Chair's Blog: Re-telling a young mother's story
This penultimate Chair’s Blog post has been jointly written with Karen*, a young mother whose child was removed from her care, who I have previously interviewed for an article in BASW’s Professional Social Work magazine. I write the first part of the post, and Karen the second. In my part, I begin by talking about narrative practices, and the use of outsider witnesses in particular. This practice aims to deepen a person’s preferred story, by enabling its telling and re-telling, from different perspectives. I hope that this post does justice to Karen’s story, and those of her co-presenters at the conference where I first met them.
Re-telling a young mother’s story
I’m glad that my interest in narrative therapy has been reawakened in recent years, not least because of the experience I had in June 2017 of seeing Karen and two other young parents present at a narrative conference in Brighton - which has led to this blog post.
I first heard of narrative therapy in 1995, when I attended my first course on solution-focused brief therapy. It was perhaps seen as a closer relative to solution-focused practice then than it is now, with many of us trying out ‘externalising’ - “When did anxiety first start making an appearance in your life… what does anxiety get you to do… tell me about when you have managed to keep anxiety at bay?” - and writing letters left, right and centre to service users and significant people in their lives. The chapter, ‘A Storied Therapy’, in White and Epston’s Narrative Means To Therapeutic Ends (1990), full of fantastic examples of letters telling the good stuff about people and their lives, remains one of my very favourite work-related pieces of writing.
In the social work world, Judith Milner and Patrick O’Byrne of Huddersfield University took narrative practices forward in particular. Patrick wrote an excellent book with Nigel Parton called Constructive Social Work (2000), about ways of bringing narrative and solution-focused approaches into social work practice.
I was re-introduced to narrative practices in 2012 in Palestine, when I attended an event called Narrative Responses to Trauma, co-organised by the Dulwich Centre (home of narrative therapy in Australia) and the Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre in Ramallah. I discovered much that was new to me in these practices, and one that made a particular impression involved the use of ‘outsider witnesses’. I was one of a number of ‘outsider witnesses’ who listened to a Palestinian man in a refugee camp telling his story of resilience and hope, before being asked to respond about what we had heard. This was similar to ‘reflecting teams’ practices in family and systemic therapy, but added another, more personal, dimension, that had a very powerful effect.
I am going to fast forward now, to five years later, when I became in effect an outsider witness to three other stories, those of Karen and the two other parents who presented at a conference I attended in June 2017, organised by the Institute of Narrative Therapy. The title of their keynote presentation was "Am I still a parent?” Parents talk about surviving after their children have been removed from their care. They had been receiving support from Brandon Reach, a service based in Camden, North London.
At the end of their presentations a number of people from the audience joined the parents at the front, and reflected on what they had heard, following the framework for outsider witness responses. This framework has four parts, with outsider witnesses being asked to:
- identify the expression - “Whilst you were listening to this conversation, what did you hear that you were most drawn to?”
- identify the image - “As you heard this… what did it suggest to you about what might be important to this person? Or what hopes they might have for their life? Or what aspirations they might have? As you think about this, what images or pictures of this person come to mind?”
- identify resonance - “What is it about your own experience that meant that you were drawn to these things in particular?”
- identify transport - “Where has listening to this taken you? … what new ideas has this brought up for you that you might not otherwise have had? What has this left you thinking or planning to do? What might be possible in your own life as a result of hearing this account?”
Let me follow this framework now, as I reflect almost a year later on what I heard.
While I listened to Karen and the other parents speak, I was drawn to so much of what they said. As they talked about their experiences of being assessed as parents, some of their words I noted down explained a sense of being in a Catch 22 situation. Appearing emotionally stable could be seen as being detached while appearing emotionally unstable would be seen as not coping.
Words describing the experience after the final Court hearing hit hard: “You end up going home and no one phones to see if you are ok”.
Reflecting more generally, on the situation post-removal: “No child should grow up without their birth parent being involved”.
What has stayed with me most of all is “I think it’s really important for social workers to see what’s going on”.
On my note pad also are the words “Nothing stopping me!”, with the ! added to convey the strength with which I heard this being said.
