Saturday, 19 September 2015

Be patient with teachers too!

Back to School

We are three weeks in to the school year and there have been some short tempers and tantrums as we all get a bit tired and overwhelmed with our new timetables, routines and homework. On Friday especially there was far more dysregulation, arguing and hyper behaviour than usual. It was mostly from the pupils of course but everything I just said is true of the teachers too.

Even in a secondary school which is making an effort to be trauma aware we sometimes mess up: as a school and as individual teachers.  Cornered by a parent on Tuesday evening, as I was rushing home to take my own Lad to a medical appointment, there was an expectation that I would have a very full knowledge of her daughter's needs. Of course this pupil's notes are on the system and I will have had a quick look but realistically I am learning the names and needs of over 200 children, all of whom are new to me, and the temptation to come out with a comment like:

"In the short time I have known your child I believe she is a girl with brown hair."

is huge. I will get there but we are only three weeks in.

Then there are the times when I make mistakes in the classroom.. Teachers, like parents, sometimes run out of empathy. Even those of us who are the most trauma aware get tired and stressed. We may react to a situation without thinking, we may get frustrated and raise our voices. I try to always model appropriate behaviour in my classroom but I have bad days when I overreact. If I realise in time I will apologise to the class and admit my mistake or if it is an individual pupil I have dealt with badly I will try to find them later and restore the relationship but I have a full timetable and it's a busy school - I don't always have time and then the opportunity is lost.

You know those days when, as parents trying to do it therapeutically, our children push us to the limit and we react in a way we regret? Teachers can be guilty of this too. We have 30 children in front of us and they switch every hour 5 or 6 times a day. We do mess up, that doesn't mean we don't care about your child. Please be patient with us.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Growing Up Too Late

After almost six months of living alone I share the house once more with a long-legged, football-obsessed, fridge-emptying 21 year old lad. The evidence is all around me in the casually kicked-off trainers, the discarded cigarette papers and unwashed dishes that seem to be an integral part of living with a typical, young, male adult - except unlike a typical person of his age almost everything he does is in response to fear.

A stranger would describe him as attractive, confident, streetwise, a bit of a charmer, someone who knows how to look after himself, the life and soul of the party....that isn't the side of him I see at home and he knows himself, and on a good day will occasionally admit, that it is a façade that he has created. The real "Lad" is the boy who sat across from me at a picnic table, after blowing off his college interview, and while trying to wipe away a tear that I wasn't supposed to see he admitted ...

"I was in prison when I should have been growing up, I didn't get to do it. Now all my mates are grown-ups and I'm still a kid. I won't lie to you, I'm scared."

Think for a moment how frightening it must be to be an adolescent with the appearance of a large 21 year old. Imagine that for the last 8 years every single thing has been done for you and suddenly everyone has expectations. Try to envisage the people you meet every day - on the bus, at the shop, in the doctor's surgery, at the job centre - expecting you to be able to behave like a fully grown twenty-something and having no patience or understanding when you don't measure up. Then visualise keeping up the image of a streetwise, confident, charming young man when inside you are scared, confused and overwhelmed. Growing up is tough.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

That Green-Eyed Monster

Jealousy is a pretty ugly emotion isn't it? It signals insecurity and lack of trust; acted upon it can make us possessive, suspicious and obsessive. It is hard enough to be jealous of a friend's promotion, the neighbours' bigger salary, your partner's friendship with an ex; it makes us feel petty and we are ashamed of those emotions, we keep them hidden. How much worse it is to covet another person's child.

I will admit it to you, Dear Reader, because I can reveal nothing to the excited young man across the table who has recently received letters from his extended family. His face is lit up with joy at such an unexpected delivery and there is hopeful expectancy of restored relationships with relatives he hasn't seen since he was a little boy. I recognize the look, it is the same pure happiness I have seen when his dad makes the occasional effort to phone or he tells me his mum has invited him over for tea. I am pleased for him; more than that, I know that this is crucial if he is to come to terms with the rejection that has been a massive hole inside him for the last eight years. Nonetheless I am jealous.

