Practitioner: Grace Shields, support worker, and Mike Rodden, senior social worker, throughcare and youth homelessness team.
Field: Young people leaving care.
Location: West Dunbartonshire, Scotland.
Client: Lucy Mellor lived with her mother and was 14 when she first came into care of social work services.
Case history: Lucy was placed in local authority care in March 1997 following a breakdown in her family situation. After a short spell at a residential school she returned home in June. However, at her own request – because again she didn’t feel safe at home – she was taken back into care in August and was allocated a throughcare worker. The following summer she moved into supported lodgings until May 2000 when she took up her own tenancy. However, in September she decided again to return home to her mother – who had moved to the north of Scotland – and terminated her tenancy.
Dilemma: Everyone – including Lucy – thinks the move back to her mother’s house will break down. But it was her decision.
Risk factor: Having given up her tenancy to move home and the very strong prospect of breakdown, Lucy may feel a failure and be unable to face living independently in the community.
Outcome: Lucy now lives in her second council flat tenancy in Clydebank, is working full-time in a garage and although still struggling to make ends meet is motivated to stay off benefits and is looking to study beauty therapy part-time at evening classes.
The transition into adulthood with the challenges and complications of living independently is daunting for most young people. For those leaving care it can be especially difficult.
For 15-year-old Lucy Mellor, supported lodgings (moving into a spare room in an approved carer’s house) would give the stability and security that her mother failed to provide. Lucy had stopped feeling safe at home, asked to be taken into care and was placed in a children’s home.
Her case was picked up by senior social worker, Mike Rodden, who allocated it to support worker, Grace Shields. “I started building up a relationship with Lucy before we started doing any ‘work’ – I wanted to get to know her and for her to know me. We need that trust at the start,” says Shields.
Part of the approach was to help Lucy understand that she would inevitably have to leave care and that a plan could make that as smooth as possible. “Our plan included looking at the accommodation options available and this included supported lodgings. Although we try to match a young person to a carer we let young people have a big say in this. Lucy was always very motivated to work and had found herself a job as a trainee hairdresser attending Clydebank college. So we paired her up with Pat Wingfield, a carer in that area, and they got on really well,” says Shields.
To help with the relationship Shields and Lucy took Pat to visit Lucy’s children’s home. “So that she can see where Lucy came from,” says Rodden. For Lucy a room in Pat’s home, “was a better place because you’re on your own and not sharing a room.”
The excellent relationship between social work and housing, a joint department in West Dunbartonshire, is an important one for care leavers. “Every month at a housing liaison meeting we flag up the needs of the young people and tend to get a good deal for them – they usually get a good tenancy. As Lucy did,” says Shields.
Things went well for a few months until Lucy started experiencing peer pressure. “She had her house the way she wanted it, did bits of her own decorating as well – a very talented woman – but some of her pals who didn’t have their own place and who didn’t work started to make demands, saying ‘can we use your flat?’ Lucy had to make a stand. She had to make a decision and felt that these people weren’t really her pals,” says Rodden.
Following this Lucy terminated her tenancy in September 2000 and moved back in with her mum who had moved to the north of Scotland. Although Shields was on holiday, Rodden “tried to persuade Lucy not to leave, but her mind was made up.” Lucy realised it was probably a mistake: “I knew it wouldn’t work out, but I just didn’t have any money. I’d work but the bills were just too high,” she says.
Rodden suggested Lucy go ahead with her plan to move but keep the tenancy. “We’ve had youngsters disappear up north for seasonal work and while it’s been a bit tricky at times we’ve tried to sustain their tenancies for them. My thinking was: go for a month and see if it works out. But I think the situation in Clydebank was getting to her. She had to go and experience it. We physically helped her move – we hired a van and took her there. But we were still trying to give Lucy positive messages: if this doesn’t work get in touch.”
Things started well with Lucy getting a job (“It’s that Calvinist ethic again – she has to work,” smiles Rodden) but her relationship with her mother broke down again. “For a couple of months it was OK but then things began to get worse. It was also so quiet there. So I rang Grace and said can you help me come back,” says Lucy. By December she was back. “They’ve always been there for me,” she adds.
And Lucy has repaid that respect. Rodden recalls accommodating another troubled young woman with fractured family circumstances who immediately responded to and respected Lucy who talked up the positive choices available through the team. “What Lucy said to her was worth what 20 social workers could say,” he says.
In March 2002 Lucy secured another tenancy and has been living independently and successfully ever since. “When you hear that people in care are more likely to be unemployed, homeless and so on, Lucy is a shining example of somebody who is determined,” says Rodden. A slightly embarrassed Lucy looks around her comfortable flat, smiles and nods gently. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them,” she says.
Arguments for risk
- Lucy had made up her mind to give up the tenancy and return to live with her mother. Indeed, when Rodden turned up to discuss the tenancy he found all her possessions boxed up and ready to go.
- The throughcare team recognised that transitional decisions were all about growing up. “She had to have that experience – she had to do it,” says Rodden. If it was to turn out a mistake then at least she will have the chance to grow and learn from it.
- Lucy was a resilient, resourceful and hard working young woman – the team could be confident that any potential breakdown could eventually be overcome.
- Disenchanted with her friends, lacking money but not wanting to take benefits, Clydebank didn’t have too much going for it – maybe a fresh start was the answer.
- The throughcare team remained positive – they were a safety net and would be there if Lucy needed them.
Arguments against risk
- The move north was doomed to fail – even Lucy could see that. A lot of hard work from Lucy and the throughcare team had her stabilised and supported. She had her own flat and had it furnished and decorated the way she wanted it. Giving all that up with little opportunity for success could have undone all that hard work.
- Although she felt let down by her friends, she still had a job and was looking at vocational training. Moving up north where the only people she would know would be her sister and mother would not do much to improve her sense of isolation.
- With the inevitable breakdown in the relationship between Lucy and her mother, there was a real danger that her confidence, strength and self-esteem could be damaged beyond repair. Where else could she go?
- By rejecting her tenancy so quickly – especially one that had been prioritised for Lucy – she might jeopardise any future tenancy.
In many respects, Lucy’s case is typical of the uncertainties and insecurities care leavers wrestle with, writes Neil Thompson.
This account shows the commitment to supporting Lucy through this transition and the efforts to make things work. The long-standing criticism that care leavers are left to their own devices without adequate support is clearly one that cannot be levelled here. However, what does not come across is any sense of identifying the specific problems Lucy faced. While there are elements here that are typical of the experiences of care leavers, I am left wondering what were the specific issues affecting Lucy.
In my view, it is important when assessing risks to be clear about what we are aiming to achieve. What problems are we trying to solve and how are we planning to solve them? This more proactive approach provides a firmer base from which to assess risks and develop a coherent plan. What did Lucy see as the problem(s)? Was she helped to understand the transition she was going through?
The term “crisis intervention” is often misused to refer to dealing with emergencies or pressing situations, rather than its actual meaning of helping people get the maximum positive benefit from a transition or significant life change. This case strikes me as one that could benefit more from this latter approach. This could well be how the staff approached Lucy’s situation, but this is not reflected here.
Neil Thompson is an independent trainer, consultant and author with Avenue Consulting.