A foreign correspondent (Part 2). By Angus Burnett

This is the second part of an adaptation an M.A. dissertation by Angus Burnett. It is about leadership, task and organisation in a therapeutic community for children. The M.A. in Therapeutic Child Care at The University of Reading was run by Adrian Ward, Dr. Linnet Mc Mahon, Paul Cain, Deborah Best and Theresa Howard at the Dept. of Community Studies from 1989 – 2006. The book ‘Intuition is Not Enough’ ((1998) Eds. Ward, A. & Mc Mahon L. Routledge, London) captured the model of group work and reflective practice that underpinned all aspects of the course. The course and book continue to influence many people across the field of specialist child care and beyond. Angus Burnett is head of Referrals and Partnerships at The Mulberry Bush School.  Part 3 will be published in our August 1st Edition.


Chapter 3. Methodology.


The initial proposal for this dissertation was concerned with the perennial tensions one observes and encounters within organisations offering residential care as well as education of children and young people.   The rationale behind my focus was, firstly, that since the beginning of 2003 I had been the Director of a service in England, which comprised of a therapeutic children’s home and its attached school. (For the purposes of this paper it will be named Sinnott House) In this capacity I had to contain and manage the complex dynamics that seemed to arise continuously and often be played out between the two groups of staff.  This focus also arose because although these tensions do get played out in many other settings, the nature of that particular setting and of other therapeutic units is based on guiding principles of an understanding of behaviour, self-analysis and reflection, and of open enquiry and communication. It appeared to me that settings such as the one in which I work should, by their very nature, not profess to be able to avoid these difficulties but be able to have a firmer grasp of how they arise and an ability to ameliorate them, deal with them sooner and be more informed by them.  

As I got to know Sinnott House and its staff, I had to reflect on my own powerful desires to establish change within the institution which was in contrast to the team’s more slowly emerging readiness to change.  Much as I expected my staff to work empathetically at the children’s current ability, I needed to do the same for my team.

I therefore needed to be constantly aware of my own wish to move the culture faster than my team was ready for.

The emphasis of my research therefore changed: it was no longer concerned with how a staff’s understanding of group processes can help to develop an interpretation of the daily phenomena.  Instead, it became concerned with how a leader’s self- awareness and analysis of his internal experience could contribute to containment of the daily phenomena and dynamics within a therapeutic children’s home.  This containment can become a foundation for nurturing understanding in the team of group processes, systems, and structures, as well as of the psychodynamic therapeutic task.


The Reflective Approach

Nicholas Midgley (2004:  92) in describing the kind of qualitative research that I was attempting to do says,

It is an approach that aims less at prediction and statistical correlation, and more at discovery and increased understanding of the human world.  Such an approach is especially useful when the focus of study is to elucidate or illuminate the meanings which people employ to make sense of their experiences and guide their actions.

Furthermore Michael Preston-Shoot (1996:  10) emphasises the importance of self-examination undertaken in the spirit of a culture of enquiry:

A reflective space is a position of curiosity (Cecchin, 1987), a lively and creative stance which accepts nothing and challenges everything.  It entails personal examination, and may involve a sense of being lost, a questioning of behaviour and role, or the experience of pain and disturbance.  it empowers people to find renewed understanding or new possibilities for action. It represents a supervisory viewpoint (Casement, 1985), helping people disentangle themselves from the action.  It assumes that, to retain effectiveness and creativity, practitioners must include themselves in their observations since they are part of any equation of stuckness or change, part of the systems they work with and within.

The aim of my research, as Midgley suggests, was to reflect on the meanings which my staff gave to the children’s and their own behaviour with a view to empowering the team ‘to find renewed understanding or new possibilities for action’.  This dissertation provided me with a reflective space as described above by Preston-Shoot, which I hoped would enable me to encourage my staff to accept this reflective position within their day-to-day work.

It was therefore essential that I took on this personal examination myself, accepting nothing and challenging everything.  Some of this personal examination had already taken place in my previous role, managing a therapeutic unit at the Cotswold Community.  This internalised prior experience will inform the comparative aspect of this paper. However, at that time, I also needed to focus on both my internal experiences within all my interactions with the team and also my external experiences with the larger organization of which Sinnott House is a part and with other external agencies.


