Who Cares? An interactive play by What Next Theatre Group

On December 4th I travelled to see the production of the ‘What Next Theatre Group’ who describe themselves as ‘a new and exciting company working with Gloucestershire County Council and the Nelson Trust to present a new play in three scenes called ‘Who Cares?’ The play deals with the difficult issues surrounding adoption and the real consequences for the family and professionals involved’.

it was clear that the intent went beyond the mere presentation of a piece of theatre – after the play the actors and real life professionals gathered on stage to take questions from the audience – the actors remaining in character.

As the Theatre Group says:

We think that there is a rapidly increasing interest in the work of the family court and in the social issues with which it deals. We want to work together to show what may be done to help people through the most difficult ties of their lives – times when they experience extreme loss and degradation. We hope that by combining legal knowledge, theatre experience and the important work of the Nelson Trust, we can help the audience to consider new ideas and practice changes and understand some of the social issues that arise in this difficult area

So what follows are my impressions about how this enterprise met its stated goals.

It was certainly a bold idea. I do not wish to criticise its staging as that would clearly be unfair – this is a group which was set up about 8 weeks ago and presenting its work in a brightly lit lecture theatre with a very difficult and small stage on which to work. I would like to see it performed in a more sympathetic environment – the actors alone cannot do all the work of enabling us to suspend disbelief and even a punchy script and talented performers will struggle against these surroundings.

I am also entirely unclear what the random ‘trans’ character Ella/Ed bought to the narrative, other than to enable some members of the audience to signal their deep understanding around issues of inclusivity and identity by putting questions to Ed about how his (fictitious) family coped with his search to know who he was.

One of the most powerful strands of the script was the fact that the mother was herself adopted at the age of four, and how her adoptive parents had struggled with apparently little support with her behaviour as she grew. This is worthy of more exploration.

I also felt that the way in which the scenes were ordered detracted from rather than powered up the narrative – the court scene came second, after a very powerful opening in the hospital where the social worker was assaulted by an angry and terrified young mother, facing the removal of her second child.

I would have liked to have seen the court judgment as the final scene – it was well done, and an uncomfortable experience to be forced as a member of an audience to consider how the legal language and dry rejection of the birth family as ‘suitable’ to care for a child, must feel to those who have to sit and listen and struggle to understand.

I suspect that a more accommodating stage would have allowed for the court scene to have more power, regardless of where in the time line it came.

However, I can see that the drive of the production was to explore how after these proceedings the mother was simply left behind – the circus packed up and moved on, her only option to find temporary hostel accommodation once her mother and baby foster placement came to and end. The court is not the ‘end’ for parents.

‘Show not tell’

Leaving the limitations of staging aside, how did this production succeed on its aim to ‘show, not tell’ and to educate people about the work of the family justice system?

Without interviewing the entire audience its hard to say for sure. But I think I picked up enough information to reach some tentative conclusions. I was able to interview two of the audience who had no choice but to answer my questions as I was driving them home. This was interesting. One was a teenager who claimed to have only come because I bribed her with steak. However, she was able to provide an animated response and the evening had clearly piqued her interest. She found that language used by the mother challenging – she appreciated that this was no doubt realistic but it put up a barrier for her being able to feel compassion and sympathy.

The other was a newly qualified social worker who was very enthusiastic and said it had been a ‘great learning experience’ for her. She felt frustrated that she hadn’t been able to ask questions of the cast and wanted to know much more about why the baby’s grandparents could not have cared for him and what underpinned the social worker’s relationship with the mother in the first scene.

She asked – and I thought this very interesting – why no one had commented on the fact that the social worker was physically assaulted in the very first scene. Why this is something that is just seen as ‘what happens’ to social workers,

During the question and answer session with audience and cast, I was struck by how many in the audience appeared to be social workers, given the laughter or angry murmuring that followed some comments. One of the biggest laughs followed a question to the social worker about why she wanted to do the job. When asked how she coped she replied ‘I have supervision’ which bought another cynical chuckle from many.

The assertions of the Nelson Trust that social workers were ignorant about ‘trans’ and addiction issues caused a definite ripple and some passionate responses that it was simply wrong to expect social workers to know everything about everything – they work in multi agency teams and part of their job is knowing when they DON’T know and where to send people to for help.

