Teenage turnaround

    Amid the widespread concern about this country’s high rate of
    teenage pregnancies, the work carried out by practitioners to
    improve the parenting skills of teenage parents is often
    overlooked. Here, Mike George talks to Mary Brady about a young
    woman learning to accept her new responsibilities.

    Prejudice and facts often get inextricably mingled when
    politicians talk about teenage pregnancies. It’s stated or implied
    that this represents a serious problem for society, for young
    people and for their children. Of course, this can be true. But
    what frequently gets left out of the discussion is the role of
    social care agency staff, who can at times help young people
    transform adversity into triumph.

    From very unpromising beginnings, Mary Brady, senior
    practitioner in a children and families team, has achieved just
    that in her work with Carrie Amis (not her real name), although
    both she and her colleagues have had to manage some very risky
    situations along the way.

    Amis, who is now in her late teens, became pregnant at a young
    age, having already spent some years truanting, absconding, using
    alcohol and drugs, being physically and verbally abusive to peers
    and her mother, and engaging in petty offending. As an adolescent
    she had been accommodated with specialist foster carers because her
    mother had been unable to cope with her or her older sister’s
    behaviour. By this time her father was absent, though before he
    left he abused alcohol and was physically and verbally abusive
    towards her mother.

    Despite the efforts of Brady’s colleagues they had been unable
    to help Amis to improve her behaviour or risky lifestyle. Then she
    became pregnant with an older partner who abused drugs and who had
    a mental health problem. Her mother, who by now had a new partner,
    offered to help, but this was rejected.

    Her son was born with a serious medical condition and a physical
    disability. Following an assessment and a child protection
    conference, a child protection plan was produced, with Brady being
    the key social worker. But again, despite Brady’s efforts, Amis
    would not co-operate with the protection plan and resisted all
    efforts to advise and assist her.

    Then she moved in with the birth father and Brady became
    extremely concerned. “I eventually tracked her down. I was
    assertive and clear, and said in very straightforward terms that I
    was her social worker, that I wasn’t there to take her child away,
    but that this would happen if they were unable to prove to me that
    they could look after the baby and follow the child protection
    plan,” she says.

    But despite this, Amis continued with the lifestyle which was
    putting her child at risk. So after consulting with her managers
    Brady saw her and told her that the council was accommodating her
    child as a matter of urgency. “Again, I was understanding and
    sensible but insistent, and finally got her to understand what was
    going to happen and why. This time I began to feel that we were at
    last starting to form a relationship,” she adds.

    Consequently, the young child was placed with foster carers.
    Meanwhile,Amis had a new partner, with whom she became pregnant.
    “We had further discussions about whether her existing and unborn
    children should be subject to care proceedings. There were strong
    arguments for this because she was still using drugs, and because
    it seemed clear that she had moved in with the new partner mainly
    to have somewhere to live, for by this time she was completely
    estranged from her mother. But I argued against this since, despite
    all the problems, we had begun to form a trusting relationship. I
    wanted to work with her further to see whether we could improve the
    situation.” A decision was made not to instigate care
    proceedings.

    While she was pregnant Amis received a short custodial sentence
    for a serious assault she had carried out some months before. Brady
    continued working with her and says that Amis very quickly became
    drug-free, and really began to understand the situation, and what
    might happen to her and her children in the future. In short, she
    became an “exemplary” inmate, and worked very co-operatively with
    Brady. Meanwhile, the new partner, who was vehemently anti-drugs
    and alcohol, was very supportive, both of Carrie and of Brady’s
    work.

    On release, her change of attitude and behaviour continued. In
    addition, she had become reconciled with her mother, her mother’s
    new partner and members of her wider family. She also developed a
    good relationship with her son’s foster carers. “I had made it
    clear to her that the post-custodial plan was strict and formal; it
    related to her ability to parent properly, and that she would be
    regularly assessed and reviewed. But by now I was convinced that
    she had genuinely understood my role and had a real desire to stop
    leading a lifestyle which put her and the children at risk.”

    Consequently, Amis moved into accommodation arranged through
    Brady, aided by a leaving care grant. With everyone’s agreement,
    she began to spend increasing amounts of time with her son, and by
    now was asking for and accepting parenting advice, for both her
    disabled child and her new baby. Her relationship with the baby’s
    father seems stable, says Brady, who adds that both of them have
    been assessed for their parenting abilities.

    “She has by now proved that she can be a good parent, and has
    also been able to maintain her tenancy. But I think this has been
    one of the riskiest cases I’ve worked on, especially in the earlier
    days when it was so difficult to gain her trust,” she
    concludes.

