by David*, a residential care worker.
Meeting Martin again for a catch-up over a cup of coffee had made my day. A former resident at the first children’s home I’d worked in, we had developed a strong and trusting relationship.
Whether shopping or playing football together, cooking, laughing, or talking about his hopes and fears, I had become an integral presence in his life. To listen to this happy 17-year-old telling me how he was doing – adopted into a loving family, studying for exams at school and really engaging with life – was a joy.
However, as perfectly natural as it is for some young people to want to see a member of staff again, a residential child care worker’s job description and contract don’t allow for it to happen. That this should be recognised as a core aspect of what we are about appears to be lost on some service managers.
When I and other colleagues have challenged certain managers on this issue, they simply parrot that the rules are in place in order to protect us from any risk of being compromised by the young person.
What if they were to accuse us of behaving inappropriately? This school of thought betrays a shocking attitude towards young people and to some of the relationships that are forged between them and staff.
Is it right that a kid should simply pass through the system and then be forgotten? Why should they endure the loss of someone they have grown to like, trust and respect?
A colleague once bumped into a teenager who had been in our care. The young person was evidently pleased to meet him and suggested they get something to eat. Over the next hour the girl explained what she was up to, that she had got a job in a shoe shop and was living in a nice flat.
My colleague thought it particularly poignant when she thanked him for all the care and support he’d shown her when she was in care. When a manager overheard this colleague recalling the chance encounter, he was disciplined and reminded of “the limits of his duties”.
Thankfully, more enlightened managers don’t recognise such ‘limits’, and I know of one who helped a lad to decorate his flat after he’d left the residential home. He told me: “The last thing this lad needed was after-care professionals, or more strangers, coming into his life at that point.”
The young person had already dealt with five social workers during his time in care and when he asked this manager for help, it was forthcoming. “A no-brainer,” as the manager said.
When children know they are leaving care – or indeed, when they know a member of staff is leaving – it’s not uncommon for their behaviour to deteriorate. They know this means the end of a relationship they have enjoyed and valued, and that it signals yet more disruption in their lives.
Given this emotional dynamic in residential care, retaining contact with the young person is a natural progression and something they clearly value and appreciate. And when you’ve seen their enthusiasm as they tell you about their new life, it’s clear that this communication is important to them. How could it not be an essential part of our role?
Being able to share these success stories with other staff is also uplifting and does morale no harm. It can be a difficult and demanding job at times, but to know that a kid we’ve cared for is now finding his or her place in the world is a wonderfully reassuring feeling.
When Martin phoned me that morning, it was also a ‘no-brainer’. As we left the cafe, I explained to him the rules about staff contact with former residents and so he asked if we might meet again in six months’ time. Of course we will.
*Not his real name