Dr Christine Puckering from Mellow Parenting tells the story of a family, and how trauma informed care can foster better relationships.
Harriet* was terrified, that like her first child, her new baby, Sam*, would be taken away and adopted. During a Mellow Babies group, she spent some time looking back at her childhood. Here, she was able to talk about the emotional and sexual abuse she suffered from her father in her childhood, and also that her mother had not supported her when she disclosed abuse. Her father never acknowledged the abuse and he served a custodial sentence for his crime.
When she became pregnant, her partner refused to support her and the baby was removed from her care because of fears she would be unable to protect him from her father and mother. Despite all her efforts to co-operate with services, he was adopted. Pregnant with her second baby, there was a pre-birth assessment and conference, and Sam was put on the child protection register at birth, living with Harriet, but with no contact between him and his maternal grandparents. At this stage, she was living with a new partner and his family.
Harriet and Sam came to the Mellow Babies group. Harriet was very anxious about the outcome for her new baby, but was willing to do whatever it took to keep him in her care. She thrived on the strengths-based video feedback element of the programme, becoming a bit of an expert in helping other mums to see how they connected with their babies. She was able to support another mother in the group whose child was fostered, saying:
“I know how that feels. I have been there”. Her commitment was such that she never missed a group even though she was very unwell one week.
By the end of the group, all child protection measures had been lifted, and she was preparing to start studying to become a nurse. Her social worker was able to tell her that had she seen Harriet’s capacity to change and to protect her child, there was a good chance that her first child might still be at home with her. Harriet said about the group:
“You believed in me so I believed in myself”.
What is Mellow Parenting?
Mellow Parenting is a charity that is committed to working with the least privileged families in society. The groups are intensive and last 14 weeks, with parents and children both attending for one full day a week. Part of the day involves parents reflecting on their own history and lives, while their children are in a children’s group. Over a shared meal, parents, staff and children can relax and chat. The children, some of whom have never been able to sit long enough at a table to eat, or who are faddy and fussy about food, will start to enjoy a social meal.
With the children back in the children’s group, parents have a chance to discuss child development, managing feelings, and sensitive discipline. Strengths-based video feedback on the parents with their own child allows parents to see that they are not 'all bad' and to see what works with their child. There is a chance to learn from other parents how they handle tricky situations, like going to the supermarket or hair washing.
Parents then take home 'homework' to practice new skills and report the following week.
We have evidence that the groups improve parental wellbeing, reduce adverse parenting, and improve children’s language and general development. We run separate groups for mums and dads, as research suggests that mums get less benefit from a mixed group and both mums and dads have shared that they feel more comfortable to speak openly in a single gender group.
Two factors made a difference in the outcomes for this family. The first was that cooperation between statutory and a third sector organisation, Mellow Parenting, led to great commitment and insight for a mother and a child safely reared in a loving family. The second factor is that given an understanding of the effects of early trauma, services can become less judgemental about parents, and avoid making assumptions or replicating the adverse experiences parents already carry with them. Sensitivity to parents can never trump child protection, but where parents are functioning poorly, we can stop to ask why.
Harriet was described as possibly having a learning disability by the health visitor and social workers who referred her, but a combination of trauma, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression were a lethal cocktail that served to cloud her presentation. Being trauma-informed can make us all more able to work effectively with each other.
*Names have been changed within this article to protect identities.
Dr Christine Puckering is a Mellow Consultant at Mellow Parenting