Western approaches

Last year’s winners of the Isabel Schwarz Travel Fellowship went
to Canada to study how children with behavioural problems are
treated, and how the low reoffending rates among native American
women have been achieved. Sarah Wellard reports.

You might not immediately see many similarities between Canada
and the UK. Yet for social workers keen to learn about what works
in social welfare, Canada offers a wealth of evidence-based
practice. And so it turned out that both of last year’s Isabel
Schwarz Travel Fellowships were awarded to practitioners wanting to
visit Canada.

For the past five years Suzie Alexander and Joanne Walthew at
South Birmingham Family Service Unit (SBFSU) have worked in local
primary schools with children with behavioural problems who are at
risk of being excluded.

A high proportion of children being referred to the project have
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Alexander says:
“Canada is a world leader in working with children with behaviour
problems and ADHD. We wanted to find out more about group
approaches and their emphasis on community solutions.”

Alexander and Walthew visited a hospital-based family centre in
Hamilton, an industrial suburb of Toronto. A multi-disciplinary
team including psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers
offer group and one-to-one work for children, their parents and a
peer mediation service.

Compared with the run-down and windswept council estate in Kings
Norton where SBFSU’s family centre is located, Hamilton appears
affluent. Alexander explains, “To drive around it seemed like quite
a nice middle class area. They didn’t seem to have large council
estates.” But the problems in the lives of children using the
centre, economic deprivation, family breakdown and violence, are
not so different to those in the Kings Norton.

The greater resources available to the Canadian team provide
opportunities for the kind of community support for children with
difficulties practitioners here can only dream about. For example,
they run a buddies scheme that involves an older student
befriending a child and sharing activities like going to the local
swimming pool and basketball courts. The SBFSU project runs a
similar scheme with local sixth formers, focused on supporting
children at school. Alexander and Walthew would like to extend it
to include leisure activities, but the nearest swimming pool is a
20-minute bus ride away and the neighbourhood boasts only a pub and
a couple of shops. Apart from the summer play scheme run by FSU,
there is nothing for local children to do outside school.

Alexander and Walthew were struck by the cultural differences in
how ADHD is interpreted. In Canada, it is seen primarily as a
medical condition while in the UK the emphasis is on social
explanations. Walthew says: “Here, a lot of judgement is bestowed
on parents. Professionals have a problem diagnosing it. It’s put
down to lack of parental boundaries.”

Alexander was surprised at the Canadians’ apparent readiness to
put children on medication. In the UK, Ritalin can only be
prescribed by a child psychiatrist but in Canada GPs are able to
put children on the drug without reference to a psychiatrist. She
says: “It was accepted that children took Ritalin. The view was
that children have an illness and need to take their medicine.
Nobody really knows the long-term consequences.”

Despite their reservations about the use of medication, Walthew
and Alexander were impressed by the model used by the Canadian team
in supporting children with behavioural difficulties. Walthew says:
“They won’t work with the child unless the parents agree to work
with them. They look at parenting skills and their impact on the
child. It’s something we want to incorporate into our work.”

The approach involves helping parents to see how they could
manage behaviour differently. Walthew says: “Sometimes it’s the
interactions among all the family members that cause difficulties.
The course is geared to looking at family life and how the child
fits into that without blaming the child.”

Alexander and Walthew believe there is a lot that the FSU
project can learn from the approaches being used in Hamilton.
Walthew says: “We have to work within the local environment but we
can still apply similar methods in our work.” Since their return
from Canada, they have been developing the group work they do in
primary schools to focus on issues that may be troubling children,
including racism, domestic violence and reformed families.

SBFSU have been asked by the local high school to set up a peer
mediation project to support children in years 7 and 8. The
programme will involve training for staff and groups of students.
They are also bringing in an external evaluator to examine the
effectiveness of their work. Alexander says: “There’s a lot of
evidence that the peer mediation programme really works. But it
will really help us getting the schools on board if we have
something on paper about our own work.”