So I asked if the audience would give me a show of hands as to how many were social workers. It was about half the 150 strong audience.

And that is interesting. Because its part of why I am concerned that these efforts to help people understand will not bear the fruit that is hoped. Its part of the reason that I abandoned active campaigning earlier this year – as I was so depressed by the refusal of many to challenge their own narratives, how they used every attempt to widen conversations as simply support for that narrative, rather than a challenge to it that ought to be accepted.

HHJ Wildblood was asked by the audience why he had become involved. His answers were interesting – I paraphrase here:

People don’t see how the family court works, just don’t understand the system, so I put this on stage … feel don’t think, make up your own minds…really wanted to make the point for after care, parents matter too. The main work must surely be done before court.

The whole purpose of our lives in one word – compassion. There is no ‘them’ there is only ‘us’ – want to try and send out that message.

It is powerful to hear these words spoken by a serving and senior member of the judiciary. I do not disagree at all with his distillation of the central message into one word – compassion.

But what the audience reaction showed to me is that efforts to make people ‘feel’ rather than ‘think’ may do nothing else but cement their already strong ‘feelings’ about why the system doesn’t work or who is to blame. It was clear where the Nelson Trust thought the blame should lie – parents aren’t given ‘enough time’ to make changes. In one uncomfortable exchange with the birth mother the social workers were referred to as ‘fuckers’ – this made the newly qualified social worker very uneasy, coupled with the complete lack of reaction from anyone to the fact that the social worker faced a physical attack on meeting the mother.

Nor do I think the ‘enough time’ argument has any weight. When I started out, 20 years ago, care proceedings routinely took one or even two years to drag to conclusion. This helped no one, least of all the child. ‘Time’ alone cannot turn around a person’s life. ‘Time’ plus ‘effective intervention’ may well do so. But this we do not have, for a variety of reasons – none of which say anything good about us as a species.

The reasons the system is failing are many. But as a species we cling to simple narratives to try and make sense of chaos and pain. It was clear that some in the audience (and cast!) clung to that narrative that its the ‘fault’ of the social workers – their arrogant language that they made the ‘decisions’ rather than recommendations to the court. And social workers don’t help themselves by this constant refrain that ‘we are child focused’. A child doesn’t exist in isolation from his family. A system that leaves the parents behind is cruel and ineffective. As the parents go on having children.

But. As the real life Team Manager said ‘We have to make the decisions that no one else wants to make’.

I think there is a real risk that social workers are being blamed for each and every social ill that has led us here. The saddest comment of all, for me, was to here the Team Manager talk about the difficulties of working with people from other agencies – the lack of time, the lack of trust.

And this chimes with my fundamental concern. Most people, most of the time appear to be on broadcast mode only. To open up space in their heads for real thought, to challenge their dearly held narratives is hard. Not many people seem able or willing to do it. I hope that events such as these do push at the door for some. Without a willingness from all concerned to be honest about what is happening, the situation can only get worse. But already it is quite beyond the efforts of any one group to change.

However, whatever my fears and cynicism – which certainly I also have to be open to challenge – at least 150 people traveled on a cold winters evening to participate with enthusiasm in a pretty unique piece of theatre. It is no small thing that a serving member of the judiciary has taken this step and is trying to do something to make us remember – there is no ‘them’. There is only ‘us’.

3 thoughts on “Who Cares? An interactive play by What Next Theatre Group

  1. Angelo Granda

    I share a lot of the post writer’s feelings. I did not see the production so I hope it goes on tour around the country or is published or turned into a film for everyone to see. I,too, am encouraged to see the Judge referring to a need for compassion.
    The senior manager is wrong,in my opinion,to state ‘We have to make the decisions that no one else wants to make’. It is not the managers job to make decisions about removal,it is the task of the C.S. to investigate facts ,present what they find to decision-makers then to support families and work together with parents and other professionals.

