What Would You Call It?

Something quite remarkable has happened in the life of the young person whom I will call Morag. I’ll tell you about it and then perhaps we can try and find a way of describing it.

Morag came to live at Mill Grove ten years or so ago. She arrived with a little suitcase that she placed beside her bed. We offered to help her unpack it, but she said that would be pointless, “You’ll turn me out in less than two weeks anyway, so it would be a waste of time.” Given her life-story to that moment, she had a point. We reckon that she had experienced something like eleven or twelve rejections (and accompanying moves) from her family home, foster placements, prospective adoptive placements, and schools, before arriving to live with us.

A court order meant that she had no direct contact with her parents, and so her knowledge of, and links with, her past were tenuous and mostly traumatic. Understandably she found school difficult and trying, and had a highly developed ability to pretend she knew or could do something, when actually she hadn’t got a clue. This applied to fundamentally important skills such as telling the time, adding up and subtracting, and learning the rules of games.

She was sensitive to feelings, and expressed genuine empathy with those who had lost something or were going through hard times, but she didn’t have the social skills to relate to her peers in a class, team or group. In short, if things didn’t go her way, she became frustrated to the point where she would opt out.

When it came to secondary school she was on the borderline between mainstream and special needs provision, and after careful assessment she attended a local special needs school. She enjoyed this in most ways, but the teachers and we had to work hard at creative ways of supporting, encouraging and guiding her. She never managed to accept the basic principles or processes of learning: starting from what you do know, admitting that there is something you don’t know, or can’t do, listening to and observing others address this task, and making mistakes in experimenting with it yourself or with them.

The school and then further education college just about coped with her outbursts and inability to work consistently as part of a class, but it became increasingly obvious that there would be long-term problems in her finding suitable employment. She had important gifts and abilities such as a good memory, neatness, the readiness to search until she found something, and understanding of the problems of others, but was personally and socially very fragile. Without extensive support, flexibility and encouragement she would not be able to hold down a basic retail job, for example.

Yet, as I write, she is now working virtually full-time in a major retail chain-store; has maintained with ups and downs a relationship with a boy friend over nearly two years; is in regular contact with her birth father; helps a local family of four with baby-sitting; cycles to work and does so on time; helped all last week at the local church’s holiday Bible club; attends church each Sunday and is a baptised member of the church; has completed courses on IT; has tended our vegetable patch and produced round courgettes, long courgettes, runner beans and tomatoes; and is competent at catching, throwing, batting and bowling in cricket and rounders. When anything is misplaced or lost she is the one to whom we turn to help us find it. She has also been helping at a local community centre in their cafeteria. And she has been observant of the habits of some of the birds and animals that live on our near our premises.

My question therefore is : what do we call this dramatic transformation? We could use words like growth, progress or development, but they hardly do justice to the extent and radical nature of the change. I haven’t filled one in recently (I am pleased to say) but I doubt if there is a place or room on a LAC (Looking After Children) form for describing what I have just told you.

Let me fill you in on some of the factors that have contributed to this change before offering you some suggestions about what to call it.

Morag eventually came to accept that Mill Grove would not “turn her out”, and so she unpacked her case, and over time came to trust us enough to begin to put some roots down. If you have read previous columns you will know that Mill Grove is in effect an extended family of four generations, a residential community built around seasons, rhythms of life, natural processes and patterns rather than any treatment programme or regime. It has been around for over a century (in the same place), with members of the same biological family at its heart, and because there are always those who have lived here as children coming back, Morag has had concrete evidence and regular reassurance that the place and the people who live here were dependable. It has been for her a secure base where she found “good enough parenting”.

There was continuity in the social worker who knew her birth family, and this social worker was very committed to Morag. In time contact with Morag’s birth father began at a time and pace with which she was comfortable.

The church fellowship has been accepting and encouraging over the years and several church members have known Morag from the first Sunday she worshipped there, and are among her friends.

Morag has been encouraged to develop skills locally such as cycling, travelling by public transport, shopping, and on holidays in North Wales and Switzerland, has come to experience different languages and cultures without fear.

She has also received constant personal love, care and affection from significant individuals in the Mill Grove family. Recently one of the adults drew alongside her and helped to raise her confidence and self-esteem by attending courses and voluntary work programmes with her. We never gave up hope that she would be able to make a contribution to the well-being of others that was recognised by financial rewards and appropriate status.

We prayed for her and with her day by day, encouraged an active interest in other people and situations through newspapers and news programmes, letters and phone calls. She was never simply the object of intervention and help, but an active participant or agent in helping others.

And there, in short, you have it.

As for my suggestions about what to call this transformation: I would veer towards using words like re-birth, re-creation or re-formation of personality and character; a discovery or re-discovery of identity, belonging and self-worth. I know most of these words or phrases aren’t part of the normal social work or child development vocabulary, but neither, in my view, is the dramatic extent of what has happened. It feels like a conversion, or even, being born again.

Of course, such words have religious connotations and pedigrees, and in the light of Morag’s story that is not wholly inappropriate, but is there a better way of describing what happened? If there is, please let me know.

Meanwhile as you may have gathered, the change has been such that I am moved and inspired by it, as I always have, by Morag’s courage and resilience. So, in case you were thinking along such lines, don’t bother mentioning Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or Piaget’s cognitive stages. I think we are dealing here with something more fundamental, more in keeping with the work of Bowlby and Erikson, to do with the growth of attachment, trust, respect and love.

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