The second Isabel Schwarz Travel Fellowship was awarded to
Yvonne McLachlan. For 20 years a senior social worker in criminal
justice in Renfrewshire, McLachlan has just returned from a trip to
Saskatchewan in the Canadian prairies finding out about the
rehabilitation of women offenders. She is interested in the
holistic approach being adopted for native American women, or
aboriginals, who are greatly over-represented in the criminal
justice system.

The story of the repression and exploitation of indigenous
Canadian tribes by European settlers is less well-known than that
of their counterparts in Australia and the US, but equally tragic.
As late as the 1970s, native American children were systematically
removed from their families and placed in foster homes and
children’s homes, ostensibly so that they could be provided with an
education. “Children were brought up without being rooted in their
own traditions. They suffered a lot of sexual and physical abuse.
The problems go back several generations. It’s a massive task to
undo that extent of harm,” explains McLachlan.

A decade ago conditions in Canadian prisons were in crisis,
culminating in a riot in the main women’s prison. In response to
pressure from aboriginal campaigners and voluntary groups, the
government introduced a major programme of penal reform aimed at
promoting women’s spiritual and emotional well-being. One step was
to close the prison where the riot occurred and open several open
prisons. McLachlan visited one of these, the Okima Wochi Healing
Lodge, located on a Nekaneet aboriginal reserve and housing minimum
and medium-risk women offenders.

McLachlan describes how every aspect of prison life is steeped
in tradition. Daily routines incorporate traditional ceremonies
such as the talking circle. This is presided over by a tribal elder
and everyone has the opportunity to talk about what they are
experiencing. Lemon grass is burnt in a fire in the centre of the
room, shaped like a tepee. A feather or pipe is passed around.
Another traditional ceremony is the sweat lodge, which is in a
canvas igloo. Herbs are burnt and the igloo becomes extremely

These unconventional methods seem to be achieving astonishing
results. Of 143 women who have passed through the lodge, only 9 to
13 per cent have been reconvicted. Compare this with the most
impressive results from the cognitive behavioural approaches
favoured in the UK, at best showing a reduction in subsequent
reoffending of around 30 to 40 per cent. McLachlan says: “The
figures certainly suggest it is an effective approach. But the
healing lodge would regard its aims as being much broader than just
to reduce offending behaviour. It is aiming to heal a wide range of
traumas and abuses.”

McLachlan also visited a high security prison. Here, the harsh
prison environment imposes many restrictions on the scope for
adopting a healing approach. Even so, aboriginal women have access
to spiritual elders and participate in traditional ceremonies such
as the sweat lodge. They can also take part in crafts including
beading and making dream catchers. She says: “Women told me how
this had helped to heal them and to turn round their offending

McLachlan also made contact with the Elizabeth Fry Society, a
penal reform group. The society’s mission is to befriend women
prisoners and act as advocates for them. Workers from the society
visit prisoners regularly in each of Canada’s 11 women’s prisons,
and assist them in dealing with complaints and grievances.
McLachlan explains: “The director, Kim Pate, meets each of the
federally sentenced women twice a year. When she speaks out, she is
really able to speak on behalf of those women.”

McLachlan believes there are important lessons to be learned
from the Canadian experience. She points to parallels between the
traumas suffered by aboriginals and the life experiences of many of
the women in our criminal justice system. “They are people who have
experienced very damaging life experiences. Many are people who
have been through our child care system. We have to take
responsibility for that.”

McLachlan has recently begun working for the Cognitive Centre
Foundation, based in Wales, which aims to develop effective
practice and provides training, consultancy and evaluation for a
range of professions including social work, probation, and the
prison service. She hopes to work with Canadian colleagues in
developing community-based alternatives to custody for women
offenders. “We need to go beyond cognitive behavioural programmes
that focus on addressing offending behaviour, but don’t necessarily
make a person feel happier,” she says.

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