‘Ongoing contact between former children’s home residents and staff is fraught with potential pitfalls’

Social media has made it easier for relationships between children and care staff to endure. But careful thought and sensitive handling is needed to avoid the risk of harm, writes John Radoux

Picture: Julien Eichinger/fotolia

by John Radoux

A few months ago, a man in his late twenties stood outside one of the children’s homes I work at. The man was pacing about and seemed to be staring at the house. He was there for quite a while – one of the young people noticed him and became unsettled – so a member of staff, a few years younger than the man, went outside and asked him if he was OK.

“I used to live here a long time ago,” he said. “I am just taking it all in.” The man gave his name and asked if John Radoux still worked there; he was told I did occasionally but was not on shift. The man wandered off again.

I tear up when I am told about this later and, of course, recognise the man’s name immediately. I am gutted I was not there for him.

Of course, he was not a man when I knew him. He was a child, who I think I was involved with for about two years. In truth, unlike some other children who I knew I was significant to, it would never have occurred to me that he would particularly remember me, let alone seek me out.

Abrupt endings

My mind turns to all the young people I have cared for, kids who I have spent hundreds of hours with, sharing experiences from the very difficult, to the joyful, to the mundane. Relationships which ended, often abruptly, the moment they moved to another home or left care.

Nothing about this is ordinary or healthy. It really is not the same as looking back fondly at other vanished adult figures from childhood – a teacher, say. Those losses, while not insignificant, are usually within the context of our most important relationships – if we are lucky with our parents and wider family – being maintained, and the temporary nature of their role in our lives is clearer from the outset.

I have known children in care who are, often for completely legitimate reasons, entirely estranged from their families. Young people who, outside of the professionals in their lives, have quite literally no one.

Social media has made staying in touch with, or finding, old friends and associates much easier than in the past, as has email and an untold number of messenger apps. On the face of it this seems to offer a straightforward fix, a way for significant relationships between children and children’s home staff to continue when a young person moves to another home or into adulthood.

Some would argue that the only reason to stop this would be if a particular adult posed a risk to a young person. But unfortunately this is not the case, and the issue of ongoing relationships and communication is fraught with potential pitfalls.

Uncertain expectations

Although there is obviously a difference between a young person who remains in care and someone who has turned 18 and left care (because we are then talking about a relationship between two adults), the most important issues to think about apply in both circumstances.

What are the young person’s expectations of the relationship? And what can the former carer honestly provide and commit to?

Is being Facebook ‘friends’, liking or commenting on the odd post, enough? Do they hope for a genuine friendship? To meet up regularly? To go for a drink? How would the former carer feel/respond if the young person called them, in crisis, at 2am?

If the former carer is not able/willing to meet the young person’s expectations, how will the young person be left feeling? Will he or she believe the carer does not, in fact, care about them – and perhaps never did? Could this undo some of the value of the early relationship?

Is a carer, if they accept one social media request from a young person, obliged to accept all requests from other young people? What would be the impact on a young person if he can see I have accepted one child’s request but not his?

Boundary issues

Many homes, rightly in my view, have a policy that staff do not accept social media requests from residents. I say rightly not least because lots of people display/act out many aspects of their personal lives on social media. This is not really much less of a problem if a child has moved to another home.

Let’s imagine a situation where ‘Sally’, who has lived in the home for three years and is very close to ‘Gary’ (a member of staff), moves to a foster home.

Sally sends Gary a friendship request on Facebook and Gary accepts. Sometime later, Gary posts a drunken ramble about the breakdown of his marriage – ill-advised but hardly a crime, and thousands of people have done similar things – and Sally reads it. Setting aside the impact this may have on Sally, who, do not forget, comes from a broken home, she is still in contact with ‘Gemma’, who is still a resident of the home, and tells her all about it.

This article would be many thousands of words long if I was to list all possible boundary issues that may arise. Another, very real, issue, when children have not left care but moved to another children’s/foster home, is they really need to build relationships with, and learn to rely on, their new carers; over-reliance on previous carers could hinder this.

A ‘solution’ to these potential difficulties often used is the children’s home having an email address that former residents can use to contact the home. It is not difficult for homes to have a Facebook page, and the various messenger apps on a mobile phone, as well.

This has some value but it isn’t a solution. Young people have relationships with real, live human beings not an organisation or institution – they want to talk to ‘Gary’ or ‘Jane’, not whoever was assigned to check for messages that day.

In reality, many young people will have two or three really meaningful relationships out of an entire staff team. What about when these staff members leave? Or if they leave before the young person?

