Most of you that have attended my training sessions, worked with me or even connected with myself via social media will know that the subject of looked after children is very close to my heart. I’ve lived with, looked after and worked with these children for many years now. Let’s just say that because of my experiences, I very rarely find my jaw descending towards the ground at rapid speed when I witness or read something about the system failing them.
Part of my previous role across police, education and care was to advise professionals working with looked after children on best practice and support – Things that actually worked. These workings were based on much research, experience and the often overlooked key element – Common sense. I was usually called when things were desperate.
Last week I was called to a crisis meeting regarding a child whose case I had advised on several years ago. When Stephen was first referred to me he had not been in full time education for 5 years so couldn’t read or write, had no therapeutic input so his mental health had deteriorated and had broken down several foster placements and was verging on his ninth in the space of 2 years. It’s fair to say – he was in a mess.
After much hard work, battling and various obstacles, Stephen was – in full time education with a 92% attendance rate, able to read and write and begin to attain educationally, in a stable foster placement for 2 years and beginning his therapy. Most importantly he was happy and learnt to trust adults.
So imagine my absolute horror when I get a call explaining that somehow in the space of a year all of the above had fallen through. In the words of the ed psych – ‘Mike everything is going wrong, we need you to come and fight his corner with us’.
Now I need to make it clear that this isn’t the first time that I had come across this. The pattern is all too familiar. But with this case like many others I had worked on, it was one of the few times where professionals and systems actually adapted to meet the needs of the child. A completely new model of collaboration and integrated services that I insisted on had been in place and succeeded against all the odds.
I know what you’re thinking;
‘No issues with accessing funding? No problems with the education system meeting his needs? Surely you must have waited a year for the therapy referral to go through?’ No. This was a way of working that we dream about as educators. Systems were adapted to meet Stephen’s needs, professionals actually listened and did what needed to be done. This was partly because the team around the child were quite switched on, but also because I was able to persuade them that this would actually work. And it got results – Fast! Experience taught me that understanding the cognitive processes and significant trauma that Stephen experienced had to be at the forefront of the collaboration.
The 5 point plan we put together looked like this:
- We tailored and wrote a curriculum to fulfil needs. We moved at Stephen’s pace and communicated with him at every point. Yes he was part of his year group and would be taught some subjects with everyone else where appropriate. But other aspects such as his emotional health and literacy were seen as more important at that time.
- Positive relationships were forged with adults that were rooted on principles of attachment.
- I trained every adult (including his carers) working with him on trauma, attachment, behaviour and had a robust system of behavioural management that was non negotiable. Every adult had to adhere to the system including specific therapeutic language.
- I gave every adult a complete background and full disclosure. This way everyone could see reasons behind behaviours and why it was so important to take this route.
- Consistency and collaboration was non negotiable. Every decision about Stephen was taken by the whole team around him. No matter what area it was, everyone had an input. Specific therapy was sourced privately. Alongside the therapeutic input I led, his carers also worked therapeutically with him. This way it would be consistent and all relationships were on the same footing.
I arrive at the meeting with my usual open mind and ready to find a solution quickly for Stephen. I ran into a few familiar faces in the school foyer that I was pleased to see before the meeting and ask the question ‘what the hell happened?’ Their response was the same; ‘You’ll have to ask the social worker and local authority. Since they’ve come on board it has gone drastically wrong’. As I glanced towards the main door I could see Stephen’s wonderful and dedicated carers coming towards me.
Then it hit me. I recognise that look on their face and felt instantly sick. That look of complete desperation, anguish, frustration and worst of all – helplessness. I know it too well.
Many years ago I was in their shoes. I was screaming at the top of my lungs for someone to do something for the extremely damaged young boy that I looked after. My family and I spent years managing his trauma and trying to piece together a plan for him and never gave up. Most nights he couldn’t cope with the fact that someone cared for him and couldn’t regulate his own thoughts and emotions so he’d be outside for hours having the biggest of meltdowns. Despite all my shouting and begging for help he was soon excluded from school, his behaviour at home was getting beyond my expertise, his mental health was deteriorating rapidly and when he lost the ability to regulate it was getting harder and harder to pull him back. I sat outside his room most nights around 2am when I finally got him off to sleep and contemplated my fear for this young boy who everyone had let down.
After nine months of being in that position he finally went bang and had to be removed by police officers. This remains my single biggest regret and something that I will always carry with me. Although I later realised that there was nothing more I could have done it was still no consolation because now – he was lost. Who would tuck him in at night? Who would hug him when he couldn’t make sense of his destructive thoughts? Who could be trust? Even all these years later I still tear up thinking about it. I vowed from there on that I would never allow that to happen to another child I looked after or worked with.
Stephen’s carers knew I understood and so I hugged them both and held their hands into what I knew would be a difficult meeting.
Here it comes…..
We begin the meeting and I take the unusual position of the onlooker in the corner seat. The social worker goes through recent events and explains Stephen’s escalation in behaviour that has resulted in: exclusion from mainstream and now a PRU, halt in therapy and now a placement breakdown. As we go through the events in a general fashion the social worker could clearly see that I was puzzled and so asked me; ‘Mike you look like you need to say something?’ Rarely do I get an invite like that as my opinion tends to be in favour of the child and not other adults.