    Arguments for risk

    – Amis is bright and has shown she can understand and appreciate
    very difficult situations, such as the parenting needs required by
    a disabled child, which would be challenging enough for a mature
    and resourceful adult.

    – She has been able to form a constructive and trusting
    relationship with Brady and with her colleagues.

    – Since discharge from custody she has been monitored and
    reviewed not just by Brady, but also staff from a youth offending
    team, NCH Action for Children, and medical staff.

    – She is now reconciled with her mother, her new partner and
    with her wider family, and has been working closely and amicably
    with her son’s foster carers.

    – She has developed and maintained a good relationship with her
    second partner.

    – She has maintained a tenancy, and has now been offered better
    accommodation by a housing association.

    Arguments against risk

    – Amis was vulnerable and at considerable risk herself.

    – She had not been parented adequately herself; her mother
    lacked self-esteem and self- confidence, while her father abused
    alcohol and his wife, and was then absent completely.

    – Amis seemed incapable of and unwilling to understand that her
    first child was very vulnerable, and actually increased the risks
    he faced through her behaviour and lifestyle; similarly, the son’s
    father was unable or unwilling to take on a meaningful parenting
    role.

    – She was in her teens when she first became pregnant and had
    her child; she was still in her teens when she had her second.

    – She did not have the resources or understanding to form
    meaningful relationships.

    – She was willing and able to be verbally and physically abusive
    towards others.

    – She had an unstable, offending and drugs- and alcohol-abusing
    lifestyle.


    Case notes

    Practitioner: Mary Brady.

    Field: Senior practitioner in a children and families team.

    Location: Cambridgeshire social services.

    Client: Carrie Amis (not her real name) is in her late teens.
    She, her mother and older sister had been known to social services
    for several years because her sister and then she herself became
    almost impossible to parent. Both started to use alcohol and drugs
    and engage in petty offending.

    Case history: During adolescence her behaviour worsened, even
    after she was accommodated with specialist foster carers and had
    social work support.

    She became pregnant, with an older partner who abused drugs and
    had a mental health problem. Following an assessment and child
    protection conference she was allocated to Brady, who found it
    verydifficult to engage with her. Neither would she co-operate with
    the child protection plan.

    As her son was at risk, both because of her behaviour and the
    child’s serious medical condition, Brady explained the legal
    position and tried to improve her parenting abilities, but
    eventually the child was accommodated in specialist foster
    care.

    Amis became pregnant again, with a new partner who did not use
    drugs or alcohol. Brady again tried to engage with them both. Then
    Amis received a custodial sentence for an assault carried out
    several months previously.

    She continued to work with Brady while she was in prison, where
    she became drug-free and changed her attitudes fundamentally,
    especially towards her son and unborn child. Meanwhile, Brady had
    involved the foster carers, her mother and other agencies.

    Dilemma: Amis’s age and her behaviour presented serious risks to
    her child, but Brady thought she might be capable of parenting
    safely.

    Risk factor: Both children could have been at serious risk.

    Outcome: After release this improvement continued; she is now
    parenting well.

    Independent comment

    There are many difficulties facing teenage parents, writes
    Carolyne Willow
    . Daily pressures can be enormous – coping with
    cramped or unsuitable housing, being the subject of family
    arguments, having to survive on a low income, and possibly trying
    to complete college courses. Added to this are the challenges
    facing all new parents of learning how to care for a baby.

    It is no surprise, then, that young people in these situations
    often see contact from social services as problematic rather than
    as a positive lifeline. Many feel dogged by the threat of removing
    their babies into care. For those young people who have been looked
    after themselves, the prospect of losing their child to social
    services is deeply traumatic. They often feel labelled as
    irresponsible and incapable of being good parents. For parents who
    are children themselves, the agenda of social workers often seems
    to be exclusively focused on the needs of the youngest child. This
    can undermine any chance of positive intervention.

    If young people are to get the most from social workers, they
    need to feel respected and valued as individuals in their own
    right. That is why it is essential that separate social workers
    should be allocated to parent and baby. Independent advocacy is
    also fundamental, both to support young people involved in formal
    child protection procedures but also to offer information to
    professionals on the human rights implications of decisions being
    made about babies and young children.

    Mary Brady and her colleagues are to be credited for believing
    in and successfully supporting Amis, who continues to live with her
    two young children and partner. Amis’s life history shows that
    young people in these situations require highly skilled support. It
    also demonstrates that young people’s lives can be transformed when
    professionals least expect it. In Amis’s case, the opportunity to
    address her drug abusing while in custody seems to have made all
    the difference.

    Carolyne Willow is joint national co-ordinator,
    Children’s Rights Alliance for England. See
    www.crights.org.uk

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