I want to ask where the hell they have been for the last twenty years, when the world was falling in around him. Where was this family when the police called in the middle of the night? Where were they all the times he went missing? Why aren't they regulars in the visits hall? Why don't they know what his favourite meals are, what kind of music he likes, what position he plays on the football pitch? Where were they all those times he needed to talk something through? You see, I am insanely jealous because I know these facts, I have been there during the crises but the one thing I cannot do is give birth to him and when it comes down to it he may well need me but he wants them. I am glimpsing the future right now and I suspect cynically that his family will only be there for the good times, for the occasions when he is behaving how they want him to, for Christmas and birthdays. And me? I am always here for the daily mess, the meltdowns and emergencies, but will probably be spending those special days alone with one eye on my phone in case I'm needed. 

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Fighting Their Corner

Has anyone else observed that those who are in the most need of support struggle to get it because they need support to access the support?

Young adults for example, they frequently need assistance to navigate the grown-up world of which they have just become a part, usually from an older adult who has already been there. Who among us, when a teenager, has not called Dad when the boiler breaks down at our student digs or asked mum to come with us to a medical appointment? Higher education open days, moving house, seeking employment, buying our first car: it is reassuring to know someone is there for moral support.

A care leaver doesn't usually have their parents on speed dial and may not have the advice and support of somebody who has walked the same path, which is unfortunate because their grown-up world is more complicated than most. They may have multiple benefits appointments to attend; a variety of health and social care professionals to juggle; meetings with a list of individuals and agencies. Additionally there will be consequences which they may not fully grasp if such dates are skipped or forgotten. In some cases early trauma, attachment issues, learning needs and mental health difficulties may mean they are not well equipped to handle these situations. This can add to their feelings of being overwhelmed, lonely and isolated. Of course they are entitled to support from their local authority but this is still inadequate compared to that received by the average teenager from their family. Furthermore the support brings with it yet more appointments, people to update and dates to remember. If the young care leaver becomes involved in the criminal justice system the situation is even tougher to negotiate; appointments with solicitors, police and probation are added to the list and the consequences of non-compliance are severe. Then more than ever a young person needs a caring adult around to steer them through the process and advocate for them when things do not go as they should; and frequently things do not go as they should.

Here is an example from a couple of years ago, when a care leaver lodging with me was arrested. It began with a call from the local custody unit informing me of his arrest; so far so good, at least he remembered my number and had a call put through. After thanking the officer for notifying me I told him I was available at any time that afternoon to act as an Appropriate Adult (AA.)
"The young gentleman is 18," he replied politely.
I explained that their detainee was a care leaver with a diagnosed mental health disorder and should be seen by a member of the mental health team and provided with an AA for interviews regardless of his age.
"We asked the young man if he required assistance but he declined."
I'm not sure how I didn't yell at this point: "Well he would do wouldn't he? He is embarrassed you absolute idiot. If the diagnosis is on his file you get him seen by a professional and you arrange a bloody AA whether he likes it or not!"
I worded my response a little more diplomatically of course and both of my requests were carried out. I discovered afterwards that, before my interference, the Criminal Justice Mental Health Worker had been advised by the Custody Sergeant that her help was not required. This often happens when a detainee does not identify themselves as either suicidal or at risk of self-harming, any other difficulties are not a priority. Vulnerable young people seldom question the decisions made for and about them. They assume they have no choices and they don't want to be perceived as difficult in an environment where someone else has full control. They just play the waiting game.

Two years later we are both waiting again. The same young person was recently recalled to custody and we are waiting for the outcome of a police investigation which could have a dramatic impact on the length of his stay. The frustrating part is that the decision was made 5 days ago. We are waiting for a probation officer to call the police station, discover the outcome and pass this on to me so that I can inform the young person. Chinese Whispers was never so life-changing. I can't call myself, the young person is an adult so they won't tell me anything. The young person can't call because he is in prison. We need an advocate to do it for us and sadly he is not an especially efficient one. I will probably spend most of the next few days chasing him by email and telephone.