Areas of Study

The specific areas of study that informed this research are as follows:

  1. Actual observations of children, staff, and their interactions with each other at the Cotswold Community and at Sinnott House.
  2. My own actual interactions with staff, children, the larger organizations and other agencies.
  3. My theoretical understanding, based on my previous experience,  of events and general practice at Sinnott House.
  4. My explicit thoughts and feelings about events and interactions.
  5. The emotions and disruptions to my thinking that some interactions and observations elicited in me.
  6. The process of questioning in order to bring together all the above strands of information.
  7. The process of deciding how to model a reflective approach as a way of beginning to create a culture of enquiry within Sinnott House.

In this sense the dissertation formed part of a reflective process for me, a survey of the world outside the unit, of the knowledge available through literature, and of my own inner world with its phenomena and its impact on my work.  It was intended as a mapping out exercise to learn from the past and to inform future interactions with the staff in order to redraw the psychic and political geography.


The Difficulties that Arose

It is tempting in research to think that one has to come up with perfect solutions that will account for all eventualities, or to expect others to do so.  It can be a way of protecting against the anxieties of the unknown. These anxieties can similarly draw one into thinking that the perfect questions can be found, a flawless piece of research that will provide the definitive answer.  However, in reality the researcher has to find an appropriate approach and settle for being ‘good-enough’. To do this, the researcher has to look for and acknowledge the shortcomings of the venture. In this way the research can be made more valid by attempting to be aware of as many shortcomings as possible, one of which is the fact that it is impossible to be aware of them all; we all have blindspots and internal censorship.

I am therefore writing about subjectivity, ethics, self-reflection and literature, bearing in mind that it is not an exhaustive list, that others will find fault and unanswered questions.  I hope that the omissions provide as much food for thought as the content.



In looking at, describing, and analysing myself and others in order to deduce meaning and plan future actions I am aware that I am applying a specific filter, that is, myself.  I can strive to be aware of the possibility of having a certain viewpoint such as that of being a white european male. Although I have, at times, used my own personal psychoanalytical psychotherapy to become more aware of some of my biases, this also tells me that I subscribe to a certain way of describing human nature and of making sense of the world.  People are biased in the way that they seek to understand their biases. There are also biases that remain invisible to oneself and to others. These distortions are impossible to totally eliminate, therefore the quest to attain objectivity becomes somewhat meaningless.

This problem within research interested the Psychoanalyst, Georges Devereux,

Devereux’s approach originates in the view that psychoanalysis can provide an epistemology for the behavioural sciences.  This approach questions the nature of objectivity, of subjectivity and of the relation between the ‘researched’ as a subject and also the researcher as a subject.  In other words, the observer is also observed by the research subject. Data are not only produced in an objective way but they are co-constructed in the complex interaction between the researcher and the subject.

(Giami 2001:  4)

Devereux (1967) argues that in any research within the behavioural sciences, there are anxieties on the part of the researched and the researcher which lead to unconscious compensation for the anxiety on both parts.  This can lead to quantitative methodologies which are, in reality, a defence which distort the true research. These distortions, or biases, are impossible to eliminate fully. A recognition of this fact is likely to lead to a truer picture of the phenomena studied than a defence against this fact, which will lead to ‘fictitious objectivity’, what should be rather than what really is.

My methodology therefore was one of subjective reflection framed within a background of psychodynamic consultation aimed at recognising and utilising the psychic processes inherent in the work.  I will also examine of some of the literature mentioned earlier, which will be used to explore the data and to explain, within the dissertation, the concepts under examination. However Devereux’s theory also points out that any selection of reading material will be biased by unconscious selection.



In describing qualitative work, there arises the problems of permission and confidentiality.  The work goes on daily and is not preceded by the signing of any release forms; people are not aware that at some point in the future someone may wish to write about their contribution.  If they were, they may have consciously or unconsciously made different decisions. However, I did not have conversations with the explicit intention of eliciting information for this dissertation nor did I deliberately observe or keep alert for actions and interactions specifically for the purpose of this dissertation and so I did not mislead people.  The actions and conversations that I will describe were made publicly rather than in supervision or in confidence

I have anonymised people by either not mentioning names at all or by the use of pseudonyms for both adults and children.


