Mags Mulowska, a member of the Experts by Experience board, explains why relationships are so important in children’s social care. Mags is a care experienced community organiser and supported her siblings through their care experiences and worked as a children and families social worker.
According to a recent study from Bristol university, relationships are really important for children in care – with good quality relationships the thing that makes a huge difference to mental health.
This is blindingly obvious, and yet we currently have a system that places almost zero importance on relationships. When my youngest sister finally got moved into foster care, I wasn’t allowed to see her for 6 weeks. Going into care is usually traumatic, even when it’s the right thing. My little sister was alone, scared and confused about what was going on. She had a loving sister who was desperate to help her through this abrupt change. But the system wouldn’t let me.
This isn’t unusual. Just standard practice in a system that allows procedures and limited resources to determine every decision. What is in the best interests of nurturing relationships is an optional extra. This is the case all through the system and is why, for those who have a good experience of children’s social care, it will be because a worker or carer went above and beyond, and managed to do some good, despite the system, not because of it.
This is a disgrace and unsustainable. We need to place relationships front and centre of children’s social care.
The Bristol study showed that children and young people in care who had positive relationships with their carer(s), friend(s) and social worker(s) were more likely to have better mental health. Go figure. It’s almost as if children and young people in care are like every other child on the planet. I’d argue that children and young people in care need positive relationships and help to develop their capacity to build relationships more than most.
The Review talks about the care system being a ‘pushy parent’ – this shouldn’t just be for the kind of achievements parents like to boast about – going to uni or finding a great job – being a pushy parent also means moving mountains to provide the kind of nurturing care at home that will ensure children know how to love and be loved.
Here’s an example from my time as a social worker. One wonderful carer I worked with encouraged a seven year old boy she was looking after to give football training a try. He was reluctant. It’s a sad fact that too many carers would take the child’s first refusal as, ‘well, I offered but he doesn’t want to go’. A parent on the other hand knows children sometimes need a friendly nudge to overcome their reluctance and feel brave about trying something new. This carer was loving and dedicated, in a way that is sadly not common enough. She had a relationship with this little boy and was tuned in to him as a person. She gave him a little nudge. He agreed to try the first session but only if she would take him home early if he didn’t like it. He loved it!
Learning how to be around other children and how to navigate social relationships is hugely important if a child or young person is to have a happy life. Obviously this isn’t about making children do things they don’t want to do. It’s about how warm, nurturing, encouraging care has the power to transform a child’s sense of self, of what is possible.
Before social work I worked in mental health nursing and a common feature of those in the forensic psychiatric services I worked in was a history of not fitting in, of being the odd one out in school and struggling to make and sustain relationships. Encouraging a shy child to get out there and play football may seem unconnected to being an inpatient in a forensic unit. But everything is connected. Humans are connected. We need a system that places this basic truth front and centre of how it works with families.