This unique article focuses on the work of our Community Advice and Support and Team (CAST) in helping families living in a state of turbulence to navigate their way to calmer seas, and a more hopeful future for children enmeshed in their struggles.
We learn how establishing trust is the cornerstone of good social work.
Case-study: Michelle & Ryan
(Names and some case details have been changed to protect client privacy)
Michelle is a single mum in her mid 40’s with two sons – Lennox aged 19 and ten-year Ryan – a pupil at a Manchester Jewish primary school.
Two years ago, concerns about Ryan’s out-of-control behaviour led to his school referring him to The Fed’s Community Advice and Support Team (CAST).
Case-worker Zoe explains: “None of the usual classroom strategies worked. Ryan wouldn’t accept authority. He was intimidating other children and at risk of exclusion.”
It emerged that his parents had separated; he had witnessed domestic abuse in his family and there was a history of repeated house moves. He had known little routine or stability throughout his short life.
Zoe continues, “By the time I made my first home-visit, Lennox – who’d been living with his father- had moved in with Michelle and Ryan and ‘taken over the home’, pushing Ryan out of his own bedroom and in with Mum. She was in a financial mess having run up a lot of debt. Ryan’s contact with his own father was erratic. Cumulatively it was very unsettling and seemed to be the trigger for his challenging behaviour.”
Zoe set to work, helping Michelle to consider bankruptcy and solutions to put her financial circumstances in order and assisted her in devising a payment plan.
But no sooner was one issue addressed and another one would crop up. “This is often the case when you start working with someone who has led a very chaotic life. Everything’s in a state of flux. At first, it’s as though you’re constantly firefighting to help extricate them from the latest scrape they have got into, before you can start to address and work on the root causes of their tumultuous behaviour.
“I had barely a chance to focus on Michelle’s long-term issues, when she moved out of Manchester to her boyfriend’s house and Ryan went to live at her Mum’s. It was hoped he would be better off here with a more structured homelife and not needing to change school. Things in fact got worse.”
Michelle’s relationship with her boyfriend soon broke down and she presented as homeless at the local housing office and was given a room in a hotel. From here she was offered and accepted a council house back in Manchester.
The main thrust of Zoe’s work has been to support Michelle in creating order in Ryan’s life, to give him the best chance in the future. This has largely involved helping her to understand how to prioritise Ryan’s needs and curb her own impulsive, risky behaviour and rash decision-making.
She has also helped Michelle obtain grants for essential white goods and school uniform, apply for universal credit and has arranged for her to receive food packages and support parcels during lockdown:
“Michelle’s done great,” she says proudly, “and Ryan is so much more settled – his behaviour at school is greatly improved.”
From Michelle’s Point of View
“My parents divorced when I was three. My Dad was cheating on my Mum and kicked us out. Me, my mum and brother went to live with my mum’s parents. It was a traditional Jewish home.
“I’ve been a bit of a wild one. As a young person I’d used drugs and self-harmed.
“I’d be very hot-headed. I’d get into a tizz easily, get pushed over the edge and open my mouth before thinking.
“I’ve made irrational stupid choices. Now I feel like a totally different person. Zoe has taught me to calm down and be less emotional.
“The Fed became involved about two years ago when Ryan was causing hassle at school. I’d lost my house and started gambling and got into a lot of debt.
“My older boy Lennox had been living with his father, but his Dad’s mental health wasn’t good, and he had to come and live with me and Ryan. Lennox was a very angry boy and he and Ryan were not getting on. Things got to a really bad pitch and I thought at the time it was best for Ryan to go and live with my mum for a bit. That’s when he really started kicking off at school.
“School kept calling me in over Ryan and I felt they were against me – trying to find fault with me and seeing me as an outsider. I’ve often felt like that. When I grew up, I went to a Jewish school, but we were the only single-parent family in the school and on top of that we had no money.
“So, I resented school and I resented them involving The Fed though I felt like I needed someone to back me up.
“Zoe’s very professional and has this good calm way of coming across. She’s really good-natured and talks to me with respect.
“It was much easier having her by my side when I was facing this whole panel of people at Ryan’s school.
“She’s helped me be more open with the school and realise what they’ve done is for Ryan’s good and that they weren’t against me.
“She’s my ‘go-to person’. She’s helped me see that there’s a solution to problems but that means sharing them with the right people.
“I wouldn’t have asked for help back in the day. I’d have raged and tried to fight my own battles – like when I got in debt through gambling. I didn’t want to admit I had a problem and lost my home because of rent arrears.
“Since May, Ryan and I have been in a new two-bed rented house. I’m never going to leave him again. The Fed helped me with the moving costs and getting a new washing-machine.
“Ryan’s been able to go to school during the pandemic and the teachers say he has been amazing – like a different kid. It makes me feel brilliant – though gutted that I made him go through that.
“I feel I’m finally getting myself together – and Zoe’s the number one person who’s helped me – in so many ways. I thank The Fed from the bottom of my heart!”
Interview: Sara Ogden-Thomson, CAST Manager
“Michelle’s case is not exceptional. We work a lot with chaotic families. But not everyone we support is able to understand their own behaviour and make the positive changes we’ve seen in Michelle.
“Her case is particularly gratifying as although Ryan was initially referred to us by his school, more recently, when she’s hit a rocky patch, she has initiated contact with us. It shows you how far she’s come and how she trusts us.”
“Some parents are too mentally unwell to be able to take advice on board, or they may have learning difficulties and will always need some form of ongoing support.
