With the Care Review well under way, and the subject of “love” in the residential care system very topical, here are some reflections on workers and managers tackling the “L-Bomb” head on, in a Care Visions residential care service, helping shape the care given to our vulnerable young people ever since.
A carer enters the residence office to find the manager staring intensely at his computer screen. She knew he was likely to be stressed already as it was Friday, and the deadline for the petty cash and payroll was looming, but something was weighing on her, and she needed to talk.
“Can I talk to you for a minute?” she asked tentatively.
She needn’t have worried. Her invitation was a welcome distraction from the banality of his spreadsheets. The manager spun round on his chair, “Of course, what is it?”
“When I was tucking one of the young people into bed last night, she said she loved me. It felt awkward, I didn’t know what to say”, she explained.
“What did you want to say?” asked the manager.
“I wanted to tell them I loved them too”, responded the carer.
“Do you?”, he asked.
“I think I do”, answered the carer.
The manager, probing further, “So, why didn’t you tell her?”.
“I didn’t think I was allowed” she stated, “I was on a child protection course a few weeks ago and the trainer said we should never tell the kids we love them, that it could give the wrong idea about relationship boundaries and would be unprofessional”.
There was a reflective pause. While he could see the positive intent of the course trainer, the manager sensed an injustice. The carer was pained; the trainer’s prohibition had dimmed her emotion, and stopped her from doing what she knew was right at a crucial moment. The manager didn’t have a straightforward solution, but he knew who might. “Let’s ask the kids”, he said.
Lunch was imminent – a long-established levelling ritual, where position was set aside and there was a temporary cessation of any hostilities as the community broke bread together. After the usual mayhem and hilarity over a bowl of pasta with the house special tomato sauce, the manager turned to the young people and posed the question, “Do you think the adults that work here love you?”
The four-young people all responded with the same answer. “I don’t think they love me, but they care for me very much”. If exuberant displays of emotion were awkward, this was infinitely worse. The young people repeated what had no doubt been said to them by carers countless times when seeking the assurance that they were worthy of love. The situation couldn’t be left this way.
The manager pressed on. “If someone loves you, how do they treat you?”, was his follow up question.
The answers to this were reassuringly simple, “They’d always be there for you no matter what you’d done” … “accept you for who you are”… “give you a hug when you’re sad” … “they’d never judge you”.
“So, back to the start.”, said the manager, “Do you think the adults that work here love you?”.
Three of the young people responded positively, without hesitation, as if to reassure themselves and placate the adults at the table.
Then came the answer of the young person around whom all of this has started, “Some do, and some don’t”. From the mouths of babes! Everything became so clear.
Even if we don’t say it, the young people know when they are loved. It’s communicated through everyday interactions, like how we wake them in the morning or greet them when they return from school. While it might not be possible to intensely love all the young people we care for, where there is such a depth of bond it should be named and celebrated. At least, however we feel about dropping the L-Bomb, we can always be loving, as conveyed in the words of Jean Vanier:
“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”