What's the purpose of the care system if love isn't part of the deal?
Holyrood's new columnist Laura Beveridge on her experience of care, and what needs to change
Announcing a ‘root and branch’ review of the care system, the First Minister talked about putting love at its heart, saying that “every young person needs to be loved”. This is so simple yet so revolutionary.
Working in the care system was, for me, an ongoing battle between my own personal values and beliefs and the professional boundaries that I was restricted by. I was told to never share that I had been in care because professional boundaries might be crossed and my decisions and professionalism could be questioned. I was also told never to use the word ‘love’ because it would be deemed as inappropriate.
The result was that the most heart-breaking part of my job was taking a step back from children that I knew needed to be loved. It would be outrageous for me as a parent to give my child a home without love and yet as a care worker, that is what I was expected to do for our most vulnerable children in our care.
What is the purpose of the care system if love isn’t part of the deal?
When I was a child living in residential care I had some fantastic relationships with my carers, although I struggled with the fact that my main carers were paid professionals. I was very aware that one day I would be made to leave, that my bed wouldn’t always be there, that some other child would simply take my place.
I felt like I was on a conveyer belt and I was never given the opportunity to come to terms with my childhood trauma, acknowledge the grief of losing the family that I once had, the ongoing struggle that I had managing the volatile relationship that I had with my mum, and one of the hardest struggles was accepting the lack of contact that I had with my brother and sister.
I didn’t have any sense of where I belonged or who I really was and I felt like I was simply being contained until I was old enough to leave, never mind whether I was equipped to leave or not.
Working in the care system is an incredibly rewarding job yet the bit that I struggled with the most was maintaining the professional stance I was told to adopt, which basically meant never getting attached. I was often the focus of team debates about whether we should give children cuddles or not and about discussions on keeping doors open when we were alone with young people. It felt like a lot of practice was about keeping staff safe, rather than the children.
Is it safe and is it possible to blend our professional selves with our personal selves? Ray Maclean, a Who Cares? Scotland advocate, has a job building relationships with young people in care so that he can advocate on their behalf. There has to be a blend of both personal and professional. This can make him vulnerable, but there is an element of risk in every relationship.
I also believe that the element of risk is outweighed by a child’s need. Whenever we share a personal truth or belief we are taking a risk, we’re putting ourselves out there and that is scary. When I came out of the care closet as a senior member of staff in a residential house I was terrified. But I had to do it. In sharing my story, I was met with two things: stigma and love. I faced bullying at work, felt isolated and at times I’d cry as soon as I got home. My husband, Steven, asked me if I’d done the right thing and I really didn’t know what to say to him. I was scared. What I did have was some incredible colleagues who I now call friends. They told me to keep going because it gave these kids hope.
I remember hearing a member of staff tell a young person, “you don’t need to tell people you’re in care, just make something up about where you live”. What she did was reinforce the stigma. Empowerment is key to giving young people a positive care identity.
I am now more confident in blending the personal and professional, not only because I know that it gives hope and insight into what care feels like but also because I don’t want to feel that I need to hide who I am anymore.
I refuse to be bullied for being care experienced and feel proud of my care identity. I feel much less afraid of judgement because I now feel empowered. I have taken back control of my life which was always controlled by others.
My carer, Wendy, wasn’t allowed to tell me that she loved me whilst I was in residential care, but I knew that she cared because she always welcomed me with a cuddle and she never forgot my birthday. Wendy is still in my life today and now that I am no longer in care, she is finally allowed to say, “I love you”.
Andy Thorpe, manager of Lothian Villa children’s house, once told me about a visit he had from a group of professionals who asked: “How do you get away with doing that?” when talking about the loved-based approach that Lothian Villa takes, to which Andy replied: “How do you get away with NOT doing that?”
If more children in care are loved, more children in care will thrive.
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