When hard work and sensitivity are not enough in working with vulnerable children

A residential child care worker describes the difficulties encountered when a 15-year-old refugee was placed in the home and questions what more he could have done to make it work

Teenager looking upset
Photo; motortion/Adobe Stock

By David Jones

Working with challenging and vulnerable children brings with it a unique set of demands. Sometimes, as a residential worker these demands can be met through sensitive interaction with a young person and a lot of hard work in terms of establishing a rapport with them. On other occasions, however, this process can prove impossible to negotiate, particularly when the child erects a brick wall between you and them and you find it impossible to get round or over it, no matter what you try.

As a residential care worker in a five-bed children’s home, the youngsters we care for can present with a wide range of emotional issues. A dilemma my colleagues and I had to deal with, which presented challenges we’d never encountered before, involved the placing of a 15-year-old refugee child from Iraq in the home. Initially, he proved to be friendly and confident and settled in well, with a basic command of English and able to interact comfortably with residents and staff.

Having grown up witnessing atrocities in his home country, his demeanour impressed everyone, the young people immediately taking to him and adopting a caring approach to this new kid who had experienced things they could only vaguely imagine. They were particularly moved when he told them that his parents and older brother were still in Iraq and that he didn’t know when he would see them again.

Upset equilibrium

This state of affairs was to be short-lived however, as it soon became clear that some of his cultural expectations jarred with theirs, and indeed, with mine and those of fellow staff. The equilibrium of the home quickly became compromised, raising issues about the care and support we could offer him.

It occurred to us that a foster home might be better placed to concentrate on his needs and that perhaps we weren’t providing the appropriate environment for doing this, having to care for four other kids with complex issues at the same time.

His attitude towards both female residents and colleagues had to be constantly addressed with him, and he would become verbally and physically confrontational with male staff who gently pointed out to him that his attitude was neither respectful nor helpful.

After meals, for example, he would refuse to take his plate to the kitchen, saying that this was “a woman’s job,” as were washing the pots, preparing meals and setting and clearing the dinner table. And he wouldn’t let female staff drive him to appointments, telling them that “back home this was the man’s job.”

In retrospect, a single-sex environment would have been a better option, but we were simply trying our best in the situation we were presented with.

When talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, and the roles played there by British soldiers, he could become verbally intimidating. On one occasion, when I was walking with him to the local shops, he started talking about some of the things he’s seen in Iraq. But when I tried to empathise and express my shock and sadness, he turned on me, telling me “it’s your fault”. When I asked him what he meant, he said British people like me “had killed and strung up my people in trees”. My attempts at reasoning with him were ignored and I attempted to change the subject as he was clearly becoming angry.

I kept reminding myself that this was a vulnerable teenager whose home had become war-torn, and that allowances had to be made and compassion shown, but he was becoming emotionally closed to everyone in the home.”

This in turn raised questions about how we could integrate such a kid whose mindset had been shaped by such horrifying circumstances, and possibly different cultural mores.

Background knowledge sometimes isn’t enough

We felt fully prepared to receive this vulnerable boy and were provided with the relevant information regarding his background and culture prior to his arrival. However, we didn’t anticipate the extent to which his background may affect his attitude in the home, as well as the wider effect on other residents and staff.

One day, after the boy’s interpreter had visited the home to discuss with staff how he was getting on and to chat with him, he told us that the boy’s attitude towards females, while not unusual in Iraq, was certainly not the norm. He also explained that his exposure to this, allied to the trauma of conflict, likely accounted for his challenging behaviour in the home.

While the interpreter acknowledged that this didn’t tell us much we didn’t already know, it still left us wondering how to best work with him.

It also became apparent that his English remained limited in his eyes, as his frustration would grow when he was unable to express himself fully. This would often turn to anger and shouting at other kids and staff in the home.

Seeing a different side

The boy’s social worker, Evonne, whom he had met twice, said her experience of him was nothing like ours in the home:

“At our first meeting I detailed what my role would be while he was in care, and he listened intently and was very polite… I was also struck by how self-possessed he appeared, particularly given his background.”

“During our second meeting, when he’d been in the home for a week, he told me he felt settled there and how everyone was so friendly. He admitted he was feeling homesick and missed his family, and wanted to return to Iraq when it was safe to do so. But he certainly didn’t present as the angry boy you experienced.”

Clearly these meetings had provided a calm environment which allowed for better one-to-one communication. Evonne was perhaps also regarded by the boy as being in a positive, even powerful role. She arranged visits to a mosque, for example, and he might have seen her as an ally in this respect.

After nearly three months, the boy was moved to another home out of the county. I still sometimes wonder how the staff there manage his behaviour and whether he has managed to find any peace at all.

As for our home, I’m still not sure what we could have done differently in caring for him. We gave him as much one-to-one time as was possible and while we tried to change the staff rota to maximise the number of male staff on duty, it was logistically impossible to do this consistently. We provided the other home’s staff with our daily logs and one-to-ones, but beyond this, I don’t know how or where to look for answers.

David Jones works in a residential children’s home. His name has been changed.

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