Love and Child Care: the UK context

Christian Child Care Forum - CCCFIntroduction

I find myself unable to talk about how we can use love in our child care services in a UK context now we are devolved nations. But good child development is global and love is a wide and difficult concept with which Keith will no doubt take you through later in the conference. So I will concentrate on some strands of what the Government is doing through present policies, but to bring focus to the topic at the beginning of this morning I will begin by telling you two real stories of people’s lives. Then I will try to put Christian love within the context of our professional lives – and all in fifteen minutes!

Robert, Jenny and their Social Workers

I have changed people’s names for the sake of confidentiality. Robert died late last year. He was 58 and had cancer. He also had a loving family, daughters who had done all they could to support him through his illness alongside his devoted wife. He had been in a good job and had been the Chairman of his union. But it was not always thus.

Robert came into care at birth, the son of an Irish lass who came to London, gave birth and left. When he was allocated to the Child Care Officer who made the difference to his life at the age of eight, his file held his date and place of birth and the words “illegitimate child of Irish mother”. Robert would never know more than this much of his genesis.

Thereafter he had many ups and downs, residential care, unsuccessful foster care, approved school. But one factor stood out, his Child Care Officer stuck with him; with the help of another colleague she found the foster home that made the difference, and there he experienced love and stability. Fifty years on his Child Care Officer was at his funeral. They had remained regularly in touch during the passing years – a relationship that would have been frowned on later. After all, it lacked proper professional detachment. But Robert always held on to the fact that the constant care – the love – had seen him through.

Jenny was at the funeral of her Child Care Officer. Many years before, she had been sexually abused by her father, her mother found out and in a violent row her father killed her mother. For that he was hanged. Prognosis – poor.

But by the time she was with others celebrating the life of her Social Worker, she was a well adjusted grandmother, successfully married, with wonderful children of her own. She owed this, she said, to the constancy and care of her friend, previously her Social Worker, who would have been considered too involved by modern standards, but who had engaged in loving the child enough.

Modern practices

In modern terms both these Social Workers lacked detachment and were too involved with the young people. It has been one of the mistakes of modern training that we do not understand how to care as well as setting boundaries.

These are two remarkable stories and all social work cannot be like this but contrast it with the report of Dr Roger Morgan, the Children’s Rights Director, About Social Workers in his Your Rights, Your Say series. In his conclusion he quotes one care leaver who told of his view of Social Workers looking back on his time in care,

“…with children in care, they need to always know they have someone they can turn to and talk to. I never felt that. I ended up in and out of prison and felt I had no support. The longest I had a Social Worker was three months, then from there I’ve had 14 different Social Workers. It’s hard, because you get to know and trust one and it leaves”.

And in the same report one person still in care summed up what they needed from a Social Worker in their own words, clearly underlining how important it is to have someone there just for you when you need them,

“…it’s not rocket science. Kids just want to be wanted because when you are in care you feel like no-one wants you. You just want people to listen, understand and be there on a regular basis, so you know you’ve always got something to hang on to. It’s not too much to ask!”

Dr Morgan’s report is not all negative and Social Workers, when they are present, are positive, as are foster carers and members of staff in a residential home or school. But what is it that makes a child see an adult as positive?

When a child in care asked an eminent Director of Social Services if she could have someone who loved her, the Director was thrown off balance. Love, said the Director, is a rare commodity and couldn’t just be given out. But she should have asked what that meant for the child, because love in social work is action. The person you love most in the world expects something from you; love is seldom unconditional.

Our Modern Environment

The children in Roger Morgan’s study talked about what they wanted from Social Workers, including them knowing,

“how to talk to young people without being patronising”

“what is safe for young people”

“that children need their families”

“how to deal with illness”

“about AIDS, tuberculosis, hygiene etc.”

“how to apply for benefits”

“culture and religion”

“feelings and how to deal with them.”

And many more. All these different things would give something to the child. Love in action.

