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The power of caring relationships

Thursday 29 September

relationships blog.jpgWho Cares, an STV documentary asked what is life like as a looked after child in Scotland?  Here, I share my own reflections on this powerful portrayal of the lives and experiences of some of Scotland’s care experienced young people.   

At times it made for uncomfortable viewing - even, or particularly, for those of us who have worked with care experienced young people  for many years and are sadly all too familiar with some of their harrowing life stories.

But, what I was reassured by was how many of the young people had gone on to overcome some huge challenges and begin to make a real success of their lives. Their testimonies are inspiring for those who work in and around the care system and most importantly, for other care experienced young people too. Their stories demonstrated that while the care system isn’t perfect by any means, with ongoing support and caring relationships sustained over time, the system can and does support young people through extremely challenging times to be safe, secure and thrive.

We know these stories are not unique, but they’re not common either. While far too many looked after young people experience disrupted care, and care leavers continue to experience poorer outcomes, we know that these experiences and outcomes are not inevitable.

Is love enough?

The programme called for a new system based on love.

Yes, love is fundamental. And yes, we need a care system that loves our children and young people. But many children who come into our care system are loved by their parents and families but who, due to a range of often complex, personal issues, find caring for their children is too difficult or overwhelming.

The impact of early childhood neglect, rejection and trauma, and its impact and influence on things like attachment, development of resilience, and of a secure identity is complex and inter-related. And there really are no easy answers.

So, perhaps ‘love’ in itself is too simplistic.

One of the key messages I took from the programme was the importance of relationships that workers and carers were able to form with young people – genuine caring relationships sustained over time which are critical to helping young people feel they belong and are safe. It’s about having the sense that someone deeply cares about you, will not give up on you and will stick by your side. The sorts of things most of us take for granted in our own families.  And of course to feel loved.

It’s about genuine and caring relationships

I’ve recently completed a small-scale research study looking at how we encourage and support young people to stay longer in care, to have that Continuing Care that we’ve just legislated for here in Scotland.

Care workers were unequivocal in their responses – it’s all about relationships, relationships, relationships in and beyond care – and genuinely caring and actively demonstrating that every single day. The key markers for workers and carers were:

  • Being supported and encouraged to see beyond the technical and procedural care of children
  • Being able to emotionally claim young people and commit to those relationships
  • Having confidence that the ‘system’ wasn’t going to move these young people on just because of their age or stage

I was left in no doubt from my research that what these workers were offering was a tangible sense of connection and belonging – where young people felt secure - and while they didn’t necessarily say the words, these workers had loving caring relationships with their young people.

For me, that’s important. Because, if we try and legislate for love, to instruct love, to train people to love, to measure love, to capture it in a care plan or outcome agreement, then we are in danger of missing the point and getting it horribly wrong.

What we’re talking about doesn’t fit easily into a tick box. So I echo some of the questions that emerged from the Who Cares programme: How do we create a care system in which love (whether we call it that or not) can grow, and flourish, and be felt and experienced; which offers all of our looked after children and young people, genuine, sustained caring relationships, throughout and beyond their time in care. We have the legislation, the policy, the guidance and the practice evidence - the question for the ‘system’ is how we implement those fully to guide our daily practice for every child in our care.

Let’s build on relationships and what’s working

For the last 15-20 years or so, there has been a general acceptance of managerial approaches and of procedure and risk-averse practice that will have helped to protect and keep children and young people safe. But it hasn’t been the most helpful environment to nurture relationships and talk about love in the care system.

I’m inspired every day by the dedication of workers and carers who are committed to their young people, who care deeply about them, who always go the extra mile, and who care for them with as much affection as their own children. We know there are lots of young people who already do feel safe, secure and connected in their foster families and care homes.

And that experience must be available to every child and young person we care for.

Listening and learning from the copious research on trauma, attachment, resilience, emotional wellbeing and relationships has helped us to stop and remind ourselves of what really matters to children and young people.

It has helped us to reclaim and reassert the importance of the power of genuine caring relationships to change lives – positive relationships are the essential feature of effective interventions and relationships matter more than any programme or system. But professional caring relationships need to be enabled and supported to develop – for example, by ensuring that we reduce the instability in the care system which sees young people move around far too frequently. And, by ensuring our carers and workers are supported to undertake what can be hugely emotionally challenging work. Young people and their carers can only build meaningful trusting relationships if they’re given the time and support to do so. 

Removing obstacles to get evidence into practice can make all the difference

The more we learn from research around trauma, attachment, and relationships, and crucially from listening to the voices of young people, the more we understand the ways that the system and our core practice have to change and develop.

What we need to focus on now is getting evidence into practice, and getting practice into evidence. Our care system must be driven by this knowledge, rather than by any artificial constructs of bureaucracy and procedure, where artificial boundaries and transitions can be inbuilt and which can act as obstacles to developing caring relationships. At CELCIS, and across the sector, we collectively work day in, day out to address this very critical challenge.

Removing procedural and cultural barriers, and implementing what we know consistently and meaningfully, for every child and young person across every care setting is the challenge. As big a challenge as it may be, it’s nonetheless absolutely vital if we want all of our young people to develop healthy, nurturing relationships, and experience the loving care that they deserve.



Author: Kenny McGhee

Please add a comment

Posted by Thatsmyname on
I agree with everything you say, love is without doubt the key to improving the childhoods of children in care. This message needs to get to family placement teams though. As a foster carer I have been criticised for loving too much and 'getting emotionally involved' with the children who live with us. I consider I would not be doing my job properly if I wasn't loving and emotionally attached to these children but the system doesn't seem to recognise this.
Posted by Kenny on
Thanks very much for taking time to read the blog and leave your comment. I think it's vital that carers are enabled to commit emotionally to children in their care - it's a human task, we can't do it properly without having an emotional connection - however, we need to ensure care placements and carers are fully supported to carry out what can be a very challenging and complex task. Placement stability is critical and that means better matching, support and longer-term care planning from the outset, enabling carers and children to commit to each other.
Posted by Jim Lyon on
Kenny you have put a very important and valuable context to the questions being raised in the programme which is honest and reflective. I believe you are absolutely correct in saying that love is perhaps too simplistic on its own while not dismissing its core essence. Research also shows that the older the young person is when received into care, for example, in a children's house, then very often the less chance there is of the carers being able to establish trusting relationships with those young people, often due to years of learned behaviour at home and an inability to form trusting relationships with adults, many of whom have been letting them down for much of their lives. You are also correct in saying that we need to create homes where children live and employees come to care (and love) and raise children and young people, not workplaces where children stay. Also that the key is the establishment of caring, trusting, supportive, and of course, loving relationships.
Posted by Kenny on
Hi Jim
Thanks for your response I think your sentence the 'need to create homes where children live and employees come to care (and love) and raise children and young people, not workplaces where children stay' really captures the essence of the debate. We need to work hard on creating 'enabling contexts' for carers - ensuring they have the knowledge, skills and importantly the emotional support and input to develop, nurture and sustain positive healing relationships over time. Whilst there are many challenges still out there, I think this is a really exciting time with opportunities for real culture (and practice) change across the care sector.
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