Commitment must be matched by deeds, not just words

20 June 2018

Kenny McGhee is the Throughcare and Aftercare Lead at CELCIS. Here he continues the conversation started in Gordon Main’s recent blog Commitment, like love, is not enough.


"For some people, the emotional content of the work of residential child care can be at times overwhelming and committing emotionally to a healing therapeutic relationship can become an emotional risk for staff, particularly given the uncertainty over their future." (Steckley 2010)

In Gordon Main’s recent blog he touches on some really important issues to think about when considering how to improve the care experiences of children and young people. Like Gordon, these issues have troubled me for many years and their current re-surfacing as part of an emerging national narrative is both welcome and frankly long overdue.

We know that children and young people have a basic need to be claimed especially when a return to their family has been discounted (SCIE/NICE, 2010). Therefore, helping young people develop a sense of ‘felt security’ (Cashmore and Paxman, 2006) is fundamental to recovery and emotional wellbeing.

This was a point reinforced by Michael Tarren-Sweeney in his illuminating keynote address to the ‘Changing the Narrative’ conference held in Glasgow in the autumn of last year. He challenged us by asserting that, despite our best intentions, the State continues to be a poor substitute parent across the developed world. He specifically talked about the reverberating impact of impermanence within the care system, and the impact of placement instability on young people’s mental health. Whilst this was perhaps an uncomfortable home truth, it is one that needs re-stating.

The system needs to align with needs

When talking to workers and carers on the implementation of Continuing Care, one of the recurring themes which causes great frustration and anxiety is not around their personal or professional commitment as individual workers or carers, but more how the ‘system’ so often works against this.

Our care system is by design and definition bureaucratic and procedural. Processes and services tend to be built around chronological thresholds and constructs, covering individual care planning as well as service registration, which can consequently impact heavily on funding decisions and priorities.

When is a young person ready?

This is incongruous with what we know about the development of children and young people. It’s particularly problematic for care experienced young people as they approach key legislative age triggers such as 16, 18 or 21, and runs counter to the core and spirit of continuing care.

I have yet to meet a colleague or carer who believes that their own children are ready to make ill prepared and unsupported moves at such a young age to (what we wrongly describe as) ‘independence’.

In fact they describe their own children’s need for predictability, commitment and ‘felt security’ as even more important as they begin to take steps into the adult world. And, they know that over the coming years, as their kids begin to venture off perhaps to college or University, or into the world of work and adult relationships, they’ll need more emotional, practical and yes – financial support, not less.

But they also make those caring commitments, these emotional and financial investments, based on a certain predictability about the future.

It’s hard to ‘claim’ young people when you have no control

The issue raised with me frequently by workers and carers is that there’s often little or no ‘control’ or influence over when or how a placement will end; little or no control over how and when their funding and support will be cut (remember young adults tend to need more, not less); and therefore their ability to claim young people and offer that unconditional commitment that we would all take for granted as the norm, is compromised. As Laura Steckley’s quote at the start of this blog says, the inbuilt uncertainty over their future, and the emotional risks to staff and carers can inhibit this claiming.

When interviewing residential staff as part of a research project into continuing care, they echoed this very point – wanting to reach out and claim, to give their teenagers a sense of “felt security“ into adulthood but knowing that the chronological and bureaucratic triggers in-built into the system too often work against that. As one said, “I find that really challenging”.

Gordon’s blog opened with a quote by Mary Dozier saying what children need most is the knowledge that their parents are committed to them. I would add that this means parenting not just to late teens, but well into adulthood too.

As a start we need our policies, regulations and associated registrations for care providers to align at least with the Children and Young People (Scot) Act 2014, particularly in relation to Part 11 (Continuing Care). The mixed messages inherent in having different age triggers as gateways, or inhibitors to care and support, don’t take account of the developmental needs of young adults, particularly those who carry the burden of unresolved childhood trauma

Commitment into adulthood

We need to ensure our work in and around the permanence planning agenda has this commitment into adulthood not just the legal age cut-offs that too often inform practice at the moment. We need to resolve, align and remove the bureaucratic and procedural constructs which fuel the inbuilt impermanence that Tarren-Sweeney talks about. In doing so we will be better able to create the context whereby residential carers and foster carers can confidently predict that they can provide that enduring commitment to their young people, to nurture and support them into adulthood, rather than prepare them simply (and inadequately) for ‘leaving care’ or ‘independence’.

And we need to resource it.

We have some great examples in Scotland, but these still tend to be the exception rather than the norm, and that’s simply not good enough for those young people whose need for love, security, and commitment go unmet.

Deeds not words

Scotland’s has a rightful focus on early intervention, on early routes to permanence where this is assessed as the best option for a child or young person. Our aspiration to be the best place to grow up, must also include at its very heart, a commitment to support our care experienced young people into adulthood.

This commitment must be matched by deeds, not just words. These are not either/or decisions.

Impermanence and unpredictability affects carers too. If we really want our care experienced young people to have a sense of ‘felt security’ - and yes, feel loved - we first need to enable and support our carers to commit wholeheartedly for the long term regardless of placement type or setting.

Our carers and our children and young people deserve no less.

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