    I am pleased so many SW’s went to see the play; it is quite right they should look inwardly at themselves and the system which we all know is failing the Public. Also i feel uneasy about the lack of understanding and callousness towards the reactions displayed by the wretched Mum . How can anyone be surprised she turned violent and abusive?I wonder if the Mum was provided with an advocate. I doubt it!
    Unfortunately , I regard the attitude of these SW’s even the young ones as more than obtuse,more than just inexperience and more than just the result of low-calibre management and training.I regard it as a lack of humanity.
    A humane ,caring person would NOT REMOVE puppies from a bitch until they are at least eight weeks old. A predatory animal might try to take them but the bitch would fight back to the death to protect them. How would a cat react were someone to take its kittens at birth? What would a bird do to protect its chicks if one were to approach its nest ? These are the realistic decisions we have to take as human beings and we can only take them ourselves as the individuals we are. We can choose humanity or not!
    I recognise that when SW’s are part of a system, it is much easier for them to follow the herd .This is what most people do at work ,we follow instructions and close our eyes to a lot. I am glad Sarah remarked on the chuckle when one SW mentioned she ” has supervision”. Professional SW’s are supposed to be independent ;they should not need supervision by consultants who don’t even see the families or visit the homes and wards.I have written before that NHS consultants see their patients then delegate. The CS consultants predicate,speculate and make decisions without seeing them then tell the frontline staff what to do.Does that seem right?
    I have also written somewhere else that human-beings ,to remain human , must put the needs of real people and the community ABOVE those of our employers.We have to put morality and ethics first! Always put humanity first.
    I admire HHJ Wildebloode and I think this is what he means when he talks of compassion.
    Sarah spoke of inhumanity in a recent post and mentioned the holocaust if i remember rightly. We all have a PUBLIC DUTY to take our own decisions with honesty and humanity as and when they come along in life. We are all free to exercise our own free will and we should never act inhumanely just to make life easier and more comfortable for ourselves. We can’t blame our own inhumanity on our ‘managers’. Stand up to them!
    All comments welcome.

  2. Angelo Granda

    Further discussion on the subject of compassion as called for by HHJ Wildeblood.

    I understand from previous professional posts that the powerful L.A. manager’s and legal staff spend up to 80% of their time at their computer consoles and the SW’S,.60%. They find it easy to confuse their own self-interest with the public good. Is compassion programmed into their computers?
    Decision-making is centralised into the power of the computer systems and out of the hands of human beings.
    Control- of data and ‘real’ evidence is reduced to an inhumane mechanical process not one which fosters compassionate and charitable, social, child-protection .
    We have to return to a system where the network provides an open platform on which we can all build equally ,work together and co-operate in the interests of children and justice etc.
    In a truly compassionate and humane world, data and ‘evidence’ would be under the control of human beings ( SW’s, service-users, IRO’S,school and medical staff) and they would all work together and interoperate in ways that would allow them to choose whichever course they like for children, rather than having to operate within the bounds of a faceless computer protocol.
    There are benefits from computer systems: they can speed things up and make our jobs EASIER at the same time supplying us with well-rehearsed and logical -sounding arguments for what are actually inhumane actions: but it is hard to see how their use has led to a more thoughtful, rigorous or compassionate child-protection system.
    Amid the bullying, the bias, the injustice and the endless outrage, it’s hard to tell who is making the decisions – the computers or the people?
    I fear most of the lawyers ,even those of respondents use the various ‘cloud-based’ systems. From my experience, they actually type into and consult them at the same time they are talking to their clients.
    None of this leads to humanity and compassion ! Did we knowingly signed up to this? Each of us needs to think carefully about what we really want from computer systems.
    Too many people have lowered themselves to the level of the bots.

    Yet none of this solves perhaps the most basic problem. Ten years ago all we had to worry about was email overload. Now we carry around powerful and highly distracting devices. They observe our behaviour, buzz insistently to get attention, and leverage our desire to fit in, communicate and reciprocate.

  3. Angelo Granda

    Readers, As an example of the misuse of computer technology, I can cite the last paragraph of the comment above.
    QUOTE: Yet none of this solves perhaps the most basic problem. Ten years ago all we had to worry about was email overload. Now we carry around powerful and highly distracting devices. They observe our behaviour, buzz insistently to get attention, and leverage our desire to fit in, communicate and reciprocate: UNQUOTE

    That is actually a direct quote from someone else’s article about SOCIAL MEDIA and nothing to do with compassion or child-protection. I had read it in the digital edition of a newspaper; somehow it attached itself to my comment through my own misuse of a laptop.

    My apologies!


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