I don’t remember the exact meaning at the time of this last comment, but the general sense of it takes me into the second part of the framework, identifying the image. The image I have now is one that conveys strength and determination, embodied by my memory of seeing each young mother in turn standing in front of this large audience of professionals, and telling us their stories.
Third, what is it about my experience that meant I was drawn to these things in particular? Well, first, there would have been a deep human connection based on my own experiences of loss, notwithstanding the huge differences between us and that I have never experienced the removal of my children. I was also drawn to these aspects of their stories though because of my experiences as a social worker. It is some time since I have worked in the context they described, and I wonder about the possible effects on my assessment practices, for example, if I had heard such accounts from parents then.
So, where has this taken me? When I heard the parents say that they wanted social workers to hear their stories, I felt an obligation to let them know that I was a social worker, who had heard them, and who given my role as Chair of BASW could help their stories be heard by other social workers too.
To this end, I interviewed Karen and Helen for an article, which was published in Professional Social Work in December 2017. And I am delighted to be able to write this joint blog post with Karen, and honoured that her words now follow mine, here.
After being in the care system myself, and having a child at 18, I was automatically put under assessment, which lasted for two years.
Being a new parent can be a scary thing in itself. However, having the threat of the possible removal of your child hanging over you, and the constant restrictions put on you as a parent, makes it practically impossible to parent naturally.
Initially, I was told that the local authority did not feel an assessment unit would be the right place for me, as I would not fit in and would not be able to access my main family support. However, later this appeared not to be a consideration, which created a fear in me that the local authorities did not care about the parents doing well but just wanted the removal of the child. Throughout this time we were put in various different types of accommodation and transferred between two neighbouring social services departments, before I finally lost the custody of my daughter, which resulted in her being adopted.
A friend of mine, who had had a similar experience to me, referred me to the Brandon Centre. We started off by creating a project called the Tree of Life Group. This was a project based around using our creative side in order to connect our childhood experiences to our adult life. From this we formed a smaller group. We started planning an exhibition - Taken: “because love wasn’t enough” - in order to gain the attention we wanted and to create awareness.
Whilst working on this we were lucky enough to be invited to a conference in Brighton in which we were asked to speak about our experiences. After our presentation we were very much overwhelmed with all the people racing up to us to ask us questions. However, we were lucky enough to be introduced to Guy Shennan. He promised to come and see us at a later date and help us with our work. Sure enough he kept his promise, he took our ideas and opinions into consideration, and for the first time we felt that someone was finally listening to us; someone who has some influence for change.
One thing that Guy did was to interview me and another parent, and a part of this was published in the BASW social workers magazine in December last year. One of the questions he asked was: What would have helped?
In my opinion, the local authorities could try to understand each individual need of the parents. Work with them and discover how they want to parent, and help them to achieve this by referring them to other support networks and groups of people with the same interests, and setting clear goals built around the parents’ individual ways of raising their children. Social workers should approach their work with parents by understanding that everyone has different parenting styles and they should work with each client as an individual and not assess each individual with the same expectations. We need someone who we can talk to, someone who we can trust and turn to for advice. To discuss our fears as new parents and not be afraid that everything we say will be used against us or cause our children to be adopted.
A massive negative factor in my opinion is assessment units. These are things that should be changed. They need to have consistency in the information parents receive from them, and need to provide a more natural living environment for parents. Again, there are many different ways of assessing parents, and it is important to understand that each individual will perform better under different forms of assessments. These should be chosen very carefully in order to complement the individual’s parenting and not make them feel as though the world is against them.
Personally, I found the mother and baby foster placement to be the most supportive form of assessment. However, maybe I was just lucky to be with a very supportive family. In my opinion, this form of assessment creates a natural environment in which the mother and baby can feel comfortable and also allows parents the freedom of being able to access their own support networks.
Working with Guy has helped restore my faith in the system and hearing what he has to say has also made me realise that a lot of social workers want the same changes as us. They want to be able to work with us and we all have one common factor - our children’s best interests. However, sometimes the social workers themselves are just as powerless as us.
Parton, N. & O’Byrne, P. (2000). Constructive social work: Towards a new practice. Basingstoke. Palgrave Macmillan.
White, M. and Epston, D. (1990). Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York: Norton.
*Name has been changed to protect identities