Self- reflection

Self-reflection implies a capacity to conceptualize, make sense of and articulate my own experiences, to make the inner world of my thoughts and feelings comprehensible to myself and others.  Yet there will be areas that may be more difficult or painful to conceptualize, or to recognise and talk about. The most powerful of these I will relegate to the unconscious, whilst others I may shy away from without being able ever to get away from them completely.  It is important however to turn one’s gaze steadily back to these areas as they may well be the most informative. Devereux and Obholzer & Roberts agree on this:

one can work at a self-observing stance towards one’s reactions, noticing when these seem more intense than the current situation warrants, or when one’s emotional state is similar to ways one has felt in earlier significant relationships.

(Obholzer and Roberts 1994:  135)



There are a lot of books and papers published about psychodynamics, therapeutic childcare, organizational studies and management.  The literature on the management of change is useful but, for this study it lacks one vital aspect: there is very little on the study of change when the change is a transfer of management.  I intend to begin a process of linking these two areas together.

I hope that this will be of use to other leaders, managers, Directors and organizations.  However it will be of more use if other managers are able to reflect and compare their experiences and theoretical frameworks in order to build up a body of work on these very specific dynamics.  Therefore the final document is intended to be a discussion document. As the work is also framed by, and about, establishing ‘cultures of enquiry’ the intention is to retain and engender a sense of curiosity rather than sate it.

It seems to me that posing the right questions is more important than finding solutions…A two-and-a-half-year-old boy I worked with was worried that there was a wolf at the window.  A girl of the same age shared this fear. When I asked them what the wolf was going to do, the boy said that it was there to gobble him up, but the girl said ‘Let’s go and ask it.’ As an approach to knowledge, this desire to find something out seems more reasonable, or at least more productive, than the assumption made by the little boy.

(Leader 1996: ix – x)    

In essence this is the basis for the methodology, to ask questions.  The answers can then be considered and used to influence practice and to formulate further questions.  However there are problems with this approach. These problems take the form of basic questions, how do I know I am asking the right question?  Am I asking the right people? What subjectivity is involved in deciphering the answers? These are some of the problems of the participant observer involved in qualitative research.

In this methodology, I have attempted to describe the reflective approach that this dissertation took.  Devereux and other writers have validated this approach, which I believe will work best for the psychodynamically orientated observational research that this dissertation describes.  Like all methodologies, it is open to error and interpretation, which I hope will form a useful backdrop for further thought and discussion.


Chapter 4.


My journey(s) in therapeutic childcare are through two different terrains and it is important to give some geography and history in order to put the present in context and future directions in sight.

The task of a psychodynamically based therapeutic child care model is to help children develop a self that can contain the id and the superego and can begin to understand the relationship between his/her own thoughts, feelings and actions.  In order to achieve this, the holding organisation must be able consciously to model and reflect this. Supervision, staff meetings and consultations must provide a space where individuals are held and helped to understand the pressures and defences against them inherent in the work that distort perceptions, role and communication.  These distorting dynamics can then affect how individuals, pairings, formal sub-systems or sub-teams and ultimately the whole team can lose the ability to relate, reflect and communicate with itself.

Therapy does not exist in a vacuum and experiences pressures from without as well as within.  The work exists in relation to a wider context, this immediate environment is the ‘umbrella’ organisation surrounding the unit, the local authority, business or charity who are responsible for any unit. To build and sustain a therapeutic culture there must be an awareness of context.  Lewin’s Field Theory(1950) and later Rice and Miller’s (1967) work on applying an open systems model to human systems and organisations captures the notion of context succinctly. In this theory the organisation is compared with a living organism. Both organisation and organism need to establish themselves within an environment where they can take in raw material, process this and convert it to produce an output back into the environment.  In a sentient organisation there should be an awareness of the environment that increases the chances of survival through control of the input, output and situation within the environment. Somebody in the unit or organisation has to understand what ‘here’, the inside of the unit or organisation, is and how it relates to the world outside the organisation, is it fertile? is it temperate or intemperate? volatile or stable? Succinctly, what are the threats to survival from within and without and how can a path be steered that ensures survival and learning.


The Cotswold Community

I arrived at the Cotswold Community in 1989 when it had been evolving in its present incarnation for just over twenty years.  Previously it had been called the Cotswold School and was an approved school run by the Rainer Foundation. Approved Schools were where young people were sent, supposedly to be reformed from delinquent activities rather than detained and punished at a Borstal.   In 1967 the forward looking Foundation had decided to appoint Richard Balbernie to transform the successful school into a therapeutic community. Balbernie took as primary inspiration the diverse work of A.S. Neill at Summerhill, George Lyward at Finchden Manor, W. D. Wills at Hawkspur Camp as well as Otto Shaw and F. G. Lennhoff.  In Residential Work with Children, Richard Balbernie wrote:

If there is any common ground in the work of these men it lies in their belief in people and not in institutions and their conception and use of the whole residential setting in conjunction with highly skilled child-adult relationship work sensitively mobilized and available to meet the needs of the individual child at the various stages in his recovery.