No easy answers

All of the potential problems I describe above can usually be overcome, but this requires careful thought and sensitive handling and without it there is the possibility, even if well intended, of doing real harm. It would be naïve indeed to assume all children’s home staff have the capacity to navigate this – which is where the need for policy or guidance comes in.

Unfortunately these issues, where there are no straightforward answers, can lead to policies or decisions by providers or local authorities which are far too concrete. At worst they may be effective bans on ongoing communication between carers in children’s homes and former residents. Essentially these policies say: “This is all a bit messy and hard to think about, so let’s not even try.”

That’s risk-averse for sure, but also intellectually and emotionally lazy, and it is young people who pay the price. However, as I have said, they will also pay a price if the difficulties are ignored.

If you are looking for me to present an off-the-peg answer here, I do not have one, because ultimately this is the stuff of human relationships – with all their dilemmas, tensions, limitations and ambiguities.

Rather than lending themselves well to policymaking or procedure, they are suited to thoughtful consideration, honest self-reflection, discussion and communication. That’s the kind of thinking that should be built into the culture and practices of any decent children’s home and this is what any guidelines or policies should seek to encourage.

John Radoux is a child and adolescent counsellor. He grew up in care and works in children’s homes. He tweets @JohnRadoux and his website is johnradouxtherapy.com.

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4 Responses to ‘Ongoing contact between former children’s home residents and staff is fraught with potential pitfalls’

  1. Rosemary Trustam September 18, 2019 at 2:41 pm #

    This to me is so sad. I read recently about a rule in a childrens home that said once they’d left they couldn’t visit!! (That was their home… )When I was a field social worker when I left I kept in touch with one of my children in care who also had 2 sisters. The council knew this and allowed it – or certanly did’t stop it or set up a load of condition. I know through all her difficulties (and she’s now in her mid 50s with her own children mostly grown up) our relationship has been important – and she keeps in touch as well as visits/we meet up. I so admire how she’s survived. In our community living magazine (about learning disabilities) in the autumn there’s an article about the ‘Professional distance versus human touch’ Do keeping professional boundaries and promoting autonomy risk denying people emotional connections? and this issue goes far further that after care. If we are really going to nurtre and be there for children growing up, we need to see far more thought (and recruitment, training and recognition of just what we are asking of people into whose care we commit some children who’ve had or are having some of the hardest things in life to cope with. Let’s see more about what it takes for children to get what they need in our care and after…. we all need love and the chance to contribute, reciprocate and be trusted so we can grow. And none of this is easy we know

  2. Nicole Berry September 18, 2019 at 3:17 pm #

    This highlights how important previous workers; foster carers, teaching staff, social workers etc are to our young people in care and the impact of these relationships. I am leading a 3 year pilot in Devon ‘Lifelong Links’ which is all about reconnecting young people in care with significant adults in their lives. We want to build meaningful lifelong support networks for our children and young people in care, and enable them to achieve a sense of belonging. Please see link for more information:

    http://www.frg.org.uk/involving-families/family-group-conferences/lifelong-links

    • 'Rosie' September 19, 2019 at 2:11 am #

      I was a LAC from birth to 18 years. I am now in my mid 50’s.

      The biggest inspiration of my life is a Social Worker. I met her when i was 14 and in a very difficult situation. ‘Mary’ was there when no one else was and didn’t judge me.

      When I was 40, I became a Social Worker. I am still in occasional contact with ‘Mary’ by phone and letter.

      I recognise that ‘times have changed’..(I only had three Social Workers).

      Although I now have plenty of lovely people in my life, Mary is still my ‘go to person’ when I need unbiased advice. Mary, now in her 70’s still plays a valuable role as a counsellor for people who were sexually abused as children…

      I learnt such a lot from Mary, and still do!

      I just wanted to share this with you.

  3. Jefffrey Sullivan September 21, 2019 at 11:03 am #

    The culture of the care system has changed for the better. Having been in care in the 70s, the concept of the child is very difficult. Children recieved into care are seen rightfuly as Children In Need. In the bygone time Children were often seen as in need of control. So the relationships with staff and children had little focus on care in many not all Childrens homes. In those days places were called centres and Approved Schools.

    I was really glad to hear from a friend who had been in care from my time, he still kept in touch with a female staff member, who was so proud of him.
    It has been difficult to consider getting in touch with staff from my children’s home as so many faced historic abuse allegations. Some true and some not. But I think as long as safe guards are in place for children and staff the past lessons learnt and should not continue as a barrier to the reltionships of today.