The problem with love is that we all see it differently, it is a kaleidoscope, reflecting the world in dizzy patterns. But to meet the Every Child Matters agenda, the five outcomes must contain these essential ingredients:

  • Be healthy; enjoying good physical and mental health
  • Stay Safe; being protected from harm and neglect and growing up able to look after themselves
  • Enjoy and achieve – getting the most out of life
  • Make a positive contribution to the community and society
  • Achieving economic wellbeing

This is not romantic love, not love without boundaries. It is not love that always lasts a lifetime, although as in my first stories it might. It may be for just one assessment, a short involvement, a year. But what matters is that the quality of that involvement, the use of the relationship in the work will make a difference to the person needing the help. So really it is pretty basic; it is about listening, keeping your promises, doing all in your power to do the best level of assessment. It means continuous learning, keeping up-to-date, knowing where to find the right information. In short, it is being a good professional. There is no division between being the best at your job and expressing Christian love to those entrusted to your care.

The problem is not in this aspiration within our present system but in the implementation. I have absolutely no doubt that the present Government and indeed the opposition parties would agree in a range of child care policies with the whole development of the child at the centre. The problem is making them work. Take a few examples.

  1. The Children and Young Persons Bill is about to enter the Commons having been scrutinised and improved in the Lords. Recently the Minister, Kevin Brennan, came to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children and talked about reforms built on four central principles:
    • Good parenting from everyone in the system, from the local authority to Social Workers to foster carers;
    • Uncompromisingly high ambitions for children who enter the care system, to achieve the aspirations we have for our own children and reducing the gap in outcomes between children in care and their peers;
    • Centrality of the voice of the child, ensuring the child is involved in drawing up their care plan and when making decisions involving their care placement; and
    • Stability in every aspect of the child’s experience, and ensuring more consistency for children in care.

    Care, aspiration, being heard, stability – all elements of feeling that internationalisation of self – the capacity to love.

    This can only be achieved if the plans are implemented at local level. What the Minister said about this was that in some places it is happening but other authorities needed a whole culture change to put the child at the heart of the services.

    There is a huge gap between these aspirations and services on the ground, particularly for children in their own families requiring preventative help – those services that keep families with complex problems together and ensure children with difficult behaviour flourish. With more time this is an area I would enjoy expanding, describing how we could work better together in our partnerships using the power of good relationships but this is an area you may discuss during the day.

  2. My second example is safeguarding and child protection, that whole range of processes developed in response to circumstances where children have been harmed. I know the dilemmas this presents in responding to children who have been abused, particularly those who have been sexually harmed. There is a difficult debate on whether we can touch children; no doubt you will follow this through today. But we must find an answer. If you talk to adults who were victims of abuse, those who do well are the ones who found someone to love them. But again it calls for good training, professional behaviour that knows boundaries and due care to the particular situation.
  3. My third example is about the Children and Families Courts and Support Services (Cafcass) and in particular children in private law proceedings. We all know who should love children first and foremost, their parents. But when they are engaged in their own personal war with all the anger and hatred generated by their perception of each other, they lose sight of the child. Family Court Workers have developed a series of intervention and mediation schemes to help parents refocus on their children – in our language, to remind them of that love. It is not always the answer in very difficult situations but it is having remarkable success with some families.


Public policy is moving more to personalisation. Indeed the most recent publication, Care Matters: Time to deliver for children in Care, says that “Listening to the unique voice of every child in care is the only way to keep their distinct and individual needs in mind at every point. It is our moral and professional responsibility to nurture this potential and enable it to flourish”.

That is what love does, enables someone to flourish.

Listen to the words of the Chantelle in her poem, reproduced in this same Government publication:

Alone, in a room dark and empty,

No voice or noise to be heard.

Not even a heartbeat can I feel,

Just me all alone in this room,

In the dark with nothing to see.

All I do when my head hits the pillow

Is lie awake and think about the past

And say, if I wasn’t born

Would the world be

The way it is now, or not?

Has the world turned angry and upset

Because I am in it?

Or is it just the way life is meant to be?

Empty and lonely all the time, with a river of tears,

I’m no-one special, but I do want you to know

How lonely life is when no-one is by your side.

You read these feelings and you will find out

I’m all alone with no-one standing by my side

I’m all alone, is this how life is meant to be for us?

If so, why do I feel the feelings are only moving around me?

Our job is to stand alongside those like Chantelle, who need each one of us, to enable them to flourish…simply to spread love in the world.

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