by Katriona Hartnett
Having worked with young people and their families for over eight years, it is refreshing to be part of an innovation fund backed project, called ‘Right Balance for Families’, in Camden, which takes a different approach to working with children in need aged 10-13.
Why this age group? Children aged 10-13 and the challenges they face can be overlooked at times. This is likely to be because this age group is considered not as vulnerable as babies and very young children, and they don’t come to attention for risky behaviour as their older peers do.
However, life is not simple for the typical 10-13-year-old, who is managing the challenges of moving on to secondary school, adjusting to changes in their presentation – whether this be physical or emotional – and experiencing new pressures from peers, social media and trying to work out their own identity.
If in addition there are difficulties in the family home, day-to-day life for this age group becomes very complex.
Key age group
I’ve worked with many children at this stage of life. Looking at the wider context, this age group is key when thinking about how we reduce the number of children coming in to local authority care, while still ensuring that when this action is necessary it happens at the right time.
Government statistics in respect of the number of looked after children in the UK from March 2017 showed that the age group with the highest proportion of looked after children is the age group 10-15 with 39%. The second largest group is age 16-19 with 24%. However, the 16-19-year-old is the only age group where the numbers of children entering care have increased year on year. This leads me to worry that we could be doing better preventative work at ages 10 -13
In social work we use the term engagement a lot, too much in my view. We put the burden to engage on young people and families who are asked to work with plans that ‘we’, the professional network, put together for them.
Right Balance for Families builds upon the protective factors and network already in place around the child, thus increasing resilience in an organic way. In our recent inspection Ofsted called Camden’s approach to social work ‘systemic and highly participative’ and we are testing the compatibility of those concepts through eco-mapping, utilizing Family Group Conferences and holding multi-agency systemic discussions to respond to need.
To understand the network and strengths in place around a child and family, each will have the opportunity to have a family group conference. At this family group conference the child is supported to plan their own goals; such as wanting quality time with a parent, or being supported to be in school or feel confident making friends.
Safe, positive outcomes
Taking a systemic view, the formal system can’t always speak for a young person, or know best what the family needs and fit them into our services. Yet the professional system and the young person’s informal network needs to stay attuned to each other for safe, positive outcomes. So we need a method of ‘appreciative enquiry’ like a family group conference to learn how best to work together.
Each child and family has a systemic professional network around them, including CAMHS, Camden’s virtual school, a mentor, mediators, youth workers, housing and benefits advice and parenting support. The family will not be having contact with all of these professionals, but what can be assured is that the child is able to pull on the right support to achieve their goals and develop resilience without delay.
We recognise too that there may be a ‘trusted and valued relationship’ for the young person that will be able to link them to the social worker, a bridge between the professional and the family system.
The project provides a high level of support around education. Camden’s Virtual School is a core part of the systemic network; providing advice and training for schools alongside a focused plan around the child.
The focus of Right Balance is simple; to improve the resilience of our young people, and support children between 10-13 and their families during these difficult formative years.
Supporting and empowering families on the one hand and providing appropriate, and necessary protection on the other, are strategies which can often be in tension with each other. We know families have often said they either they got more than they bargained for, or that they did not get enough support. The response to Right Balance for Families so far has been very positive.
It is my hope that this pilot will enable Camden social workers to increase support for children, take a lead from them on what goals they have and what the family needs to maintain their care, while retaining our responsibility to act to protect at the right time.
Katriona Hartnett is a senior practitioner at Camden council.