Feeling the love: how the staff and teenagers of one children's home are living more like a family during lockdown
Few teenagers anywhere would choose to be separated from their friends for three months.
For many looked-after children, that isolation is compounded by separation from family too.
But for the teenagers of Northern Lights residential care home, lockdown has had unexpected upsides. It seems to have made them feel more loved.
The home in Inverness houses five teenagers aged between 15 and 17, and staff there have made the unusual move of locking down for seven days at a time with the young people, instead of sticking to their normal 12- and 24-hour shift pattern.
This cohabitation, which for one staff member has meant leaving her two-year-old daughter at home, has allowed for a closer connection between adults and children.
For one young man, it may even prove to be a turning point. Prior to lockdown, staff at the Barnardo’s home had been trying to get him to apply for college for a year without success.
“But having that break away from people in the community who were a bit of a negative influence on him has given him more time to reflect and he’s applied for college again,” explains Lorna Macdonald, a senior project worker at the home. “He’s talking more positively about his future, talking more about staying with us long term until he’s ready to leave.
“And I think that’s because he’s had that more intensive attention and nurture from the staff team.”
Carol-Ann Crossan Guruge, the team manager (and the mother of the two-year-old), says that, crucially, the lockdown has created an opportunity to “show them that we care”.
“I think it’s massive that the young people see us leaving our families behind to be with them,” she says. “It makes them feel ‘yeah, I am important because they wouldn’t do that, they don’t have to do that’.
“I think we’d all agree that when working with children who are looked after, a lot of the time young people will say, ‘you don’t care, you get paid to care’. I think we’ve shown that actually we do care.”
Without any of the usual distractions, adults and young people have been doing more together. The garden now sports freshly painted tyres and pallets. The staff projector, used for work presentations, is being used to create a movie screen on the lounge wall. There have been barbecues and karaoke nights in the garden, belting out Meatloaf’s greatest hits beneath the Highland sky. They’ve made TikTok videos. They’ve gone on endless walks (which doesn’t always impress the teenagers).
The young people were asked in advance how they would feel about the shift pattern changing and liked the idea. Six staff are covering lockdown, in two groups of three at a time (with eight other staff unable to participate for personal reasons).
Some homes have arranged for some children to return to their family home during the pandemic. At Northern Lights, the team considered all options, and were keen that the young people had a choice about where they wanted to be, but the teenagers expressed a desire to stay at the home. “Our young people view our service as their home and may not have family to return too,” adds Crossan Guruge.
It meant a major change for the staff, but she has no regrets: “A lot of people initially said, ‘that must be really difficult’ or ‘wow, that’s a huge commitment, it’s pressure’.
“Well, I can only speak for myself, but it’s actually not. We’ve tried really hard to make sure our young people feel safe, secure, loved and just nurtured. With all their friends locking down with their families, why should our young people not have that experience?
“I suppose that’s what the Care Review was about, showing young people that they’re loved.
“I think we would all agree that since we’ve gone into lockdown, it’s felt like a normal home. It’s felt safe.”
Unfortunately, it’s not been like that for all looked-after children. Duncan Dunlop, chief executive of the charity Who Cares? Scotland, says the picture varies. For some, such as those in foster care, the pattern of support won’t have changed very much. Others have felt better supported than before, with examples of “incredible and innovative practice happening across Scotland”.
Too many care-experienced children and young people, however, have had their trauma exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Who Cares? Scotland has compiled two reports on lockdown so far, which detail the ways in which care-experienced people are struggling.
As one report notes: “The impact of limiting contact with friends and family or being forced to move children and young people across different placements may be necessary for now, but with what we understand about stability and relationships, it could have significant detrimental impact later on for many who are currently in care. This is a challenge that the whole sector is grappling with, amidst huge staff shortages and limited specialist guidance.”
The report reveals that some children’s care homes have closed altogether.
“It’s shown the precariousness of the system,” says Dunlop. “There are instances where local authorities haven’t been able to maintain a care home because they can’t staff it.”
Going home to parents from residential care during lockdown may be positive for some children but not for others: “There are instances of young people staying with their families during lockdown where previously they were only allowed to go for a weekend and now they are there 10 weeks and it’s going OK,” he says. “The system was getting in the way.”
In other instances, though, young people who have moved back in with parents during lockdown don’t want it to be permanent and worry they won’t get their residential placement back afterwards.
