Are we Scared of Love?

I have in front of me two documents.  The first is entitled Think “My child”. It is the undated Corporate Parenting Strategy for children in Public Care in the London Borough of Redbridge.  The second is the book, Shattered Lives: Children Who Live with Courage and Dignity by Camila Batmanghelidjh, (London, JKP 2006). Both are concerned with children whose own families and networks have failed them.  But they seem to be talking about two completely different realities. 

And my question is, “Which one represents the real world?”  The former is full of aspirations, ideals, principles and policy statements.  The latter tells the life-stories of children and young people in the form of letters to them by the author. 

Let me give you a flavour of the Corporate Parenting Strategy. It sets out what it calls an ambitious set of overarching principles and values deriving from the government initiative, Quality Protects, September 1998.  These include providing care, a home and access to a full range of appropriate services, care and firmness to support the child’s development, protection from destructive and harmful relationships, providing consistent support and providing practical help when needed, advocating their cause, being proactive not passive.

If you try to find the underpinning (or absolute) principle of the document it seems to be, “…to try to provide the kind of loyal support that any good parents would give to their children” (p. 5).  So we are challenged, “In all circumstances are we happy with decisions we make when we think ‘my child’?”  It then argues that good Corporate Parents need to “put the needs of children who are looked after at the centre…” (p. 10). One of the ways in which this is done is by ensuring we are a “tolerant, dependable and available partner in a child-adult relationship” (p. 16).

Now for a flavour of Shattered Lives: it describes in vivid detail the stories of those children and young people who have been completely failed by the system of care (i.e. those who together should comprise “Corporate Parents”).  Let us assume that the 140-150 children currently being looked after by the London Borough of Redbridge (p. 6) are receiving the loyal support of Corporate Parents: what about those that the system does not reach?  How many are there?  What are their experiences of life?  This book opens up for us all the sad, destructive and oppressive underside of real live children.

The Introduction states that not only are the children failed by their families and neighbours, they are failed by the system that is supposed to serve and protect them, “…these very structures sometimes re-traumatize vulnerable children through their failure to care…clinicians who engage in deceit…Children are blamed, given Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, locked up, paying the price for adult incompetencies.  No one speaks up, mindful of their career ladders…their neutrality is offensive…I watch the abuse of power by all those who are there to protect children against harm…We are hurting our children by not offering them loving care.  We are lying about our failure to protect them.”  (pp. 9-13)

After the eight substantial letters that follow, with the cumulative evidence about individual professionals and the services of which they are a part (social services, education, probation, health) it is hard to dispute Camila Batmanghelidjh’s conclusion, “We avoid our individual and corporate parenting tasks, our moral duty as adults, and in doing so fail our children…Our structures are failing the children because we’re scared of love…So often those in power are too busy minding their own professional backs and personal credit rating.  On the way up they trample over the disenfranchised.” (p. 157)

I am in the rather unusual situation of living alongside hurting children, young people and families day by day, while at the same time being a part of the care system in helping to frame policies, administer Children’s Fund money, trying to help partnership between different professionals, and engaging the voluntary sector in partnership focussed on children.  And I have found that for the most part I operate in two different worlds that have very little to do with each other.

There is an industry that produces reports, prepares for inspections, develops guidelines and organises training courses for practitioners, produces new strategies and forms of organisation and partnership, but I see very little evidence that it actually helps the lives of the sort of children, young people and families that Camila and I live among.

I have often wondered what would happen if we stopped the whole show and gave the money that would have been spent on our salaries to the children and families and their communities.  To hear professionals in the statutory and voluntary sector bleat about the poverty that blights the lives of children and families, while these same professionals draw sizeable salaries has always struck me as verging on the disingenuous or hypocritical.

And we seem incapable of accepting that some of our treasured institutions may actually be contributing to the very problems they are intended to alleviate.  Take large modern hospitals, for example: is it possible that, like passenger aircraft, they unintentionally function as huge incubators of viruses?  If so, what if we cannot combat the viruses without disbanding the hospitals (or travel systems) in their present form?

With these analogies in mind, what of services for children?  Isn’t it strange that a Corporate Strategy document doesn’t use the word, love, and that (despite the photos) it has nothing to say about loving touch? Are we scared of love?  If so, what do we need to disband in order that love might be identified, nurtured and cherished?  How could we better support the work of Kids Company?

It is vital that we consider how best, genuinely and with integrity, to support those who are actually alongside the hurting children and young people?  The evidence I have gathered suggests that those on the formal front line (that is those responsible for looked after children) get very little support from one year to the next (apart from directives, training programmes, inspections and the like) and yet the document says, “To provide maximum support of foster parents and residential workers caring for children looked after by the Council” (p. 10).  So what about those who are alongside children who don’t actual register on the radar screen of the formal care system?

Perhaps one of the functions of the formal system is to focus our attention and anxiety on a small section of children in order to avoid (to wash our hands of) the brutal realities that Shattered Lives spells out so convincingly and hauntingly.  The sort of love that makes a difference is not cheap or soft: but the kind that goes out of its way, way beyond its comfort zone, putting reputation and career at risk for the sake of the children we say we should be “parenting”.  Until there is a coming together of the two worlds (the policies and the realities of life) I think it is probably true to say that as professionals we are scared of love.

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