I joke sometimes that I should answer my land-line with the greeting "OT's Personal Assistant, how may I help?" and certainly more of my role as a Supported Living Carer has been administrative than I would have expected. I make phone calls on the young person's behalf or often help him write a script and stand over him while he does it himself. I have written numerous letters of support to magistrates, often putting into words the traumatic past which my young people won't admit out loud. I deal with appointments, good grief the
appointments! I write them on the calendar; check the young person has read the calendar; text just beforehand in case the meeting was forgotten between the reading of the calendar and the appointment itself. Then later that evening I ask questions to ascertain how much information, if any, the young person remembers from the appointment; call the person he met to find out what was ACTUALLY said and then explain the key points from the meeting I did not attend to the young person who attended it. I am not kidding, this is my life.

The support, the mentoring, the chasing of professionals, the advocacy: at times this role is frustrating but essential. All of this ensures the young person's needs are understood and met. Fighting his corner is probably one of the most important things I do.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Seeing it from Both Sides

I have been teaching for almost ten years now off and on, mostly in fairly challenging urban secondary schools and although I hope it never shows in my treatment of the young people in my class, I do have favourite pupils, I suspect every teacher does. I find, in fact, that most teachers attract a few hangers-on, students who lurk longer than they need to in their classroom at break or who waylay them after school. Some of my colleagues were claimed by the sporty children, the creative ones, the nerdy ones, the gifted and talented ones. For me it is always the "naughties", although they really aren't naughty of course, there is far more to it than that. I am talking about the teenagers with a troubled home life; the persistent truants; pupils with ADHD or Tourettes; those with a substance abuse problem; those frequently in trouble with police; kids struggling to behave in the classroom for any number of reasons - they can sniff me out as a kindred spirit at fifty paces. I have never been certain why that happens: perhaps they can sense that I am not judging them; that I see something beyond the challenging behaviour that they are communicating with; that I quite like them and therefore maybe I am worth the risk of liking back? 

I suppose it is no wonder that when I became a Supported Living Carer the more challenging care-leavers to pass through my home would be the ones who won a permanent place in my heart. All of them have struggled in the mainstream school classroom to varying degrees so these days I can see the problem from both the teacher and carer perspective and still I don't know the answer. I look with frustration across the rows of desks at the thirty children in front of me and my heart breaks for that "attention seeking" pupil who is struggling to focus and wants me all to herself. I really want to give her the connection she craves but I want to do my best for the other 29 as well and somehow that just isn't possible, even with the occasional presence of an angel of mercy Teaching Assistant. I am sure the children are far more frustrated with the situation than I am. More annoying still I am sometimes pretty sure I know how I can help that struggling pupil to learn, I simply don't have the time or resources.

This week I witnessed an alternative, which wouldn't work for everyone but might help a fair few of the "naughties" I am acquainted with; I had the opportunity to visit a specialist school for boys with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. About 50 boys are educated there, in my eyes most of them shorter versions of the lads I have supported in my home. The class numbers are very small, the ratio of staff to pupils high and the atmosphere was one of calm kindness. It was not the scene of chaos that I was expecting, although I am sure things can get out of hand from time-to-time and I certainly only saw a snapshot. 

First I was shown an art class, where an enthusiastic, excited, attachment-seeking twelve year-old insisted on showing me his sketchbook, which I obediently admired. Then there was a maths class, where one young man was struggling to sit still and not shout or make noises; "A stranger in the room can be unsettling for some of our boys," explained my guide. We passed classrooms with cosy, quiet, cushion-filled corners where overwhelmed children could hide for a while; we dropped in to a cookery lesson where the smell of Apple Crumble was mouthwatering. There was an allotment; a display of photographs from the annual ski trip and a poster reminding everyone of an upcoming outing to the theatre. 

I was impressed with the school and its staff, as you can probably tell, but saddened that the care-leavers I have supported, with complex behaviour and emotional needs, never had a similar opportunity. Most were squeezed into a mainstream mould which was not suited to them and resulted in their exclusion and transfer to a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU). No doubt there are PRUs which do a fine job but my experience of our local unit is that it is mostly an expensive holding area for the children who disrupt the "normal" pupils. It herds the excluded, challenging pupils together; keeps them out-of-sight and out of mind for a few years and then releases them into the world at 16 without a qualification to their names. Does that sound harsh? Perhaps it is and perhaps many PRU staff do their best for the pupils they teach, but I have supported two boys who graduated from the local one: both have no qualifications; both are NEETs (not in education, employment or training); both have served time in custody and neither is stupid. They are both of at least average intelligence so you might think the place could have at least squeezed a GCSE or two out of them.

