Role – models

Finsbury Park in London has become associated with the activities
of its controversial mosque. But it deserves to be better known for
a project that helps parents raise their children.

Chance UK started in 1995 as a crime prevention initiative aimed at
five to 11 year olds in the boroughs of Hackney and Islington. Each
child referred to the project by their school, social services or
the police because of their behaviour was offered a mentor for 12
months.

This work continues and the organisation sees about 100 children a
year. In June 2003 it broadened its scope to become the first
agency in the UK to offer its clients’ parents their own mentor.
Its ParentPlus scheme is funded by a £140,000 grant over three
years from the Department for Education and Skills. Over the next
year, as long as it obtains the necessary funding, it hopes to
replicate its work in three or four projects in other parts of the
UK.

The charity’s office is based in the London Fashion Centre on Font
Hill Road, two floors above a shoe shop promising “All-leather
trainers for £10″. Chief executive Gracia McGrath says the
motivation behind ParentPlus is simple: “It became clear that a lot
of difficulties children had were because of their chaotic
lifestyles at home.”

Some parents had also inquired about having their own mentor after
seeing the positive impact mentoring had on their child’s
behaviour.

To become a parent mentor, volunteers must have professional
experience of working with children and their families and,
ideally, have their own children. McGrath is adamant that mentors
should not be using the position to try to work out issues from
their own childhood.

The programme fits with the government’s push for parents to take
greater responsibility for their children’s behaviour, most notably
through parenting classes and parenting orders. However, McGrath
argues that supporting a parent in their home is more effective
than teaching them in a classroom: “A mentor is a facilitator who
can bring out the best in the parent. We are trying to enhance the
parent rather than lecture them.”

So far 10 of the 21 parents who started ParentPlus have completed
the scheme. They received between two and four hours’ support a
week over a three-month period. ParentPlus programme manager Kate
Lawton has trained 23 volunteers to be parent mentors – some of
whom are working with their second or third parents – and is always
looking for more volunteers.

PARENT
Pauline Blake* is 48 and from Islington. She smiles broadly when
she says her graduation certificate for completing ParentPlus is on
display in her living room: “It’s in the front of the unit, so you
can see it.” She has two adult children, aged 28 and 22, and a
12-year-old son, Reece,* who has attended Chance UK since last
February. “He would get in a lot of scrapes at school and even if
it wasn’t his fault he used to be blamed for it.”

Blake would wake up with a headache because she was so upset about
Reece’s disruptive behaviour. He didn’t listen to her and they were
not close. “I felt like I was fighting a losing battle,” she
says.

A few months after Reece had been going to Chance UK Blake was
offered her own mentor. She jumped at the chance because of the
positive effect mentoring was having on her son. “I wanted to get
my peace of mind back. I wanted to see if they could help me cope
with Reece.” Blake was matched with her mentor, Comfort Nkrumah,
herself a parent of two. Initially, Blake held back from opening up
to Nkrumah, but after a couple of weeks she felt she could confide
in her. “I felt like we had known each other for years. It was like
a weight coming off my shoulders,” she says.

Blake worked hard with Nkrumah to establish boundaries for Reece at
his bedtime, the time he came home from playing outside and his
homework. At first Blake struggled as Reece was reluctant to abide
by the new rules. So she sat him down and explained why they were
necessary. However, he still came home late and he was banned from
going out for a week. Blake says: “I felt good because I was in
charge, not him. In the past he was going on like he was the mum
and I was the son.”

Blake describes Nkrumah as a “godsend” and recommends mentoring as
a way for other parents to improve their family’s life. Now she
feels she and Reece have a much improved relationship and the whole
family gets on better. Blake says: “In the past I would open the
door and think ‘Oh no, I have to come back to this miserable house
again’. Now I open it and feel happy.”

MENTOR

When she was pregnant with her second child last spring,
32-year-old Katja Ramharter saw an advert for Chance UK in a shop
window in Hackney. With a background in child protection, she was
training to be a family therapist and wanted more practical
experience working with children and their families. Ramharter
completed ParentPlus’s training and in December became a mentor to
Karen Smyth,* a mother of two girls aged two and four, and
nine-year-old James* who attends the scheme.

Ramharter says her work with Smyth was initially constructive and
she was pleased with what her client wanted to achieve. “At the
first session Karen was ambitious and focused and wanted to create
a behavioural chart for James. I was impressed at how good she was
at coming up with achievable goals for him.”

They devised three goals for each member of Smyth’s family during
the mentoring period. But on Ramharter’s second pre-arranged visit
Smyth was not at home and she only attended three out of six
sessions before deciding to drop out of the initiative. Ramharter
says: “It is difficult for Karen at the moment and, although she
really wants to make some changes, it is might not be the right
time yet.”

Despite the hiccup, Ramharter is not dissuaded from the benefits of
parent mentoring for those mothers and fathers who need help. And
if Smyth decided to request a mentor in the future, she would
happily become involved again.

For Ramharter, the most significant aspect of parent mentoring is
that it is the mentor’s choice to be involved. “It is very positive
for parents to know you are there voluntarily and you are happy to
spend time with them,” she says. “You haven’t got a statutory
agenda in any shape or form.”

Her involvement with ParentPlus – as well as being a parent – has
also influenced Ramharter’s working practice as a family support
worker at the Dalston Youth Project which works with young
offenders and those at risk of exclusion from school. She says: “I
have become much softer. When I meet someone who is on their own
and whose children may have behavioural problems I just have the
utmost respect for them.” CC

*Not their real names

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