Prodigal daughter

Case notes  

Practitioner: Angela Ben-Arie, project worker. 

Field: Children aged between 13-16 in family crisis. 

Location: Oak Avenue project, Croydon, south London. 

Client: Sonia Garnett. 

Case history: Sonia, then 14, was previously unknown to social services. “Mum and dad had split up at the time,” says Sonia. “I stayed with my dad, who lived with my nan, at weekends. I wasn’t attending school regularly. I was always fighting with my mum – the police were even called out. I was constantly in trouble at school with my language and behaviour – starting fights and smoking. I’d go missing and go out drinking with friends. My nan was ill and couldn’t control me. I’d have some friends around and things would be stolen. I caused constant havoc. My dad just couldn’t cope, my mum didn’t want me back and my younger brother was also beginning to be affected by it all – so my dad got in touch with the area social services office, who referred me to the project.” 

Dilemma: Although work with Sonia was progressing well, as she turned 16 the project was no longer obliged to work with her – she would need to attend voluntarily. 

Risk factor: The project had become a major part of Sonia’s life. With this largely removed she was at risk of losing an anchor and drifting into alcohol and drugs as adulthood approached. 

Outcome: Sonia now lives independently and works for the project.   

The Oak Avenue project in Croydon, south London, works with young people and families in crisis. “If a young person feels there are problems at home which they cannot cope with and want to leave the family home, or parents feel the child is out of parental control, they will be referred to us,” says project worker Angela Ben-Arie.

At 14, Sonia Garnett was out of parental control. The project also runs a life skills group. “When we set up the project we thought it would be good to work with a group of young people to look at issues that affected them within the family, school, life, anything,” says Ben-Arie. But, crucially, this work would not be time-limited, unlike the initial solution-focused work. “You left when you wanted to,” she says.

Joining the life skills group proved a life-saver for Sonia. “Initially, though, she rejected professional intervention. Two fingers up, ‘Who are you?’,” says Ben-Arie. Smiling, Sonia agrees: “I was totally dismissive, ‘What do you want? You don’t know me, you don’t know my family’. I thought I knew it all. I didn’t want to see anybody. I missed meetings. I wouldn’t turn up. I was really rude.”

However, Sonia slowly but surely began to build a good relationship with project manager Steve Dent. “He was good. He basically told it to me straight – ‘this can’t go on, you need to sort it out’,” she recalls. Dent tapped into Sonia’s interest in horse riding, which provided the hook for more active engagement with the project. Dent referred Sonia to the life skills group.

“She was an active part of it,” says Ben-Arie. For her part, Sonia was pleased to have someone who wasn’t dismissive and who genuinely was interested in what she had to say. “It was really nice to be told that if I had problems or if I needed to talk, I didn’t have to go out and start smashing things and get really angry, I could just turn up – and it was nice to get the feeling you had down there.”

The welcoming ethic is at the heart of the project. “We make it as inviting as possible,” says Ben-Arie. “There’s always food. Always. It’s a friendly environment. And the young people, who although they only see each other at that time, become a good support for each other.” Sonia agrees: “You know that it’s a safe space.”

But, on turning 16, things became worse for Sonia. Not only was she no longer entitled to a service at Oak Avenue, but she also left home and began staying with friends. “I thought this would be great. I’ll be staying up late, going out. But it wasn’t like that at all. If you go and live with friends they also have their rules. And you outstay your welcome,” she says. However, thanks to the project’s open-door policy, Sonia did keep in occasional contact. “Young people do tend to come back,” says Ben-Arie. “Although they would not be allocated a worker they still feel part of a group that can support them.” As Sonia says: “It’s great to know that someone has experiences exactly like yours.”

Despite assuring herself that she was fine, reality kicked in. After an argument with her mother, Sonia, by then 17, took an overdose. Ben-Arie and Dent visited her in hospital. Sonia says: “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, someone cares’ and thought this was the time to be honest and admit I wasn’t fine.”

The project worked with others to move her from bed and breakfast accommodation to her own flat – “still very scary,” says Sonia. However, such was the experience of going through the housing system – procedure, form-filling and so on – that the project’s life skills course now includes a module on independent living.

Then came the search for work – at first voluntary – and the tip-toeing through the benefits minefield. The project does a lot of work on building confidence and self-esteem – and this worked for Sonia. “When faced with more forms, I would get the little Angela voice in my head saying ‘You can do this’,” she says. And do it she has. Indeed, she is now employed as an assistant project worker at Oak Avenue.

By providing a welcoming, empowering environment that promotes trust and continuity, the project not only turned around a young person’s life – it found a worker that brings instant credibility and hope for others. “She’s a role model now,” says Ben-Arie.

Arguments for risk

  • Sonia’s initial rejection of the service was not atypical. Strong-headed young people rarely like being told what to do. The project’s patience in building trust and discovering a hook to engage her – in this case horse riding – was crucial in establishing a positive footing from which to develop a successful intervention. 
  • Although at 16 Sonia’s contact with the project lessened it was clear that, without its help, her circumstances were worsening. After her hospital stay due to an overdose, the visit from the project workers helped to restore Sonia’s belief in herself as a valued person and sparked the determination to change things. 
  • Ben-Arie was convinced that Sonia needed continual support to improve things. “Without input from the project I am sure that I would have ended up in bad relationships, had a couple of kids like everybody else I knew and they probably would have ended up in care,” says Sonia.    

Arguments against risk 

  • The family situation was a particular worry. Her mother wanted little to do with her and her father and grandmother – who was ill – struggled to cope. Little seemed to improve this, even after sessions at the project. It was almost inevitable that she would become homeless. This could have been avoided if she had been accommodated. 
  • As the project found out, had Sonia been accommodated she would have qualified for more services. As her only contact with the project was now voluntary, she could have easily slipped into worrying company and possibly become an adult in need of social services. 
  • Sonia would have – also as a consequence of being accommodated – been eligible for leaving care services and this would have enabled her to be in a better position to make a success of independent living. By moving into bedsit-land Sonia was increasing her vulnerability.

Independent comment   

The biggest risk was of the statutory agencies initially overreacting to what were worrying difficulties presented by, and for, Sonia, writes Brian Littlechild.  

The greatest protective factor for Sonia was the way the Oak Avenue project and its staff were able to engage with her despite her initial rejection and anger.  

 The importance of the experience for young people of adults sticking with them through their stresses, rejections and perceived failures is difficult to overemphasise. Although the horse riding and life skills work were important, it is the quality of the relationship with adults such as Angela and Steve that would have helped make her feel a person of value, and provided the basis for the type of development shown by Sonia over time.  

Some young people can benefit from local authority accommodation. But those accommodated for long periods tend to have more health, educational, employment and loneliness problems with which they do not later get support – hence the Leaving Care Act 2000. 

If Sonia had been accommodated by the local authority, things may have become worse; she may have been more alienated from her family due to feelings of further rejection; angry at her substitute carers; and become more involved in potentially destructive behaviour.  

The voluntary and continuing nature of project contact would have been vital for Sonia to gain self-confidence, independence and employment. 

Brian Littlechild is associate head of the Department of Health and Social Care, University of Hertfordshire.

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