He is not surprised that the experience of Northern Lights locking down for seven days at a time has proved positive: “Anything between 16 and 30 staff would work in a children’s home at any one time. That’s a heck of a lot of people to be your parent.
“What children need is one permanent, solid, loving relationship, but due to employment law, the system is too often designed to accommodate workers’ rights which end up competing with children’s rights.”
Dunlop is deeply concerned about those who are no longer officially “looked after” and the “brutal isolation” that care-experienced people are feeling at present.
“Some of them are really struggling. They are on their own and it shows the precariousness of the support around them.”
Dunlop hopes that after COVID-19, there will be the will to bring about fundamental change to the way these children and young people are supported: “This is something we could easily change. It’s something we could overcome. If we put the energy, time and money we put into COVID into transforming care, we’d solve it.”
The Care Review, published in February, drew on 5,500 interviews with care-experienced people and staff in the sector, and found that the care system was “fractured, bureaucratic and unfeeling”. It exposed the tendency for children to be “pushed” around the “legislative labyrinth”. The review called for a new unified children’s care service based around a 10-year plan written by all the services involved in looking after the 15,000 children currently in care. As organisations like Who Cares? have been saying for years the missing ingredient, all too often, is love.
The First Minister accepted the review’s recommendations. But that was before coronavirus. Last week, the chair of the review, Fiona Duncan, accepted the role of chairing the oversight body tasked with holding to account those responsible for implementing the called-for changes. Has the COVID crisis made their job, and hers, harder?
Once the lockdown lifts, the public finances will be more depleted than before, but the Care Review found the money is there, it’s just not in the right places: “It’s about moving it and introducing new approaches,” she says.
As for the way services are delivered, responding to the pandemic has unleashed new dynamism. “It’s a different starting point,” says Duncan. She highlights the way in which care packages have been delivered to families in need in a more kind and compassionate way. There have also been fewer bureaucratic hoops.
“Where I’m feeling optimistic is that there are things being done where previously we said ‘that can’t be done’. A lot of services have changed shape quite radically and that has to be a starting point. I’d see that as an opportunity.
“The other thing that feels different to me is that everyone I know feels this is difficult and that creates an empathy and understanding that, historically, parts of the system didn’t show. What the system was doing was delivering its part of the system instead of seeing the real person.”
At Northern Lights, the teenagers already had good relationships with the staff, but they have deepened during lockdown. Project worker Richard Longden says he has learned small things about the young people he didn’t know before. “You’re with them seven days and they might have one bad day, but you’re able to settle them more and understand them more. And likewise they’re more relaxed with us.”
“Our young people tend to be quite affectionate with us,” says Crossan Guruge. “But what we’ve found with one of our young people specifically is that instead of seeking out our comfort for attention or because she’s upset, she’ll just come and sit on the couch with you and cuddle into you. Or she’ll sit near you. It’s just what you would do with your family or friends.
“I think that’s really good. Our young people a lot of the time haven’t really been shown affection or known that feeling of being comforted. We’re showing that, so then they can take that on with them when they grow up.”
Senior project worker Ruth Hersee nods. “For looked-after children it’s so much harder to build up a relationship quickly because they’re so distrusting of people. I do think they seem a lot closer and more affectionate.”
One of the teenagers is 15-year-old Poppy, who says it’s “more like a family” since lockdown began. Do you get sick of us, Poppy? someone asks. Yes, she comments, deadpan, but also admits she’ll miss them when the normal shift pattern returns.
But she must still contend with the separation from her family. Poppy says not being able to see them is “a big thing”. The young people are used to seeing their families both at the residential home and in the family home. Some see their relatives every weekend and go home for holidays, so the length of separation has been exceptionally tough.
Poppy says it’s the hardest part.
It will end eventually and the old ways of doing things will resume. But can the more family-like atmosphere be preserved? The staff intend to carry on coming downstairs in the mornings in their pyjamas, as they have done for the past nine weeks, but beyond that it’s hard to say.
Whatever comes afterwards, Crossan Guruge feels their approach has been successful. “We have found our young people have been more settled and content during a period which is extremely scary for all,” she says. She points in evidence to the comments they’ve had from the teenagers themselves. One said that the home now felt more like foster care than residential care. Another said: “Thank you for everything you do. I am so lucky to have you all in my life. Somehow you make care feel like a home.”
“We’ve had loads of messages like that,” she says. “I think we’ve got a good group of young people, but I think us doing this has helped them.”