I’ve always felt that these young people don’t stand a chance in life, there are massive stumbling blocks along the way…
This is a response by Kate Wells to the recent article by Louise Tickle in the Guardian on April 25th 2015. Kate is a retired social worker of many years experience. She agrees that more needs to be done to help young parents who have suffered abuse and trauma in their own childhoods – but she is not optimistic that therapeutic intervention will be the solution that some hope for.
I read the article in the Guardian on Saturday “Are we failing parents whose children are taken into care” and the concern expressed by Judge Stephen Wildblood QC and barrister Judi Evans, about the lack of help for parents caught up in care proceedings.
For very many years I have worked with people who live on the margins of society and are amongst the most deprived and disadvantaged people in society. I’ve met many “Leahs” who have suffered childhood trauma, be it sexual abuse, physical/emotional abuse or severe neglect and are ill equipped to provide good enough parenting to their own children – it’s often a case of “children bringing up children” as there is a significant gap between the chronological and emotional age of these young mothers. Typically they form relationships with young men with similar backgrounds and end up in a high rise flat, experiencing a range of difficulties – financial problems, mental health problems, learning disabilities, domestic violence, isolation, lack of support, drug/alcohol abuse etc.
I’ve always felt that these young people don’t stand a chance in life, there are massive stumbling blocks along the way and it’s small wonder that apathy sets in and they look for some relief in drugs/alcohol. And as the article highlights when one or two of the children are removed, they become pregnant again, and are involved in “serial monogamy” which is an added problem as now there are “step children” in the mix.
How easy is it for people to change?
Why ‘love matters’ – the importance of the early years
I share the concerns of the Judge and the barrister but I suppose I am not as optimistic about the possibility of change, especially when childhood trauma is the root of the problem. I too have read many psychological reports talking of parents needing therapy for 2/3 years whatever…..and I’ve always felt that was a cop out as any competent therapist will know that it could take many more years of therapy with no guarantee of sufficient change to enable good enough parenting, plus there is the issue of cost, with private therapists charging approx. £50 per hour and very little available on the NHS.
The thing is I have an absolute belief that the die is cast very early on in life, and right from the child’s earliest hours, days, weeks and months, the foundation will be laid, positively or negatively and the first year of life is of extreme importance developmentally, and by 3 years of age, the foundation is laid for the rest of the child’s life.
There is even evidence that a baby in utero can be affected by tension in the mother, domestic violence etc. Sue Gerhardt a psychotherapist whose work has been primarily concerned with working with the disturbed or malfunctioning relationships between babies and their mothers, explains in her book “Why Love Matters” the way in which there is evidence that the quality of care a baby/child has in its early life can affect the pathways in the brain, and the development of our “social brain” and the biological systems involved in emotional regulation.
The challenge then was for her to put this scientific knowledge of human infancy at the centre of our understanding of emotional life. Most importantly and of particular interest in the debate about the success (or otherwise) of therapy for parents struggling with providing good enough care for their babies, her research led her to the view that if the will and resources were available, the harm done to one generation may not be transmitted to the next: a damaged child need not become a damaged and damaging parent.
Gerhardt acknowledges that well intentioned governments have recognized the need to support family life, and have put measures in place to do so, e.g. tax credits and parenting classes. She stresses how politicians are well aware of the cost to society of dysfunctional families with the links to crime, violence and drug abuse. She uses the analogy of meagre efforts of support to families, to pouring money into the maintenance of a badly built house, the problems due to poor foundations may be temporarily alleviated, but nothing will change the fact that the house was not well built and will always be high maintenance. Likewise with human beings whose foundations have not been well built. Although extensive repairs can be undertaken later in life, the building stage, when adjustments can be made, are largely over. For prevention to be effective it needs to be targeted at the point when it can make the most difference.
Can later intervention have an impact on early deprivation?
To return to the issue under debate – “These foundations are laid during pregnancy and in the first 2 years of life. This is when the “social brain” is shaped and when an individual’s emotional style and emotional resources are established.”
Exactly what resources would be needed to provide parents with the “therapeutic tools” to ensure that they understood the importance of the need for a pregnancy free from tension and stress and how to make secure attachments with their babies in their first 2 years of life, is not detailed in Gerhardt’s book. I think she has made some remarkable discoveries in relation to how the development of the infant’s brain can affect future emotional wellbeing, backed up by the latest findings in neuroscience, psychology and biochemistry, but I remain skeptical about both the specific resources that would be needed and more pertinently about the availability of funding for such therapeutic intervention.
