Beneath the Surface

Month by month for nearly five years I have shared with you in these columns about the daily life of the residential community where I live, and described some of the experiences and memories of children and young people who live here now or used to live here some time ago.

The intention has been to encapsulate as many aspects of personal and group life as possible.  If you care to look through back issues (this is a real boon in a Webmag as distinct from a conventional journal or magazine), you will see that we have covered education and schooling, play and leisure, holidays and festivals, some of the minutiae of daily life, parenting and relationships throughout life, together with the stories of some of those involved.

Much of the time you could compare our experiences with those of ordinary families around the world and find a lot in common.  Patterns, rhythms, seasons and festivals are the same.  And that is exactly what we intend.  We are seeking whenever possible to create an environment which mirrors that of other children and young people who live with their own parents, siblings and extended families. 

Put another way, we have not tried to create a specialist unit, project, institution with its own regime, treatment, therapy or system of behaviour modification.  This is not to deny that such places have a role to play in helping children and young people, nor is it to suggest that we try to ape “normal family life” (whatever that might be!), but it is to affirm the importance and therapeutic potential of ordinary daily, weekly, monthly, yearly life together.

And so you find the same sort of blend of fun and laughter, tension and tears, spontaneous and planned events, rites of passage and social gatherings as you would find in the rest of our neighbourhood or the city of London.  I hope that something of this has been conveyed in what I have written.

But at the same time it will have become apparent that beneath the surface there is a considerable degree of theoretical, professional, and philosophical thought and reflection that informs and guides what we do and the way we do it.  You will find references to organisational theory, the psychology of child development, charters of children’s rights, government policies, principles enunciated by NGOs, educational and social work perspectives, often interwoven with each other and embedded in our daily life.

It’s not easy to identify, let alone describe, how this cluster of insights and perspectives actually informs and affects what happens day by day, or to isolate particular theories or principles at any given point in time.  But we are trying to work at this. 

In February and March we are hosting the first of a series of training courses under the title Celebrating Children, and alongside others we are trying to distil some of the key elements of the theoretical underpinning of what we believe in, and seek to practice.  (If you want to know more about this course you will find details on the website of the Christian Child Care Forum

And I am currently working at a book due to be published next year under the title, The Growth of Love, which explores the conditions and qualities that seem to provide the best and most hopeful context in which love can grow and develop.

There are plenty of mainstream writers and clinicians who have helped to provide a foundation for the understanding of children and young people who have experienced separation, loss and trauma, and it does not take much imagination to realise that the title of my book is a deliberate attempt to link what I write with the pioneering work of John Bowlby, for example.  He, alongside Erik Erickson, Carl Jung, Melanie Klein,  Donald Winnicott, Alfred Adler, Jean Vanier, Frank Lake, Paul Tournier, Carl Rogers, R.D. Laing, Maxwell Jones, Barbara Dockar-Drysdale and several others have contributed to my understanding of the young people I have been privileged to live alongside in a residential community.

We will see how the course and the book turn out in due course.  Meanwhile, I have recently had the good fortune to have been lent a book that I would like to commend to you as the one I have yet read that comes nearest to explaining how what lies beneath the surface can interact creatively and practically with the daily life of troubled youngsters.  It is called, Building the Bonds of Attachment: Awaking Love in Deeply Troubled Children, by Daniel A. Hughes, published by Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

As I pondered it, I found again and again that it put into words some of the processes and insights that we had been aware of intuitively and perhaps a little hazily; confirmed the appropriateness of actions and decisions we had taken, that were occasionally seen as debatable or even controversial to other professionals; showed that in some cases there is no substitute for full-time residential or foster care that is rooted in everyday life, tasks, incidents and patterns; and provided practical and accessible principles and guidance to carers, social workers and therapists alike.

The book traces the life of a girl called Katie, who has been abused and neglected, and is poorly attached.  She and her story are composites of many children and profiles that Daniel Hughes has encountered.  The other key characters, apart from her parents, are Steven her caseworker, Jackie her primary foster parent and Allison her therapist.  Like Katie they are composite characters drawn from case material and experience. 

The book describes how conventional methods of intervention, including behaviour modification, social work and mainstream foster care fail to address the primary problem of Katie’s lack of attachment.  It then proceeds to explore how professionals working together with an understanding of the challenges of unattached children can, with tremendous effort, teamwork and trust, provide a setting and means for attachment to be forged, and love to be awakened.

Perhaps what stirred me early on was the clarity with which Hughes sees the unique, irreplaceable and almost impossibly demanding role of the foster carer in the healing process.  “In my experience it is the foster and adoptive parents who come to know and love these children who are leading the way.  They are demanding that the professionals with whom they consult truly understand their kids.  They also are expecting that their interventions make a difference.  They have given their homes and hearts to these tragically isolated and unhappy children.  The rest of us need to find ways to help them in their work.” (Page 5)Rarely have I read words like these in over thirty years as a residential carer/foster carer in the UK.  Somehow the carers are seen as the poor relations of the service: it is others like therapists, social workers, psychologists, and even psychiatrists who are seen as holding the keys to emotional healing and development.

Then follow the main three sections of the book: first, a harrowing and perceptive description of the abusive experiences of Katie in her family home (pages 9-23); second, an honest portrayal of the false starts that are made by the state when it intervenes (pages 27-68); and third, the detailed account, supported by diary entries, case notes and professional reflections, of the new approach rooted in the understanding that, unless there is good enough attachment, the deepest needs of a children remain unaddressed (pages 71-280).  The conclusion outlines some principles of parenting and therapy (pages 283-296).

I realise that I have already used up more space than usual in this column, and so I sense that it is time to adjourn my summary of, and reflections on, this remarkable book.  But let me commend it by saying that thirty years of life alongside and among children and young people who have serious problems with attachment confirm almost completely the wisdom and accuracy of Daniel Hughes work and approach.  I have one or two queries and reservations, but it would be churlish to let those in any way deflect from the overwhelming contribution this book ought to have in reshaping the way in which we respond to the crying needs of unattached children.

The last time I was so enthusiastic about a book concerning troubled children was when commenting on Virginia Axline’s classic, Dibs: In Search of Self.  Any readers who are familiar with it will know that if Daniel Hughes is in that league his book must be purchased, studied and placed alongside that of Axline.  Dibs and Katie deserve to claim a central place in the imagination of all those who genuinely seek to put the needs of children first, and to stay with troubled children whatever it costs.

So underneath the surface of Mill Grove there is much in common with what Hughes describes with such courage and sensitivity.  And in future I hope that we will be enlightened as well as affirmed by his groundbreaking work.


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