 (Balbernie 1966:  29)

David Wills visited the Cotswold Community shortly after Richard Balbernie had been appointed as Principal.  In his book, ‘Spare the Child’, about his visits to the Cotswold Community at that time, Wills writes

[When Balbernie arrived] he knew in general terms exactly what he wanted to do, though he had only the vaguest idea how in the particular circumstances it was to be done.  One of his aims could be described as the establishment of a community of stable, concerned adults and delinquent children, where communication was uninhibited by artificial barriers, so that some of the qualities of the adults could ‘rub off’ on to the children.  That is a very crude way of putting it.

(Wills 1971:  23)

The subtitle of W.D.Wills book called the Community an ‘experimental approved school’.  By the time I arrived, any notion of it being an experimental approved school had long since dissipated although the cultures of enquiry and adaptation that were well established carried forward a different spirit of experimentalism, that of careful, considerate thought and creativity.

Richard Balbernie had taken his vision and built on it.  To do this he had initially sought and received advice from the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.  This led to a long standing relationship between the two organisations and particularly with Isabel Menzies Lyth and Eric Miller.

James Mosse (1994:  5) writing about the work of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations says

A consultant engaging with a client organisation is engaging with a social system.  This system exists in the real world, and has a structure intended to relate to the effective discharge of its primary task.  Both this structure and the technology of task performance must therefore be understood, as must the interface between them. This means understanding the organization’s description of itself and its intended structure. The consultant, however, also must be able to observe for him- or herself what actually goes on, regardless of what is claimed, and then be able to reflect upon the significance of what has been discerned.

Here, a reflective and self-aware culture of enquiry is brought to bear on the practice, not this time on the individual or sub-group but on the organisation as a whole.  A system of practice is drawn together that provides layers of reflective space, thought and communication. The mode of working could lead to consensus and hegemony as group defenses against anxiety flourished.  The nature of the enquiry, however, is to uncover the defenses of the individual and the group, trace these back to the anxieties that may be causing these defenses to arise and then to use this information to influence the task.  The use of consultants in this way can be highly important as a protection against institutional defences as consultants can maintain an outside perspective. New people joining an organisation also bring an outside perspective but may be anxious about using it and furthermore they can eventually lose this perspective by becoming part of the institution.

This was thoroughly established in the culture of the Cotswold Community and in its way of relating to the world within which it existed at the point of my arrival.  It was this practice which the management would try to imbue new staff with. In this way, far from training staff in a way of ‘seeing things’, they would find a way of ‘looking at things’ informed by a theoretical base and a framework of good practice.  This is rather analogous to scientific endeavour in which people are encouraged not to accept received wisdom, but to question assumptions and to seek rationally not only to understand the phenomena occurring around them but also to understand the interaction between the observer and the observed as far as it was possible.

This process was where the Cotswold Community remained an ‘experimental’ school.  Through a dedication to reflective practice and the maintenance of the culture of enquiry it upheld ‘research’,

Knowledge in psychoanalysis has accumulated in logical and ‘accountable’ ways, in the sense that successive advances in theories and techniques have been explicitly built on earlier discoveries.  Psychoanalysts have had to specify and justify, on grounds of clinical evidence and theoretical adequacy, their departures from previously-held positions. There has been a logic and a system in the evolution of their ideas, from Freud through to Bion and beyond, which has been fundamental to the coherence of the field of psychoanalysis.

(Rustin 2003:  139)

It was after five years of being immersed in this environment that I was asked to become the manager of a unit that had been experiencing a high level of ‘acting out’ from the boys placed there.  ‘Acting out’ in this context refers to behaviour that can be seen as an avoidance or alternative to remembering past events. However, because it is an avoidance, the behaviour has an emotional connection to the original event(s) and clues to understanding them can be found within the behaviour if one is attentive, patient and attuned to the child.   It is my experiences in that unit at that time and how they became internalised in me that form the basis for the next chapter.

The Cotswold Community was not the only institution that had embarked on the transition from Approved School.  Around the same time that Richard Balbernie began transforming the culture of the Cotswold Community, Melvyn Rose started steering Park House in Surrey towards what would become Peper Harow.


