Of all the times to set up a new service for adolescents, the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown is probably not what anyone would have chosen.
However, Medway’s interim head of service for this area, Sam Perrins, says the lockdown has made their work even more important.
“It has increased vulnerabilities in this group particularly around self-harm and other health issues. In some ways I think younger children are more resilient because it is easier to distract them. But adolescents internalise it all.”
Focus on adolescent needs
Earlier this year Medway restructured from a system where the same social worker held cases all the way through a child’s care journey, to reinstating more specialist teams.
This was after listening to staff who said young people were being neglected in the former system. Social workers felt guilty they were often forced to prioritise younger children and situations that, on the face of it, appeared more urgent.
Sam, who was part of the team in Rotherham who helped build and develop its front door services and the child missing and sexual exploitation (CSE) service, says working with adolescents requires a particular skillset, mindset and a lot of commitment and determination.
“In most social work the focus is on a parent’s ability to look after and protect the child. That’s not necessarily the case with adolescents where there is far more extra-familial contextual risk and parents don’t have as much influence or ability to protect.”
Rhoda Adebiyi, a senior practitioner with the adolescent service, agrees.
“It can be a really difficult area of work, particularly when you first start working with a young person, but you also get far more positive outcomes out of it. We really have the opportunity to make a huge difference to someone’s adult life at this stage.”
Rhoda says she’s excited by the changes in Medway’s approach and the swiftness with which it has been implemented, even during lockdown.
“A lot has happened in a short space of time. We only split in February, but we’ve already got youth mentors and early help workers in place. We’re also constantly looking at how we tailor our services to the specific needs of Medway’s young people in terms of CSE, gangs and county lines.”
Better multi-agency relationships
She says rapid work to improve multi-agency relationships and working has also meant better support from housing, police and youth offending than previously.
“It’s really positive to see the changes. And the senior management team seem really open to suggestions. I’ve only just returned to Medway, after working in London, but already I’ve been able to discuss my ideas to improve what we do for parents.”
Sam, who was brought in to establish the service, says multi-agency working is vital when it comes to safeguarding young people at high risk.
“It’s getting that mindset in place that safeguarding is everyone’s business. If one of us isn’t doing it right, then none of us are doing it right. But we have to work hard to build trust. In the past I think these partners have been frustrated that children’s services haven’t been able to give them what they needed.”
Youth clubs and services still in place
Sam says Medway has now started to build the adolescent service and already a lot of the pieces are in place to help create a gold standard of care for adolescents.
“It’s one of the few places that still has all of its youth services and youth clubs. This helps ensure young people don’t get pushed into dark corners and onto streets.”
She says this was their first anxiety about the coronavirus lockdown – how to maintain engagement from young people when face-to-face visits could only be undertaken with the highest risk cases and youth clubs had closed.
“But this period has taught us that a lot of our service is quite old-fashioned in how it operates. We’ve realised many of our young people prefer engaging with us on WhatsApp or texts or Microsoft Teams because that is their world.”
Rhoda says some children have engaged more during lockdown than previously because they prefer the virtual visits.
It is also the change in the service that is making a difference, she says – not just to the offer to young people but also to her own practice.
“I’ve been able to access specific training for this area, such as working with gangs, and also more resources on how to plan direct work with young people. And we get training by the edge of care team on how to support young people with challenging behaviours by taking a more positive approach.”
Medway’s current edge Of care team is a transitional service provided by the company Innovate to help support the adolescent team while it gets established.
The service supports 40 young people felt to be at the highest risk of care proceedings and undertakes intensive work with them and their families. Cases are a mix of family support and pre-proceedings work.
Working with children on the edge of care
Jade Eadie, one of the social workers, says this means visiting children weekly.
“Our team is only in place for six months which is quite a short period to address some of these entrenched issues so we spend a lot of time unpicking the issues and ensuring we are pitching support at the right level.”
The family support offered includes parenting skills, practical help with benefits and housing as well as therapeutic, counselling and emotional wellbeing and support.”
Jade has experience in the model, having established a successful version in Enfield, before coming to Medway.
Intensive work to get results
“There have been crisis situations [since we started] but actually this hasn’t been related to the coronavirus. I know Sam Perrins is working really hard in building positive working relationships with our partners including the police and education.”
Jade says adopting an intensive approach reaps rewards for children such as Jackson*, a nine-year old boy (the sibling of an older adolescent) who is now living with his grandparents after his mother struggled with substance misuse and domestic violence.
Despite the confusing changes in his life, he likes to talk about how life has improved living with his grandparents, and he remains happy and confident on the phone, even with strangers.
“Social workers are good because they try to keep the family together,” he says.
While he admits it was strange talking to Jade on video during the lockdown, he says she managed to make it fun by playing drawing games together virtually.
“And we’ve had fun playing Skylanders [a computer game] together as well. She bought me some pieces so we could do it because it’s my favourite game.”
The long-term plan is that the work of the edge of care team will be absorbed into the adolescent team, says Sam. The goal is to reduce the number of young people coming into care for the first time.
“We’re already starting to see changes. Through the family group conferencing and therapeutic support on offer we now have several children reunifying with their families and that’s what we need – less children in care, less children seriously harmed, less mental health problems and children able to attain their life goals.”
Committed social workers
To achieve this Sam says she needs more social workers as passionate and committed as Rhoda and Jade.
“We need people who care about increasing a child’s self-esteem and identifying their future goals and who want to work from a restorative and trauma-informed basis. We have to advocate for these children. We have to get it right for them.”
Commenting on the new approaches, lead member for children’s services Josie Iles says: “I’ve witnessed at first hand the great work being done by Sam and her team and the real difference this is making to some of the most vulnerable young people we work with. Over the past four months we’ve started to see some very innovative approaches being taken as part of our improvement journey and it’s clearly starting to work.”
If you love working with young people and are interested and enthusiastic about making a difference in young lives, then check out the opportunities at Medway or send your CV and a covering letter to firstname.lastname@example.org
*Name has been changed