At the end of my tour of the special school I was told there was a second small unit across the road for the hard-to-reach boys. Did I want to see it? Absolutely I did! Hard-to-reach boys are fast becoming my speciality after all. My guide explained that some of their oldest pupils have terrible attendance. Some are serial runaways; some are looked after children who have had one placement breakdown after another; some are from traveller families and a few have been kicked out of their homes and are sleeping on friends' sofas. I was told that often these boys were reported missing to police and the school was the only place they still dropped into, even if just for a cuppa and a sandwich. The unit itself had the feel of a youth club or children's home more than a school. There was a pool table; a large kitchen "We feed all our boys three times during the school day, they don't always eat at home;" a boot room and showers "for our older boys who sofa surf." Upstairs one of the rooms was occupied by a massage therapist who comes in once a month for parents and carers, an initiative to build positive ties with pupils' families who often have a stressful time. 

I love the holistic approach of this school, although I hate the fact that so much of it is necessary.Here is a team that understands that a child won't learn if their basic needs are not being met. Working in mainstream education I feel frustrated by the focus on pushing pupils to the next attainment target and punishing issues such as a lack of homework. Teenagers who I feed with breakfast bars from my own desk drawer and who confide in me that they don't return home till bedtime have bigger problems than achieving a Level 5 in Spanish. Maslow was the bane of my life at foster training but he is right when he insists that children cannot learn until their more basic needs are met. They certainly can't concentrate if they are hungry or worried about where they will sleep later. Neither will they make friends if they haven't showered in days. Furthermore children who have experienced trauma, or are still in the thick of it, have other things on their minds which will not be on the teacher's lesson plan and they will communicate them with their behaviour. I am relieved and encouraged to discover that some teachers recognise this fact and are highly gifted interpreters. 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

They just can't sell it.

One of my favourite screenwriters is Aaron Sorkin, who is probably best known for creating The West Wing. The precursor to that series was a film called The American President and it is chock-full of great lines, many of which strike a chord during election season. However one scene has been going around in my head for the last few days. President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, speaks to his nation in an election broadcast about his opponent. He says: 

"I've known Bob Rumson for years, and I've been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn't get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it. Bob's problem is that he can't sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections."

Why has this quote been in my head all week? Because it goes a long way towards explaining why almost no politician out there wants to be caught caring about the men, women and children inside our prisons. It is hardly a vote winner is it? The prisoners themselves can't go to the polling station and it isn't an issue that will win the hearts and minds of the electorate.

Some of us do care though; some of us have to care because there are people we love inside those walls. Every prisoner is someone's parent, child, partner or sibling; a lot of them are in the wrong place and those who are not are, in some establishments, barely being treated decently let alone getting the rehabilitation work they require to cease offending. And I know this not only due to inspection reports, statistics and newspaper columns but because every time I visit OT there is another story, a tale that shocks me, that forces me to rearrange my face so that I don't show my surprise. It is usually an anecdote which is so much a part of normality for him that he no longer even realises quite how awful it is.

This weekend produced one of those stories but before that I have a few more issues to air, that my MP can't afford to care about. It took me about two hours to get to his latest prison and I still get nervous when it's a place I haven't visited before. OT's geographical location mostly impacts on me rather than him, he knows I will somehow manage to visit wherever he is located, psychologically though, surrounded by strange accents and people from towns he has never heard of, he is a long way from home. The impact on the visitor is a more practical one, at present each trip costs me £50 and about 11 hours of my weekend, only 1 hour and 45 minutes of which is actually time with the lad. I am lucky enough to have a car, I doubt if I could manage a visit if I had to rely on trains and buses to get there. You have your first prison reform idea right there, if a politician wanted to listen. 

