flow of real life in all its variation and unpredictability. The good news, according to Sarah Hrdy, is that the crowning feature of human parenting is its extraordinary adaptability to different circumstances and environments. We can do it!

Duncan Fisher