by Becca Dove and Tim Fisher
Amanda got up out of her chair. She had watched the young parent activist in tears telling her story; her anguish and anger at the way services had treated her and her child was clear – as was the extraordinary courage it had taken to tell her story in the first place.
Amanda, a peer advocate with ATD Fourth World, walked from the audience to the front of the room, took a chair beside the mother and put a hand on her shoulder. Both women breathed. The audience was still and silent as they watched. It was a living embodiment of what Amanda had herself said from the platform just 15 minutes before: “I will be next to you”.
Many of us in the audience at the West Midlands Social Work Teaching Partnership event in late February, titled ‘Parents and their Allies Together’ and co-chaired by Annie from Surviving Safeguarding, felt that empathic desire to sit beside this mother and lend our support.
What made Amanda Button different in this scenario was she had something many of us didn’t – a real-world experience of what it was like to have a child in the child protection system.
She had been where this mother was. One story had resonance with the other. It was the difference that made the difference.
Lessons being learned
The children’s social care and family support worlds are beginning to get their heads round what parent peer advocacy and peer support based on lived experience could look like. Evidence from projects in the US and Australia are filtering their way into the UK.
Lessons are being drawn from other disciplines that have embraced lived experience and peer support, including drug and alcohol settings, housing, perinatal support and mental health. Charitable organisations, such as New Beginnings in Stockport, are pioneering ideas.
Academics are undertaking research and literature reviews to inform the debate. Our own Camden Conversations saw parents with lived experience of child protection leading an enquiry into local child protection practices. The “rich, untapped resource” to help children and families is being noticed and, from the evidence we saw at the West Midlands event, with good reason.
Helping human services are all about bringing together networks of support to help and scaffold. Slowly, perhaps too slowly, we are beginning to conceive parent peer advocacy and lived-experience peer support as something that adds value to that endeavour.
For parents, it might mean having someone alongside you who gets how it feels to be you, with valuable insight and knowledge of the world you are currently inhabiting and, critically, how to navigate it.
For professionals, it might mean enriching the helping network with unique expertise, and doing so safely, ethically and respectfully in a way that helps a parent, child and family to move forward with their journey. Nothing in those last two sentences stands contrary to the values of our disciplines or presents as an unethical enterprise.
Long road ahead
There is a significant road ahead to embrace lived-experience and parent peer support in child protection and family support. But while we all contribute to working out the big stuff, the West Midlands event got us thinking about how we could all use relational activism values – changing the piece of the world you can touch through your personal relationships – to take action now.
Simple things that we could do today could help the parent peer support conversation to keep moving tomorrow.
That could be thinking to ask a parent if they would like someone of their choosing to come with them to a child protection meeting or a team around a family meeting. Or asking four of your colleagues to come and listen to a parent’s story of their journey and what helped (or hindered) them. Or Amanda’s idea to arrange a coffee with two parents who have shared similar experiences, perhaps one past and one present. Then telling others what you did, and reflecting on what difference it made.
Small contributions like these, which show a commitment to the value of parents’ lived experience expertise, inform the bigger conversation. They help to conceptualise what might be possible and give it form, shape and hope.
The act might seem inconsequential. But it could be another mechanism of persuasion, particularly when it accrues with the actions of others doing the same.
Waiting for a central mandate turns the dial incredibly slowly. Much can be done from the edges. So, perhaps, the question is: in what ways might parent peer support and lived experience help the children and families you are working with – and what small thing could you do to find out if you’re right?
Becca is a family worker and Tim is a social worker, both at Camden council. For more information about parent peer advocacy and lived experience peer support in social work, see the Parents, Families and Allies Network or contact Andy Bilson @Andy_Bilson or Simon Haworth @SiHaworth. With thanks to Diana Skelton and Amanda Button at ATD Fourth World for their contributions to this article.