OT seemed OK generally, given his current circumstances, but those who moan about criminals languishing in their cells watching TV when they should be working really don't have a clue. He is in a Young Offenders' Institution for 18 to 21 year olds which is dangerously understaffed and there are not enough officers to adequately supervise the prisoners working. At present he is locked up for approximately 22 hours a day, any additional time out of his cell is dependent on the availability of education, work or other positive activities - this translates to another two hours a week in a literacy class (he has done this course 5 times, he is already literate, it was the only course he could get straight on) and one and a half hours in the gym. The boys are paid £8-10 a week for education according to Inside Time but because he isn't doing much of it OT gets a couple of pounds at best. That isn't a lot of money to buy essentials with, such as stamps and phone credit to call home. Then again his current association time is in the morning when I would be at work, so he wouldn't be able to speak to me in any case. Now personally I would vote for a party who sorted out work and education in custody but I'm well aware I am a niche voter, political success certainly lies down a more mainstream path.

Now OT is a care leaver, he has experienced significant childhood trauma, he has behavioural difficulties and mild learning issues, he is diagnosed with a mental illness - despite all of this he can handle himself, he is fairly together and would not be considered vulnerable in a custodial setting. There are other young people in his situation who are far worse off than him, just read Alex Cavendish's Prison UK post The Lost Boys Of Our Prison System if you need to be convinced of that fact. One of them was a cell-mate of his for just over a week, which is the story that I mentioned earlier. In his induction phone call home OT had mentioned that he was sharing with someone he didn't really get on with, "You should see who they've put me in with!" he had said. During the visit I asked him about this, he replied that the other lad had been moved. I joked (half joked, I am realistic) that I hoped he hadn't been moved after OT had lost his rag and thumped him. No, I was told, that wasn't ever likely "He was just a scared, freaked out little kid B, he was self-harming and everything, he was annoying as hell but I felt sorry for him." So why had he been moved? Apparently OT had woken up one night, or possibly during the day as there isn't much else to do, and found his young, vulnerable cell-mate attempting to hang himself. OT had stopped him and summoned help, possibly saved his life although he made light of it. I have no idea what this boy's crime was but it sounds to me like prison probably wasn't the best place for him to be punished in. Not only that but the matter-of-fact way in which OT described the incident was chilling, it isn't the first attempted suicide he has seen, it isn't even the second or third, and he hasn't only seen unsuccessful attempts either. Are we basically herding young, badly adjusted, traumatised young men together in one place to serve a sentence, then releasing them into the community expecting them to have learned their lesson? Even the "they got what they deserved" brigade must see how flawed that strategy is. With no opportunity for self-improvement or rehabilitation and another year's worth of violent, traumatic memories OF COURSE most of them offend again!

So hands up who has heard plenty of debate about crime, law and order and prisons so far in the run up to the election.....It is an issue that has scarcely been mentioned. Is the problem that the parties and their leaders don't get it? Or like the presidential candidate in one of my favourite films is it just that they can't sell it? I am sure Aaron Sorkin is right, that is how you win elections, but it is no way to run a country.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Long-Distance Relationships

It almost always begins with a missed call, at an inconvenient time of day, from an area code that I don't recognise. Eventually the phone will ring at a time when I can answer and OT will announce his latest location to me. This time I had never heard of it, it is at least three hours from home. We are trapped in a long-distance relationship again but the implications are more serious than a simple breakdown in communication, there are possible consequences for everyone.

You see, there are multiple reasons why the prison system in the UK doesn't work, particularly for children and young adults, and often the solutions seem so mind-bogglingly simple to those who love and support the prisoners. This example is nothing short of common sense - young people need to be imprisoned as close to home as possible. In fact not just young people, all people.

According to the Prison Reform Trust visits help prisoners maintain links with normal life, so they can adjust more easily on release. Research suggests that the likelihood of re-offending is 39% higher for prisoners that aren't visited compared to those who are. To be honest I don't think I need a statistic to know this is true, it just makes sense. If you know there is someone out there who cares enough about you to come and visit, you are likely to stay hopeful; keep out of trouble during your sentence and feel more confident that the support will remain when you come back out.

Returning to my own experience, I am the on-off carer/support worker/replacement mum/lifeline for a troubled 20 year-old lad who has virtually been brought up in prison (see Offending Behaviour for more about that.) His parents never visited, I always do. This has been an important factor in our relationship which has made him understand that there are people out there who will make an effort for him; who will be there no matter what; who will be slow to judge and see beyond the behaviour; who will go the extra mile - or an extra 120 miles after this latest move. Frequent visits and consistent support between periods in custody have enabled him to begin to form an appropriate attachment, which is essential if he has any hope of becoming less institutionalised and more able to cease offending.