Peper Harow

Peper Harow evolved into a therapeutic community, initially for boys but later for girls as well.

Melvyn Rose had been appointed as a teacher and housemaster at Park House in 1964.  In 1970 he was appointed to the post of Headmaster and in collaboration with the psychiatrist and the Chairman of Trustees began to challenge the culture that existed at that time both within and immediately without the school.

Rose (1990: 79) has written of this time, ‘Peper Harow’s birth and initial identity was as much defined by contrast with its past as by its intentions for the future.’  Much the same as Balbernie, Rose recognised that the approved school culture and the attitudes it fostered amongst staff perpetuated old problems and gave birth to new ones.  The environment and the behaviour of the people within it, whether children or staff, were inextricably linked usually by unconscious processes which hitherto staff were unaware of.

The real purpose of the disturbed behaviour needed to be recognised.  Yet, if the staff were largely unaware of unconscious functioning, then this behaviour would inevitably alienate rather than clarify, and provoke rejection rather than compassionate understanding.  

(ibid:  79)

In embarking on the transformations of these two organisations, Balbernie and Rose were not only asking people to start facing up to these processes but to use the insights to promulgate change.  Change can simultaneously be an intensely exciting and energising activity or a fraught and enervating ordeal. Often this can polarize staff who then get caught up in the processes of splitting and projection.

Interestingly, writing about early meetings in which the whole of Peper Harow would come together, Rose was able to encapsulate the connections between inner worlds, the immediate environment and society, forming a context for a therapeutic culture.

The adults who started the new community wanted to give the adolescents a fresh chance.  They wanted to trust them – indeed, at the end of the sixties they were identified with a different social ideology to that of their predecessors.  They were on the youngsters’ side: for liberty, instead of repression – though there was an element of their zeal that was more interested in principles than in understanding the youngsters’ needs.  These new staff, too, had a great deal to learn about their own motivation.

(ibid:  80)

The ideas of self reflection and a culture of enquiry echo through this passage.  Every motivation, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, should be available for analysis in order to gain greater understanding of the task.

Balbernie and Rose were, in the process of transforming the approved schools, having to uncover some of the forces that had driven the schools previously.  Whereas Balbernie had recognised a need to devolve authority and responsibility into roles relating to the various aspects of the daily life and business of the community, making the principal less central and omnipotent, Rose made the decision to set himself up as ‘tribal leader’ (cited in Furnivall.  1991).

This strong, charismatic leadership provided at Peper Harow at this time allowed and encouraged a focus onto Rose himself for the projections and transferences during a time of turmoil and change.  There was a sense of belonging and identity around a central vision. Basic assumptions, always prevalent, were, here, utilised to release energies towards creating positive change.

The Director had also helped solidify the cohesion of the group by presenting a series of ‘dragons’ to vanquish: recalcitrant old-timer staff or boys; lack of money; ignorant local authorities; juvenile courts; local opinion etc.  

(Furnivall  1991: 124)

By the early 1980s the culture and context were combining again to exert pressures on the status quo.  Manipulation of basic assumption groups may well be part of a leader’s repertoire but it has its shortcomings and long term use of this strategy is limited.  According to Furnivall the common tendency was to unite in a fight/flight configuration. However it was becoming harder to find a common cause. ‘…the supply of dragons that could be fought in this way was drying up.  The community was settled, successful, well housed, well fed, almost complacent’ (Furnivall 1991: 124).

The staff and children entering Peper Harow were changing too.  Staff were no longer simply idealistic young people energised by the optimistic tide of the late sixties and early seventies.  Staff were often older and better trained, living in a political climate that also affected the nature of the children being referred.  Social services were coming under greater financial pressure and accountability. Opinions on placing children in residential care were changing, especially if these were long distances from the young person’s cultural communities.  Specialised fostering organisations were springing up to meet the demand to place young people with families. These factors combined with the fact that placements with therapeutic communities were (in the immediate term) expensive meant that local authorities were increasingly reluctant to place children in such specialised placements.  The children who did arrive were more likely to be those who could not be placed with foster families, although, often, this had been found out after a long drawn out period of multiple fostering breakdowns compounding the children’s feelings of rejection, failure and anger. Increasingly the children were felt to be more damaged, disturbed and uncontained by the time they reached places such as Peper Harow (Furnivall 1991).  

