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What do you see? Reflecting on relationship-based practice.

In this ‘guest blog’ I shall share the reflections of a colleague, Catherine (not her real name). This piece of writing is bursting with passion for practice and for the young people she serves. I found it emotionally moving and uplifting. What fascinated me is the way that the vital role of ‘personal advisor’ is misunderstood and perhaps under-valued. It seems to reflect the attitudes towards the care-leavers that Catherine works with. In relationships we often mirror those we are connected to. I sense that the young people that Catherine works with look to her and see reflected back warmth, approval, compassion and aspirations. Reading this made me wonder what the people I work with see reflected. I know that when I have genuine reciprocal relationships with people that they see a better me. A nicer me. We all need connections to others and to feel valued. So I wonder what you see in others and what they see in you?

What is it like to work in ‘Leaving Care’?

I have worked in Leaving Care within a large local authority for 4.5 years now. During that time, how many times do you think I have been referred to by my actual job title? Very rarely! The young people I work with call me all sorts – “you’re my social worker/support worker/leaving care worker/assistant(!)”. No, none of those. I am a personal advisor, and I often feel that we are forgotten when it comes to talking about social work and the associated issues. For those that do not know, a personal advisor is a statutory role offered to all children leaving the care system who are between the ages of 16 and 25 .

Of all workers on the “unqualified” pay grade, at least in my local authority, we are the only practitioners who are case accountable (case load of 24 and counting), are responsible for writing assessments and plans, and for planning and delivering interventions. This is a huge responsibility as you may imagine, especially as working with teenagers comes with its own unique battles! Not only do you have the normal, teenager issues, you also have the fact that these young people are the product not only of the trauma that they may have suffered in their birth families, but also of our care system. Don’t get me wrong, when it works it works, but you will rarely come across a young person who says “yeah it was great!”. You can imagine that by the age of 18 these young people have had a multitude of workers, both through moving from team to team but also due to the high turnover of social work staff that seems to be happening in every local authority right now. This means that often you are faced with a huge barrier of mistrust before you even start trying to help. You also have the issue that they are adults at the age of 18 and have the right to make their own decisions – there is a reason that we are called personal advisors and not personal dictators! You can make all the plans that you like and offer the support but it does not mean that the young people will want this or hold the same aspirations. Despite this we do continue to hold very high aspirations for all of our young people – someone needs to, right?

Not only this, but because of the extreme level of cuts to support services, we are quite literally the “jack of all trades”. We need a working, practical knowledge of housing (with 6 different localities in our LA with 6 different policies), benefits, including the nightmare that is universal credit, mental health, counselling, parenting, budgeting, youth work, securing education, training and employment, family reunification, domestic violence, drug and crime prevention and intervention, and child protection. As you can imagine, this has been pretty overwhelming at times, along with the fact that services are constantly changing. We also have to automatically refer those care leavers who are becoming young parents in to Children’s Services, which can lead to a lot of mistrust from our young people. We do however work hard to overcome this and be very open and honest if there are concerns, and work alongside them to try and help them make the changes to be the best parent they can be.

My days are never the same, sometimes being the mundane, sometimes being hilarious and sometimes being so heart breaking that you struggle not to crumble. I have stood alongside young people who are in labour and having their children removed at birth, and held their hand when they have a contraction. I have sat through PIP and ESA assessments and spoken for young people who are so terrified of the process they are struck dumb. I have supported a young person, who lost their first child to make the changes needed, so they could keep their second. I have driven to all corners of the country following our young people who decide to move – and keep going there! I have counselled on domestic violence, and removed young people to a refuge. Then some days I get to go and have a cup of tea with our young people and help them reflect on all of the progress they have made, even if it is a tiny step like making a doctor’s appointment independently. Those are my favourite days.

You may wonder why I wanted to write this. I very strongly feel that personal advisors are very much forgotten despite the value that we add to the young people that we work with. In our team especially we have relationships with young people that span up to 10 years of their life due to low staff turnover and a real commitment to this line of work. We hold young peoples’ stories, and we hold them in mind. This is true relationship-based practice. So when it is suggested we are the team that “just fannies around with the pathway plans” I get quite cross!

Someone said to me recently, “don’t you find your job demoralising? When you make hardly any progress, one step forwards, two steps back?” I gave them my honest answer. This job can be so very frustrating and can make you want to bang your head against a brick wall. But I’ve learnt to move past this feeling. These young people are AMAZING. They have survived the care system, the stereotypes, being failed by their families and at times by Children’s Services, yet they come out the other side, still alive, still fighting. Yes, care leavers are over represented in statistics for mental health, in the prison population and for teenage pregnancy, but working with them is truly an inspiration and a privilege. They inspire me every day I go to work and after all this time they are still surprising me with their strength, resilience and humour. So do I find my job demoralising? A resounding NO!

My thanks to Catherine for sharing these honest reflections. She certainly made me pause and reflect on what I bring to relationship-based practice.

If anyone else would like to write something for a guest blog, please contact me at caroline.aldridgesw@yahoo.comor on Twitter @CarolineAldrid5. I’m interested in people’s thoughts on positive practice and sharing ideas where we can learn from each other.

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