‘Yes I’m afraid I’m really confused. What exactly started this chain of events? You’ve told me what happened but not why.’
Instantly Stephen’s carers spoke out as if someone had finally given them permission to release their rage, sadness and frustration all at the same time. With a shaky voice and teary eyes his mother said ‘The local authority and social services removed his 121 support that he’s had for 2 years because they couldn’t find a suitable job title for him and they said that because he wasn’t actually a TA and was trained more in health that their pay scale didn’t cover his £21,000 salary.’
Que my jaw falling to the floor.
‘Is that true?’ I asked through gritted teeth.
The social worker and inclusion representative from the local authority continued to explain to me for 30 seconds that it was the case that there just wasn’t a system in place for this to happen and so they had to hire a TA when he transitioned to high school. Alongside this she also explained that they had to adapt to a new way of working for Stephen so that it would fit in line with the authorities systems and protocols because it was unprecedented and they weren’t sure who would manage them, what their title would be, what agency would supervise them etc.
Now I was livid. ‘So let me just get this straight. You are telling me that you removed the support worker that has rehabilitated Stephen and given him someone in a new environment that he has no relationship with. as well as pulling his therapeutic support at a key moment in his life, all because you don’t currently have the right system in place?’
The inclusion lead wasn’t able to look at me whilst she said that these systems were important and that we needed to ensure that Stephens care could be managed effectively on paper and on a day to day basis. I looked over at the head teacher from the mainstream school, the educational psychologist, Stephen’s carers, his former therapist and other adults shaking their heads around the table before I controlled my rage enough to ask my next question – ‘And all of these people around the table agree with this decision?’
Again they all shake their heads. I am now unable to prevent my mouth from immediately saying what I’m thinking…
‘So you’ve gone against everyone’s opinion that knows this child inside out and has fought tooth and nail to ensure that Stephen has come so far. Not only that you’ve made a decision about a child’s future based on adult’s needs and issues relating to a professional environment that has absolutely nothing to do with Stephen. And as a consequence of your decision he has lost his education, his home, his friends, his relationships and his mental health. All in one decision that is in fact a bloody paper pushing exercise. You ought to be absolutely ashamed of yourselves’. When I looked up the shaking heads had turned to nods.
Sadly I actually said something a lot stronger than ‘bloody’ which I regret.
They responded with saying that they had found a residential placement in the midlands that would help Stephen and that it was in his best interests to pursue this. He would be starting there the week after and a care package had been agreed with them.
Again I looked around the room and many of the adults that knew Stephen were crying. I sat for a second and watched a 47 year old, 6 foot 3 former rugby player turned headmaster wipe the tears from his cheeks. The scenes were beyond belief.
We all have these moments of disbelief as professionals working with these young people. Those times where you say to yourself – This couldn’t possible happen. But here we were.
I felt sick, numb, angry, puzzled and utterly disgusted at the injustice of it all. I had been here before but I couldn’t believe that years later it was happening all over again.
‘I know that place you are sending him to. It’s crap and the rehabilitation rate tells you that, I also know that it costs over £145,000 a year to send a child there. Surely to god if you’re making this judgement on economics and systems you can see the madness in this?’
I offered to work with Stephen for free and turn things around and find a way to work this out, I then threatened to go to higher authorities and call in every favour I was owed. I continue to rant and plea to their better nature. Every trick I usually had up my sleeve I played. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
At this point Stephen’s foster mother screamed and fell from her chair to the floor in a state of despair. The anguish on her face and uncontrollable shaking meant that she had to temporarily leave the room. My heart broke for them.
Other professionals weighed in on the argument and still nothing was going to change. This was their decision and this was what Stephen’s future would look like.
My closing remarks after the hour and half drew to a close were;
‘I can’t believe that after all that progress Stephen made you still think that residential is the best thing for him? His future and possibly rest of his life is going to be written for him, yes there’s a chance he could still come out the other side but I’ve seen this before. All because the authority can’t make it work. What bloody hope has any child got that’s looked after by this authority? You’re trying to push a system of averages onto a child that is anything but the average. This is complete bull****’.
The meeting ended and out we all went. I got in my car and the same feeling I had all those years ago came flooding back.
Another child failed by the system.
We know far too much about child and cognitive development and the impact of trauma to allow this to continue to happen within the system. The significant difference in this case is that things were working, and that an alternative to the ‘system’ was in place.
And who is meant to be policing these decisions that are constantly made on an authority basis?
As I drove from the school I cast my mind back to when I went to Stephen’s end of year 5 assembly to see him pick up three awards. After the assembly when I asked him how he felt he said to me – ‘Mike, I think I’m really happy and I never thought I could do this. Everyone understands me and supports me. Thank you.’
Stephen I have requested that my objections be shown on your file like many other children before you so if you ever look at it you will see that we tried our best.
But I’m truly sorry we couldn’t stop this.