The parents (like most of us) only have one model of parenting, which was abusive/neglectful and so will repeat that pattern with their own children, just like people who have had a secure and nurturing childhood will repeat that pattern with their children. I don’t mean that every abused child will go on to repeat that pattern as some parents ensure that their children do not suffer as they did, but we are talking about parents and children caught up in care proceedings.
We’re talking of course about the “cycle of deprivation” and no one has ever found a way of breaking into that cycle. I am old enough to remember Keith Joseph (Tory Minister of State for Education and Science) horrifying us all in 1974 by declaring that “classes 4 and 5 should be prevented from breeding.” The present government talks of “troubled families” but this is a euphemism of course, as families in receipt of state benefits are referred to as “benefit units” in Universal Credit speak, but I digress………
The true cost and consequences of childhood trauma
I realise I might sound like a “fatalist” but I don’t believe that therapy can in fact help the majority of parents who have themselves suffered childhood trauma – indeed I think the Judge’s comments about a parent being offered therapy at the beginning of the pregnancy (or when one or more child/ren have been removed) demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of just how much emotional harm has been inflicted on the young parent in their own childhood, and how that continues to cause emotional pain through the lifespan.
None of us can know how it feels – we can only imagine, but I have spent many hours sitting in smelly, grubby flats with a young mom who is mildly depressed, she hates the flat, she and the boyfriend are arguing, she has no money, there’s little food in the kitchen and the toddler lies listlessly on the floor sucking from a bottle, the TV is on and an older child of 3 or so is staring vacantly at the screen and when bored, starts to tussle with the toddler and is dragged off by his mom and shouted at – he starts to cry and throws himself on the floor and she tells him to shut the fuck up…..there are a few broken toys and the situation is indeed bleak. The children are still at home but there is growing concern and if eventually they are removed, will she benefit from therapy to help her keep any more babies that she will have. Maybe, but I think the “damage has been done” many years ago and like “Leah” she will carry that emotional pain with her, and prevent her from being a good enough parent or being able to sustain relationships and have any kind of fulfilling life.
What can we do?
Having said all that I certainly think the FDAC is an excellent idea. I am really surprised that a Judge has set this up and another Judge is replicating the programme elsewhere. Are they human after all!? Judi does make the point of course that not every parent will be able to access any therapy that is set up, but if it means that some parents can be helped to prevent their child being removed, then it has to be a success.
I think another way of helping young parents is for LAs to recruit and train more foster carers who are able to take “child and parent” placements. We had just 2 in our area and were carefully chosen, as they absolutely had to have empathy with the young parents, empathy in spades, because any whiff of judgment or even criticism would defeat the object. There was a varying degree of success, but the resources were not available to extend the scheme and this was back in 2000, before the budgets were cut to the bone.
But who will pay for it?
There is also the issue of finance for therapeutic intervention as advocated by the Judge. I wonder if he is aware of the way in which this coalition has demanded massive savings from all public services (including legal aid) so this can’t have escaped his notice! There was never sufficient funding for therapy when I was working for the LA (and retired in 2004) and now they are struggling to cope with their statutory responsibilities, as are the NHS, police, teachers etc. And if this government are re-elected they will shrink the state to the size it was in the 1930s and will pursue their agenda of privatisation for all public services, whilst cutting more and more from benefit claimants.
There is mention of “Leah” being left without support, and only offered a room in a hostel, but again Housing Authorities under the Housing legislation have no duty to house single homeless people and demand for housing far outweighs supply, and so where does the blame lie? With politicians who make the law surely. I don’t suppose there are many Labour voting Judges, or barristers for that matter, though that may be unfair.
I really will end now……..be interested in your thoughts.
You may be interested in reading further about the research of Karen Broadhurst, funded by the Nuffield Foundation which looks at the issue of mothers who have successive babies removed from their care. This is known as ‘recurrent care proceedings’.
The website for the study is here. The overall aim of this study is to generate evidence to inform service development in respect of the timing, content and mode of delivery of services designed to intercept a cycle of recurrent care proceedings. Further quantifying recurrent care proceedings at a national level will also provide policy makers with the necessary data to enable the economic costs of this problem to be estimated.