by Jack Brookes
I cannot keep the young people I share responsibility for looking after safe.
I can’t stop them from running away and going missing. I can’t prevent them from abusing alcohol and drugs, especially the pervasive “new psychoactive substances” (formerly legal highs). I can’t stop them shoplifting painkillers to overdose on or razor blades to cut themselves with. I cannot protect them from being sexually exploited.
In truth, all these issues, and the drivers behind them, are interwoven.
Young people will get away
Children’s homes are not allowed to lock the doors as a matter of course, so the young people are free to walk in and out as they please. Although, when we did lock the doors one evening, a couple of weeks ago (we’d been instructed to by the police), one of the girls simply put a fire extinguisher through the patio doors.
We can restrain them to stop them leaving – if it can be demonstrated that the risk of harm is imminent but eventually we will have to let go and many of the young people are too strong, and full of rage, to hold safely for more than a short period of time.
I can, and do, follow them – if I am quick enough. I am fit – I can run fast, jump fences and climb over walls but all I can do is stay with them and try to persuade them to return home.
Even if I was successful on, say, three out of four occasions – a young person may make several attempts a day. They will succeed. By the time a member-of-staff has got through to a police operator, the young person may be in a car or on the train.
Of course, regulations regarding the use of physical intervention or locking doors exist for a reason – not least to protect children from the types of abusive practice seen in the past. However, think of the lengths you might go to to protect your own teenage daughter from the harm I describe above. Locking a door? Physically stopping her if you had to? A responsible parent wouldn’t think twice.
I take my responsibility for the children I look after extremely seriously, I am experienced, well trained and have strong relationships with many of the children but I still can’t keep them safe.
In response to the Ofsted report ‘Time to listen− a joined up response to child sexual exploitation and missing children’, Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, is quoted in the Guardian saying: “When a child goes missing it’s vital that authorities take action without delay to make sure they are safe and work out what needs to be done to stop them running away again.”
I doubt there is a sane adult in the country who would disagree with that statement. I only have two questions – how? And, what do you suggest?
The report raises many important issues and talks – wisely – of seeking to understand why some children run away. The authors are critical of practitioners describing a victim of CSE as having “made choices”. However, this very understandable desire to avoid “victim blaming” means the report fails to understand an unpalatable truth.
Some of the young people are making choices. Appallingly dangerous and unhealthy choices but, ultimately, still choices.
Running to the bad thing
These children are drawn to the dangerous situations and the people who exploit and abuse them. Put simply, they are running to the bad thing not away from it.
Acknowledging this is not the same as blaming them – it is not their fault. Acknowledging this is to try and understand the very problem that makes them so vulnerable. The reasons they make these choices are myriad, hugely complex and beyond the scope of this article. But invariably they will be to do with early years abuse and neglect, associated attachment issues, and the unconscious processes which lead individuals to repeat earlier traumatic experiences.
These deeply troubled and disturbed children are simply not capable of making appropriate choices, however much we “educate” them regarding the risks they are taking. They need responsible adults to make choices for them until they can be helped to make better ones.
A significant minority of children are being failed by the current models of children’s social care.
Typically, a child will be in foster care and they will seem to be doing OK – the impact of those early experiences perhaps not yet so apparent and any behaviour associated with it easier to manage when they are younger. As the child grows he or she will become harder to manage, start putting him or herself “at risk”.
A decision will be made to move them to a residential children’s home – the fantasy being the home will be able to manage the risk. It won’t be. Either the home or the local authority will close the placement, and the young person will be moved to another home not much different from the first and equally unable to keep the child safe.
There may be a few more children’s homes until eventually a court order is sought and the young person is accommodated in a secure children’s home for three months. The child leaves the secure unit, goes to another children’s home and continues to put him or herself at exactly the same kind of risk as before.
This is a pointless and futile waste of time and resources and does untold further harm to the emotional and psychological health of the child.
These children need sustained psychotherapeutic intervention. This doesn’t just mean being taken to see a counsellor once a week but living in a home where staff have thorough training in the impact of early years’ trauma and neglect and in creative therapeutic approaches for responding to it.
A home with a therapeutic model embedded into the day-to-day structure, routines and culture, and overseen by experienced child psychotherapists who have input into the children’s care but also provide staff with genuine clinical supervision.
Of course, no therapy will be possible, let alone effective, if the young people do not feel safe and contained. It is certainly a waste of time if the child is not even present to receive this level of care.
So these homes will need to be secure. It shouldn’t be thought of as a three-month placement but as a ‘for as long as is needed’ placement.
As the young person develops, gains ego-strength, starts to heal, the professionals involved can make decisions giving them greater freedom – outside activities with staff, then incrementally larger amounts of time out on their own.
If the young person puts him or herself at significant risk they can move back and forward through greater or lesser levels of containment without having to move to different homes and experiencing the constant disruption and ending of relationships with carers.
The majority of looked after children do not need this type of care, but a significant number of extremely traumatised and disturbed young people do.