Transforming Rehabilitation promised a return to more local prisons, then closed the one which is just a stone's throw from my front door and pushed through plans to build a massive battery-farmed prisoner factory in Wales which will serve half the UK and incarcerate sons, brothers, fathers and partners even further away from their families and support networks. Long-distance relationships are tough to maintain, when a loved one is locked up they are virtually impossible.

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Setback

We have had an unfortunate incident, a blip, a bit of a setback. OT has been recalled to custody for a few weeks for not complying with his licence.

I am disappointed and relieved.

Disappointed because I like having him around: his youth, humour and energy bring life into this empty house. I am disappointed for him too, he was so determined never to see the inside of a cell again and he is gutted that he has messed up.

I am also relieved because after the honeymoon period of the first fortnight I could see how much he was struggling. He wasn't coping with the fairly minimal responsibilities of keeping appointments and sticking to a schedule, after all that has all been done for him all of his life. He was finding inappropriate coping mechanisms to deal with the triggers he encounters in the community. My bright, funny, charming OT was subdued, tired, unhappy, unwell and avoiding the one person who would spot all that because he wasn't ready to deal with it yet.

So he is back in a place of safety. He has time to get healthy, get his head straight, think things through and make a better attempt at a life of freedom in three weeks' time.

Because sometimes in life you do get a dress rehearsal and this is just a setback.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Being Normal

OT has been back at home for over a fortnight now and we are both working out our definition of normal.

I learned soon after meeting him two years ago that our versions of normality were very different. To me an average evening consisted of me getting dinner cooked while he played computer games upstairs; then a meal shared followed by watching a film together. What could be more normal? Well normal to who? After five years being pushed and shoved between his birth family, children's homes and secure estate I don't think OT even had an image of what was normal for him. Even coming to live in my quirky, one-woman-and-a-cat household must have felt like moving in with the Waltons.

Everyone has a different idea of what his normal should look like. His Probation Officer visited a few days ago and talked about getting him on his feet with a job and a place of his own. To most professionals moving a care leaver onto independent living at 21 is normal, it is the aim, by saying this he didn't intend to set off an attachment merry-go-round, he expected those to be the normal things that his client wanted to hear. OT is fortunate that I don't have a specific time frame in mind, he can move when it feels right for him, however that throwaway comment raised his anxiety levels a fair bit and he had to be reassured that this was so; that I understand that he is still enjoying the security of a home with me and that  it is absolutely OK that he isn't ready to live alone yet. 

OT desperately wants to be normal. For him this means having a job and a girlfriend. It also means telling people he lives with his auntie because explaining who I am marks him out as different. It involves playing football, getting drunk at weekends, making the occasional bad decision - not the ending up in a cell variety of bad decision but the regular, 20 year old, having a one night stand or getting drunk and not making it home kind.

Some of his choices worry me, a few make me nervous and others make me downright annoyed but I can't deny that his issues are now pretty much on the normal spectrum. For someone with his life experiences that's a pretty good achievement.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Problem with Boundaries

He needs strong boundaries, he's never had them....He wants you to be in control, he can't handle complete freedom....He needs to know you're in charge....You can't give in or he will walk all over you....If you give him an inch he will take a mile.....Once you let him get away with it once you've had it....These phrases, along with other unhelpful advice, seem to be the soundtrack to my life at the moment. They trip off the tongues of friends, colleagues, social workers and probation officers who have never lived with a chaotic, traumatised young adult and probably never will. I understand the theory, really I do, I even agree with it up to a point but there is a huge difference between a good theory and what works in practice.

The biggest joy of my life right now is that OT is home. The biggest challenge of my life right now is that OT is home. A relationship is far more manageable in two hour chunks over a plastic table than it is in the messy world of life outside. We are definitely over the honeymoon period, in fact I may have blinked and missed it, but if I am fair he is doing OK. There are some issues but a week has passed with no response officers at the door, no breached licence conditions and no calls from police custody - it could be far worse and certainly has been in the past. The problem isn't the big, dramatic stuff but what my unimaginative entourage would call pushing the boundaries. Only in a small way, more of a gentle nudge than a full-on shove but it is definitely happening.

