Given the time and training required to be a creative corporate parent, Camilla Pemberton asks whether acquiring the skills has become a luxury for contemporary social workers
After a tense and difficult day in November 2003, David Pithers had an unusual idea. Undeterred by the freezing temperature and fading light, he drove all nine children from the Preston-based children’s home he was working in to a nearby beach for a bracing swim in the sea, followed by ice cream. “It was the perfect stress buster,” he recalls.
“I had to do something. Everybody was fraught and I knew the kids weren’t going to settle so, more or less in desperation, I drove them to the beach to release some tension. When we got there, it was magical – everyone swam in the sea, staff and kids. We got back, made hot cocoa and the atmosphere was gorgeous. The children were exhilarated, but exhausted, and went calmly to bed. It was a risk, but I’m glad I took it.”
Pithers, who has 40 years’ experience in child care, is now a residential philosopher, training social care professionals to respond more imaginatively to children’s needs. He believes his story illustrates a spontaneous and creative approach to corporate parenting that is being “risk-assessed and regulated away”.
“What I did was unorthodox but it’s what a parent might have done,” he says. “Those children felt loved and parented, but I’d never be able to get away with that now. It’s sad because when I met one of the young people several years later it was the first thing he remembered. He said it had been one of the happiest moments of his life.”
In a sector preoccupied with assessing risk, being a creative and spontaneous corporate parent takes time, training and confidence. Yet these are luxuries for many social workers, according to Sue, a social work manager from Leicester. She believes fear of the unknown, coupled with lack of time, has led to an overly cautious and “dehumanised” profession.
Children in care pick up on this, says Andrew, a 22-year-old care leaver from York. “Most kids are in care because of bad parenting, yet not enough good parenting goes on. It’s like workers think keeping us safe is enough, but it isn’t. There’s a big difference between having someone care for you, and care about you; between caring and parenting. We need both.”
Parenting looked-after children does require extra vigilance and sensitivity, but Derek Bannon, head of care services at the Common Thread Group in Scotland, considers this no barrier. “We should be striving to create the best possible experiences and brightest futures for our looked-after children and you can’t do that in a culture of fear and anxiety. We need to be listening to children and thinking about how we would parent our own children to make sure there are parallels.”
But messages posted on Community Care’s online forum CareSpace suggest some practitioners feel the challenge is too great. One user wrote: “A corporate parent is not a parent and never will be. Sadly, what these kids need is what they haven’t got – parents who can meet their needs.” Another agreed: “The idea of corporate parenting is just that – an idea.”
Pithers believes this bleak outlook comes from “trying to balance the incompatible – creativity and spontaneity in a system that is overly bureaucratic and regulated”. After all, being a parent means handling situations with unpredictable outcomes and knowing children well enough to mentally risk assess at every turn. “A lot of practitioners feel they don’t have the time to be creative and build relationships so they lose their nerve,” Sue says.
At Community Care Live in May, David Warlock, director of social care for Croydon Council, appealed to corporate parents everywhere to allow their staff the time to get to know children and build relationships.
“Unless you have a relationship with children and get to know them, how they think and feel and what they want, you will never know what the right decision for them is. You will never know what to do,” he said.
Tips for success
1 Always consider benefits, as well as risks. “If a child wants to do something, don’t just think about the risks. Instead, ask, will the child enjoy it? Will it build their confidence, give them positive memories or help them develop life skills? Always consider what you are trying to protect the child from” – David Pithers, trainer.
2Think creatively about contact. “Children find it difficult to have intense conversations but if you can bring in another object, like playing cards, drawing or baking cakes then it takes the intensity away. They’re not having to make constant direct eye contact and they find it easier to talk that way. It’s important to understand the different ways in which children communicate” – David Warlock, social care director, Croydon Council.
“Think about the creative, educational things you could do with children and don’t give up. I once took a group of children to watch lambs being born at a nearby farm. It was a nightmare to risk assess but 100% worth it” – David Pithers.
3Avoid jargon. “It’s OK to use emotional language. Often we use jargon and it dissociates us from the drama and the emotion these children go through. If we’re to fight for them as a real parent would then we need to show people the emotion” – David Warlock.
4Make time to get to know children and develop relationships. “Social workers, residential workers and foster carers can embody the corporate parent role and ‘humanise’ it. It comes down to developing meaningful relationships with children and creating opportunities to spend time with them” – Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers.
5 Develop a whole team approach. “Consider regularly how well you are meeting your corporate parenting aims and work together to allow people the time to build relationships with children and young people” – Sue, social work manager.
Alice, a 27-year-old care leaver from Devon: “I had one social worker who always met me in a room at my local authority’s head office. Talking about my case felt like I was being interrogated in a prison cell. My next social worker used to take me out for tea and cake. Each time we’d find a different café or restaurant and she encouraged me to research the places I’d like to go to. It felt grown up and I looked forward to each meeting. I could tell she cared.”
Lee, a 17-year-old care leaver: “I grew up in care and I never understood why I wasn’t allowed to do ‘normal’ things, like go fishing, climb trees or ride my bike to the park, until a form had been signed or someone had been called for approval. No one ever explained why that was. I was always kept safe and healthy by my social workers and foster carers, but I have few positive memories of things I had fun doing or things we did together.”
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