An extract from Danny Henderson's 'A developing journey in residential childcare'

 It was a warm summer’s Friday evening, the kids were happy and settled, plans were in place for the weekend and the team knew what they were doing. It had been a busy week in preparing for the journey home, a sense of satisfaction excited a mild delirium. I considered I might have a beer, this sense of completeness, a fleeting certainty is elusive in residential child care and must be celebrated. Just as I picked up my bag the telephone rang. It was my manager, who explained that a young person needed an emergency placement and I was asked if we could accommodate her. Given her situation and that we had a vacancy there was no reason to refuse, this is what we do after all, right? This pragmatism was at odds with how I felt, a knot in my stomach inflamed as I considered the implications. How would this affect the plan for the weekend? Would the kids cope with another young person moving in? What if…?

Instead of a sojourn to the local, as planned, I was hurtling up the motorway to a service station where I was to meet the young person and her social worker and take her back to the children's home. When I met Kerry* a 12-year-old girl, my preoccupations and worries about how this had affected me, my pithy resentment, evaporated. Her bewilderment and disorientation was palpable. While my plans for the evening had been usurped, she had been uprooted and her assumptions about who she was and where she belonged suddenly interrupted in a terrible moment.

It transpired that Kerry had gone to school in the morning as normal and had been visited there by her social worker who had informed her that her foster carers were no longer able to look after her. She was taken from the school to what had been her home to get her belongings, in bags that had been hastily packed and left inside by the front door to avoid an uncomfortable encounter.

On the journey back to the home, Kerry sat side-on leaning against the door, her presence accentuated by her wide-eyed gaze, was compelling of total attention. The story of how her life unravelled ensued, an inventory of unfathomable loss, adversity, betrayal and injustice. I couldn’t and didn’t need to speak, all I could do was bear witness to her pain. Reflecting on the experience, there is no memory of the journey, other than a visual imprint of how the young person sat beside me and the visceral affect of her appeal for something that would make sense of her experience. I was moved, in awe of the adversity she had endured, humbled and changed. The intensity of the experience was an awakening, or least a reminder of the significance of the role those of us who work in residential child care have and why I had chosen to work in it.

There was a welcoming party waiting for Kerry when she arrived at the house. Her demeanour immediately changed. She seemed relieved and relaxed. Kerry moved to another Care Visions children’s home, closer to where she had come from a couple of weeks later. We kept in touch initially through mutual connections and over the last few years have had occasion to meet up regularly. We reflect on that day frequently. Being able to do so seems as important as the experience itself. Her perspective on what happened is surprisingly hopeful. Despite the difficulties, she derives a sense of being cared for from the experience. Kerry talks about finding herself, through a feeling of safety and trust, almost immediately after walking into the children’s home, it being entirely different to the chaos and mayhem she expected. She names this move as the beginning of her identity formation, away from the reminders and anchors of adversity. She is doing well. I am privileged to know Kerry, to have played a part in a brief yet definitive moment in her life and to still be in contact with her.

This scenario is not exceptional in the world of residential child care. It perhaps exemplifies the inauspicious circumstances within which children and carers often find themselves. But it also demonstrates how through attuned, containing A developing journey in residential child care 5 interactions, hope, trust and development can arise from these intense encounters, however brief. At a human level they are extraordinary. They represent the challenges and opportunities that children and staff members negotiate and expedite as a matter of routine, encompassing the full range of human experience; sorrow, hope, tragedy and triumph.

These services play an essential role within the broader network of support and care for a relatively small but incredibly important group within society. We have a responsibility to tell the remarkable stories that speak to the value of the people who live and work in residential child care and how services make a valuable contribution to society.

* For confidentiality, the name is a pseudonym and the young person was consulted on what has been written and is happy for this to be published.

Read more from CELCIS's Scottish Journal of Residential Childcare Volume 19.1 here


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