The Peper Harow that the new staff and children came to did not belong to them.  It had been created with a lot of energy and enthusiasm by a previous generation in the face of adversity,

For the more recent arrivals this sense of momentous external change was absent.  The vivid memories of creating a warm and beautiful house, and a compassionate and loving culture out of squalor and abuse were no longer owned by the individuals, but becoming the stuff of history.  Once the culture shock experienced by all newcomers had worn off, there was a danger that the environment would be taken for granted. Moreover the carefully created symbols of nurturing parenthood could well be the focus of such attack by such disturbed boys, if they were unable to experience them as their own.

Furnivall (ibid:  125)

A combination of the need to create a space for new development within Peper Harow and the recognition that the successful past could be used to create new services based on the Peper Harow model led to Rose setting up the Peper Harow Foundation.  The Foundation grew to have five residential therapeutic childcare projects catering for a range of age groups which were based around. The original Peper Harow suffered a fire in 1989 and closed its doors in 1993.

The work that I am doing now, consolidating and nurturing a therapeutic culture in a house and school, following on from the founding Director, is framed and informed by the past history of the project.  Furthermore, I have a history of my own that I bring to the work, including the Cotswold Community model embedded within me.


Chapter 5.

The Relationship Between Theory & Practice

I arrived at the Cotswold Community in 1989.  Having had no previous experience of therapeutic childcare and no knowledge of therapeutic communities I entered a strange new country.  I struggled to understand the language, customs and reasons for the rituals that took place. It was hard to see the reasons sometimes for how a child was worked with, why sometimes they were expected to work really hard on some aspect of their behaviour and at other times, seemed to be treated quite leniently.  This also applied to the adults I worked with: for example, it could be quite baffling to see people getting angry with colleagues who announced they were leaving.

It was very easy both to feel lost and to experience the excitement and anticipation of discovery.  It was also easy to feel the anxiety of being a stranger, vulnerable in one’s ignorance, lonely and deskilled.  Without the navigation tools that colleagues had picked up through experience, it was easy for the terrain and climate to change without forewarning, as the boys’ disturbances suddenly spilled out into individual and group collapses such as a group of them running off together and engaging in delinquent activity.  Anticipating these events left a residual sense of dread and responsibility in me on a daily basis.


Finding a Framework

I initially worked with a very experienced team.  Through supervision with my manager and with my clinical supervisor I was supported through the realisation that some of these emotions and instincts were connected to the fact that the children’s disturbance brutally questioned our own psychopathologies.  The work entailed emotional and intellectual interaction with children whose emotional worlds and thought processes were disturbed and extreme. To engage with these children through these extremes required finding out where my own ‘limits’ were. It can be very easy in such settings when getting caught up in disturbed thinking and responses to attribute the distortion entirely to the child.  For instance, a worker faced with a defiant and irrational child at a mealtime can find himself becoming ever more controlling which can lead to the child reasserting his defiance. I remember clearly a mealtime with a boy called ‘Peter’. While I do not recall the specifics of his behaviour, I remember being enraged to the point of fury. My anxiety could have led me to make irrational and un-therapeutic decisions such as taking the child’s food away, thereby recreating deprivation and punishment.  I may have tried to justify this action on account of the child’s ‘provocation’. Or, as was the case, I could be supported by the rest of the team into trying to understand and being informed by the episode. In this case, I could only do so by temporarily leaving the room to give myself a reflective space, which, in the room, the child’s projections would not allow me. It is important to the integrity of the work and responsibility to the children that we can perceive our own distortions and prejudices or at least be aware when they are being aroused.  The paradox is that the distortions and prejudices that we should be most aware of are the ones we are most likely not to want to look at; they are too painful and too disturbing and most often exiled to the hinterland of the unconscious. In this example, the violence aroused in me by this boy was profoundly disturbing but eventually gave me insight into his levels of rage. Without the support of a reflecting team, it would have been easy to believe, and to maintain the belief in the long term, that this boy simply deserved punishment.

To work with these children it is important to be aware of how one is thinking, reacting and feeling and how this is being influenced from within and without.  The work involves tolerating an accumulation of great turmoil and pain in amounts survivable to both adults and children. Naturally, defences will continually come into action to try to protect people from the pain.  Adults can become over or under-distanced from the emotional trauma of working with such children.