“But not only do we have to recognise the limitations of the people we support, but we must also know the limits of our own skills and be able to determine when a client needs to access specialist support, such as from a mental health or educational professional.
“Crucially, having built a trusting relationship with a client, we are in a unique position to open the door to other services, which they might otherwise reject.
“From here, we can work in conjunction with third-party services to support the client in putting into practice the strategies they are taught. We encourage them to ‘stick with it’. In this way our involvement boosts the likelihood of a positive outcome.”
Cases involving children living in chaotic families are referred to The CAST team from across the religious spectrum of the community, and the underlying causes are similar whatever the background: domestic abuse, parents with learning difficulties, personality disorders, mental ill-health, addictive behaviour. For all of them, asking for help can be terrifying. Fear of having one’s children removed is top of the list, followed by fear of being judged.
In practice, the removal of children by the local authority is rare. It is far more likely that an ongoing support plan will be put in place. But on rare occasions, separation of parent and child may be the best outcome all round and even in line with a parent’s wishes.
Sara explains: “We recently supported a lady in the religious community who had several young children. She was unable to do anything for her children. They were neglected and the home was in turmoil. She was deeply depressed and unable to motivate herself to get out of bed – even put cereal in a bowl for them. She was sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
“She acknowledged her inability to look after her children and made private arrangements for their care, recognising that she needed help to deal with the physical and sexual abuse she had suffered as a child.
“Our team’s role was to support her through the process of hospital admission, to oversee the plans for her post-discharge, and support in her making the decision which eventually involved her permanently leaving her family and moving out of the community.
“Her case contrasts starkly with many others when the focus of our work to keep families intact or prevent an escalation of chaos to the point where the family becomes involved with the Local Authority’s children’s services.
“MIchelle and Ryan came pretty close to Local Authority involvement. That’s what makes theirs such a success story”.
The Power of Play
Part of the support plan for a family may involve a child’s attendance at The Fed’s Project Smile Stay & Play group sessions, as in the case of nine-year-old ‘Nadia’ – a regular attendee of The Fed’s Project Smile Play & Learn Sunday Group.
The groups run twice weekly on Fridays and Sundays (subject to pandemic restrictions). They are held in The Fed’s purpose-built children’s centre which is equipped with a kitchen and dining-area for life skills, meal and crafts, indoor and out-door play areas and a sensory room. The Fed’s play-leader and a team of skilled support workers and volunteers run the sessions which offer children with additional needs, or classed as ‘in need’, opportunities to play, learn, make friends and have new experiences while being looked after in a safe, kosher, supportive, nurturing environment. In normal circumstances, the centre also runs play-days, school holiday play-schemes, community days and a Mums ‘n’ Tots group.
The groups help children build social skills and confidence and give families a much-needed break from caring responsibilities.
One of four children, her parents now separated, Nadia lives with her father and two siblings while the youngest child of the family lives with Mum. Nadia and one sibling both have diagnoses of autism.
Sara recalls, “When we first met Nadia, she was emaciated. She looked like a little Dickensian street urchin. You heart goes out and you think. ’Oh, my goodness I need to rescue this child!’ but your professional head kicks in and says, ‘Right, what can I do? What steps can I take to address this child and this family’s needs?’
“We tend to take for granted being able to give our children hot food every day; toys to play with, a warm bed, shoes that fit, clean clothes. People have no idea how some families which we support, like Nadia’s, are living. It’s just so far removed from their reality and what they expect goes on in the Jewish community.
Nadia’s family have been known to The Fed for several years. As with Michelle and Ryan, there was a lot of instability, changes of address and financial struggles. When CAST first became involved they were living in a small, dark, disorganised and cluttered flat. Family life was not helped by the vast difference in the parents’ characters.
Zoe explains, “Dad is by nature sociable and active. He’d see to everything outside of the house. By contrast Mum is very insular and lethargic, seldom going out, and suffering from exceptionally low mood. She would just sit in the chair, rarely initiating any involvement with the children. Neither parent was engaging with services offering appointments for support such as help with obtaining benefits.
Their eldest child’s behaviour in school was reported as violent and out-of-control. She continues, “School was saying he was throwing tables around, but the parents maintained that he was fine at home. That, in itself, is a red flag.”
An eventual diagnosis of autism triggered a referral to the Local Authority’s Children’s Services and the involvement of The Fed, which together have given Nadia and all her siblings a better chance in life.
Sara expounds, “We’ve provided a tremendous amount of support to this family around financial issues – helping them with budgeting, which has been a slow process, providing financial support for school uniforms and a washing machine and helping them access grants from other charities. We helped them to obtain a personal budget for Nadia and a sibling to enable them to attend our children’s groups.
Zoe continues, “The parents have divorced and nowadays most of our work is with Dad who is a single parent. Mum simply could not cope with so many children to care for. She has the baby, but the other kids all see her.
“Dad tells us when he feels he is not coping and is very positive and appreciative about our involvement.
“I see a massive difference in all the children. When we first met Nadia, she wouldn’t talk to us; she was pale and waif-like with straggly hair. Now she looks like a little ‘girly’ girl. She has colour in her cheeks; takes pride in her appearance and engages with staff at our children’s centre, even instigating conversation. She is so much more confident.
“There is a sense of much happier family unit.
“I’m dead happy. It’s so nice to have been involved a long time with a child and see how well they’re doing. You think, you know what? We’re doing what’s right. We are making a real difference.”