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.
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.
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?
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.
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