Direct work with children takes up a small part of my working week, but it can be the most rewarding part, and the most important.
Grace Allen* is an eight-year-old girl of mixed heritage whose parents are poly-drug users. She is staying with her grandmother until a long-term foster family can be found. While living at home she had to keep a lot of secrets and she still replies “fine” or “I don’t know” when asked questions about her parents or her feelings. But she loves drawing pictures.
This week she drew an ice cream van. I asked her what flavour she would have. She said we couldn’t buy one because the ice cream van was moving. “Where is it going?” I asked. She said she didn’t know, and looked sad.
To me, it seemed Grace was describing herself: about to move, but not knowing where. I said it was sad, because the ice cream van looked lovely, it must be hard not to know where it is going. Grace nodded and later, when we were talking directly about foster care, I asked her whether she was scared or sad about going. For the first time she told me how worried and confused she felt.
Social workers have a duty to find out a child’s wishes and feelings and to assess their progress and their relationships. Using play, art or stories allows us to speak a language the child understands and to go at their pace. It can be a great relief to the child to express their feelings and have them accepted.
Charlie Shaw*, seven, lives at home with his single mother. He has disturbed behaviour, including soiling and running away. He wanted to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood. As he painstakingly wrote out the letters and asked for spellings, he wrote how the wolf had attacked Little Red Riding Hood and then came back pretending to be a policeman. When her mother let him in, he gobbled them both up all over again. Charlie’s mother explained that this was just what her ex-husband had done when Charlie was two. She had thought he was too young to remember.
Using the story allowed Charlie to distance himself and talk about what happened in a safe way. It also created an amazingly powerful metaphor, being eaten by a wolf, to describe how he felt. It doesn’t constitute evidence; play or art work should be used cautiously to “diagnose” abuse, but it does give an understanding of how it feels to be this child.
It is important to ask questions that bring out the story or the feelings behind it. Caroline Levens,* 14, moulded a blob of Blu-tack on the desk into a small pot. I asked her how it would feel to be the pot. She said: “I am very fragile. People keep throwing me around and then I break into lots of pieces.”
Clea Barry is a child protection worker.
* Names have been changed