The ‘thinking’ in this context does not require to be intellectually demanding, it entails rather the capacity to bear experiencing the child’s feelings and one’s own accompanying feelings until they have undergone a process of internal modulation enabling the adult to make a response in keeping with what the child has communicated, rather than a reaction directed by the adult’s own emotions.

These emotional reactions are likely to be very strong and, whether we be therapists or substitute parents, we are liable to find aroused in ourselves defences which are not dissimilar to those of the deprived children.  We require to be vigilant that our receptivity is not being impaired by these defences and that we too are not drawn into playing a part in the ‘cycle of deprivation’ despite our firmest intentions to offer a relationship which provides a path out of this cycle.

(Hoxter 1983:  125 – 26)

The opportunity and responsibility to reflect and learn about myself was huge.  It was a sense of this that fuelled both my excitement and my dread. By being helped to recognise and acknowledge this consciously I was provided with a compass.  With this, although I still could get lost at times, I now had a method to return to with which I could re-establish my bearings. Working within a team and an organisation that also engaged in this process of enquiry and reflection gave a sense of safety.  Expectations to use the forums such as consultancy, team meetings and supervision and to communicate responsibly within them rather than split communication off into unproductive or destructive channels provided boundaries and security. If we were going to ask these children to engage in the process of looking within themselves at, not only the good but the parts that caused anguish and anger, then the adults had a moral obligation to engage in the same process.


Taking Responsibility

After five years at The Cotswold Community I was asked to take over the management of a struggling unit, called The Cottage, and, after some anxious hesitation, I agreed.  At the time, the majority of the team working in the unit were relatively new with only the most recent manager and the ‘poly’ teacher having any significant experience in therapeutic childcare or education.  The ‘polys’ were the name given to the education areas connected to each unit and where the boys played and studied during the week.

As a result of the difficulties the unit had been facing, the staff team had been supplemented with students and volunteers.  There was a higher than average staff/child ratio compared to the other units. This, however had not impacted on the level of acting out which had reached dangerous levels for boys and staff, with group breakdowns happening on an almost daily basis.

One of the most striking features for me, on entering this unit, was not the behaviour of the boys but that of the adults in staff meetings.  People would frequently speak on behalf of someone else or try to make decisions that were not in the remit of their role. Most noticeably in the relationship between the two Poly staff, there was a lack of clarity over who was in charge.  The whole team seemed to feel that they were ‘doing things right’ despite the high levels of acting out, which should have been evidence to the contrary. This team was functioning under basic assumption fight/flight mentality.

As someone who had been asked to lead and manage the team out of the circle of decline, I represented two aspects for the team: one was that of rescuer and bringer of relief, the other was that of implicit criticism of failure from the community.    There was a very real risk that I could have delinquently but unconsciously negotiated a new basic assumption mentality. This basic assumption would have served the purpose of avoiding the pain both of forming a new but difficult relationship with this team and of exploring the projections and emotions of this process.  It would also keep us away from the normative primary task, therapeutic child care.

In some ways it was easy to remain aware of the primary task and to remind this team of it.  In fact, paradoxically, this is what the boys were engaged in: by acting out they were attempting to avoid feelings of unbearable pain and distress, by doing so they were telling us that the feelings existed and needed realizing and communicating which would only be achieved by attention to the environment created by the adult group.  Although the team felt they were ‘doing things right’, it was a simple matter to return their gaze to the chaos around them as evidence that some things were clearly not right. There was then the task of pinpointing and highlighting the aspects of the adults’ behaviour and the boys’ treatment that would lead to change and growth.

One evening, shortly after I had joined the unit, I was sitting at one of the dining tables eating our evening meal with the boys when, having had one cup of milk, I poured myself a second cup.  One of the boys immediately remarked on this and said that I was not allowed a second cup of milk and that I should only have a ‘teasworth’. Already feeling that I knew the answer, and that I did not want it confirmed, but feeling personally and professionally compelled to find out, I asked,

‘What is a teasworth?’

‘It’s the amount of milk you’d have if you were going to have a cup of tea’

‘Why can you only have a ‘teasworth’?’

‘Because milk’s a special drink that only your carer can give you’

At the same time, I felt that I had broken the rules in having this conversation, there and then, with one of the boys.  The atmosphere amongst the other adults on the table felt as if I had both broken ranks and also potentially opened some sort of floodgate.  Questioning was seen as weakening the culture rather than an opportunity to strengthen it. The positive aspect of this interaction was that the boy clearly felt that the rules should apply equally to adults and children and was able to say this publicly.

