For decades, I have argued passionately and publically that every child has the right to be loved. For those children and young people who grow up in care, love should not only frame their daily experiences, it’s also an essential component of their recovery from trauma and their journey to becoming loving and productive adults. This position has formed a cornerstone of the work that SIRCC and now CELCIS have undertaken to transform the attitudes and understanding of practitioners, politicians and the public. This is a powerful and important message that we know can engage and enthuse people.
This simple truth that reflects so clearly our shared aspiration for all children must not, however, allow us to be blinded to the complexity of translating the message into action. Bubbling beneath the surface of any interaction between children and adults who are not related to them, lurk anxieties about abuse and allegations. This has contributed to the development of policies and procedures that inhibit and constrain the possibility of adults confidently enacting and expressing their love for the children or young people in their care.
Professionalism has been defined in part as maintaining appropriate boundaries and distance –drawing on values from medicine and the law – rather than creating our own understanding of professionalism as the conscious use of ourselves. Many practitioners have been encouraged to minimise the importance of relationships they develop with children and a willingness to sustain relationships beyond a particular placement or into adulthood has been viewed with suspicion. These are all very real obstacles to the creation of genuine loving relationships where children feel claimed and can discover the capacity to trust and develop. We certainly need to find a way to dismantle these barriers and create an environment where love can flourish. Within Scotland, legislation, policy and practice is shifting and we are now moving towards a professionalism that is defined by passion and commitment expressed through the transparent and responsible use of relationships.
Will this be enough? Almost certainly not. Is it possible to require residential workers or foster carers to love the children they look after? Can we include it in job descriptions? Probably not. I would, however, argue that we need to redefine our understanding of the work to encompass the possibility, indeed expectation, that every child will have someone, closely and directly involved in their everyday life, who loves them in a real and genuine way. Often there is a chemistry between a particular adult and child that provides the basis for the development of such a loving warm relationship. Being given permission to love and having support to survive the inevitable testing may be enough. Sometimes, however, a child proves very difficult to love and there is no such obvious connection. What then? How is it possible to ensure that no child experiences the bleakness of growing up in a place where they are unloved? Perhaps we need greater clarity about what love means in this context. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and writer about the power and importance of love offers us some clues.
Love is the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's growth... Love is as love does. Love is an act of will -- namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.
Loving the unlovable child is a choice – not an easy one but a necessary one for that child’s chance to become lovable. We need to be relentless in our determination to find the right person for every child, who can make that choice to love them and stick by them regardless of rejection or challenge.
So is love enough? Unfortunately again the answer has to be ‘no’. It is also essential to understand the impact of the very difficult experiences children have endured often before they had the words to describe them. We now know so much about the impact of neglect and trauma on the developing brain and body and the long-term health consequences of failing to address this. We can also make sense of the sometimes challenging behaviours of children who have to be cared for outside their families. This requires proper training and support for carers and workers. I have known so many loving adults who describe the transformational impact of training and consultancy on their capacity to understand the meaning of children’s experiences and behaviour. We need to stop constructing the debate as though love and learning cannot exist in the same person. Our children deserve the best- adults who can love them and care for them but who have demonstrated that they are knowledgeable and skilled too.
We must strive for a synthesis of heart and head. This is a major challenge for Scotland’s foster carers and residential workers but anything less means we will yet again fail those children who have already been let down by adults who should have cared for them. It will not be easy and we must embrace the complexity of the task rather than being lured by simplistic solutions or avoiding the struggle altogether. I for one believe we will meet that challenge and look forward to working alongside colleagues in CELCIS and throughout Scotland to translate our dream into reality.
A special issue of the Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care opens up a responsible and healthy discussion on love in professional practice, exploring the importance of love in children's lives and the complexity of what this means in a professional context.