At the next staff meeting I raised the question of milk and the ‘teasworth’.  The team suggested to me that Barbara Dockar-Drysdale had illustrated the universal symbolic value of milk in a child’s residential treatment.  To me, this interpretation of the theory seemed to miss many subtleties in the thinking around adaptation and the use of symbolism. Milk, as the infant’s first food, may have a higher tendency to be used on an unconscious level as a quasi-symbolic drink but it remains possible that a child may choose water or juice as his symbolic ‘feed’:  even if milk does have symbolic importance for a child, this should be focussed at certain times and places within the relationship with his keyworker. It could still be possible, outside of that provision for him to experience an everyday quality to milk that if overly managed, in the way illustrated, would recreate deprivation. There seemed to be a very literal and concrete interpretation of Dockar-Drysdale.   I felt that this literal interpretation of a case study indicated an anxiety to do things right but also a defence against the anxiety of doing things wrong. This translated into a need for someone to provide rules and manuals on how to do the work rather than a framework that provided a way of thinking about the relationships that we should be providing for these children.  At this point, the team was working on a basic assumption defence mentality.

In confronting these defences and in contrasting the team’s belief in its current practice with the reality of the dramatizations being acted out around us, I was perceived as arrogant and acting omnipotently.  In some senses I was: I had a strong belief in the therapeutic culture that I was bringing from five years experience in the community as well as holding on to the authority of my role and the fact that the role had no proviso that people had to like you.  I felt, however, that the arrogance was rooted in the team itself, who, in weathering the storms, had needed to batten down the hatches and maintain some self-belief, which they had done by assuring themselves that they were still doing things right. I resolved at the time to accept these projections and transferences without pointing out their origins.  The immediate focus at this point needed to be on changing the culture to meet the boys’ needs, rather than reflecting on the adult processes. At this time, some of the projections seemed productive to utilise much as Rose had done when he became tribal leader. This felt similar to the work I was used to doing with damaged children, where projections, transference and interpretations are held by the adult until there is a point where it feels tolerable, safe and productive to begin to hand them over to the child.  The team felt as fragile as an unintegrated child.

The most noticeable relationship where one member of staff spoke for another was in the educational team.  The Poly was run by two people, the manager and the teacher. The teacher taught boys individually or in very small groups, while the manager oversaw the rest of the boy group.  The ‘Poly’ manager, ‘Dave’, had taken over the role in order to let the current manager, ‘Sally’ return solely to teaching within the unit. Sally had not requested to be the manager but by default had needed to fill the post.  This, understandably, was a stressful and anxiety-filled role. But Sally found it very hard to talk openly about these factors instead choosing to maintain a defence of unshakeable confidence in what she believed, what she did, and in her relationships with the boys.  She believed that the origins of any problems that arose lay in the poor quality of work taking place in the house and was very vocal, and powerful, in stating how things should be done. When she handed over the responsibility of managing the education unit she had retained the personal need to exercise power.  Sally would often talk as if she were still manager and Dave would often either hang back on what he said or say things in such a way that it sought approval from Sally. There was a strong sense of pairing that protected both Dave and Sally from taking full responsibility, while trying to exercise authority in places to which it did not extend.  I was scheduled to meet the poly manager once a week to discuss practice and matters came to a head when I stated that I did not wish to meet Sally and Dave, but only Dave as the poly manager. Responsibility and authority had to rest within the person whose role and task had been defined, rather than in a blurring of the system that allowed for avoidance of accountability and, therefore, of the feelings from within and without that accompanied clear definition.

Gradually roles and tasks were able to be re-introduced to the whole team and to the provision of primary care, ensuring that people were clear in their obligations to the household and their keychild.  In this way, communication amongst adults became better and problems and discrepancies began to be identified and dealt with openly. The support needed for each role could be clarified and given. Fundamentally, the team began to come together and to work sentiently and interdependently within role, rather than thoughtlessly and homogeneously.  In this way the adults could move away from a merged state, reflected in the boys delinquent groupings, towards an autonomy framed and informed by a true understanding of the theoretical framework.

The culture amongst the boy-group changed as they began to identify more readily with the culture created and offered by the adults.  Boys did not as readily look to delinquent activity to either meet or escape their huge needs and became more open to the care that was now being provided by the staff group.

The final Part 3 will be published in the next edition of the TCJ.


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