So tell me, unhelpful professionals and well-meaning busybodies, how do you maintain strong boundaries with a 20 year old man who probably needs the same restrictions as your average 14 year old? Can you even do it at all? No really, do tell me, I am more than happy to give anything a try. It really isn't as simple as the clichés you are chanting. Here's an example, one of several. One of my rules is that OT gets home on week-nights by 11pm. It is partly for his own benefit, he has mostly been in custody for the last seven years so there is only so much freedom he can cope with and my curfew gives him a reason to extricate himself from whatever dodgy nonsense his peers might drag him into. It is also for me, I work full-time and have to get up early, I can't do my job properly if I am being woken up at all hours of the night. It is our rule, it is on the agreement we both signed when he returned here to live, but how on earth do you enforce it?

Lock him out for the night if he is not home by 11? But his licence states he has to sleep here, he might be recalled to prison. A further 18 months of custody seems a hefty consequence for getting home two hours late.

Confiscate the games console? Put a PIN on the television? Well he is 20 not 12, and anyway if he has nothing to do at home he is going to hang out with his offending friends all day instead.

Tell him he will not be able to live here if he does it again? I'm not sure I am prepared to make him homeless over this issue, however much it affects me. I know enough about setting boundaries to know that once you compromise or go back on your word they are pointless and eviction is a threat I can only use once.

So I choose a slightly vague way of dealing with him, one that I am not entirely satisfied with and will probably have little effect. I explain that he has to think very carefully about what is more important to him: being able to stay out as late as he likes or living here with me? He gives the right answer immediately but I doubt my veiled suggestion of a consequence has penetrated very far.

What would you do?

Sunday, 25 January 2015

A Tale of Two Prison Visits: Part Two.

If you have ever tried to find out how a young person is feeling or what they are thinking you will know what a futile thing it is to ask. Increase that futility tenfold at least if the young person in your life has suffered trauma. I am sure that, like me, you long ago abandoned questions like "What's wrong?", "How was school?" or "Are you OK?" We learn new techniques, new ways of saying the same things, we begin discussions with an interested expression and a thoughtful "I wonder if....." Sometimes it works but often it doesn't, particularly when you are dealing with a teenager who hides beneath his hood with eyes glued to his phone or simply walks off and refuses to engage.

Conversations with a young person in a visits hall often have a different quality which contradicts the negativity of your surroundings. Firstly this visit is the highlight of their week. On the most basic level you are a break from the monotonous routine of life in custody but also as a visitor you represent the outside world. You bring hugs, news, smiles and thoughts from the other side of the impenetrable wall. You bring hope too, hope that there is still someone out there that hasn't forgotten them, who cares enough to give up a day to travel to the prison and back, who will still be there when their sentence is over. There are few diversions: it's just you and them staring across a table at each other for two hours. They can't leave the room when you refuse to change the subject, you don't have to compete with Facebook or texts from the girlfriend. There is no reluctance to talk, they jump at the opportunity. However it is still possible to talk without actually saying very much. Thankfully this has not been the case on this most recent visit to OT.

I have written about OT before, most notably in the post Offending Behaviour which attempts to explain the turn his life has taken. He is twenty now and his sentence ends in just a few days. He has been counting down to release day for the last month at least and has shown excitement during visits and optimism about his ability to turn over a new leaf when he returns home. There has been a fair amount of bravado, many unrealistic expectations of his ability to cope with no issues at all after almost two years of being removed from all the situations that he finds challenging. So yesterday I was relieved to spend time with a very different young man. Yesterday I listened to memories of the family who have rejected him: some of them happy and some horrific. I witnessed barely suppressed tears, quiet moments where he struggled to regain his composure. Once or twice he became quiet and the, usually futile, question "Where have you gone in your head?" elicited an honest answer.

For a couple of hours he revealed the vulnerability and fear which I have always known about but which he has gone to great lengths to mask. It was as if he consciously made a decision that it was time to trust me with his anxiety about rejoining the community. He was telling me for the first time that he wants to succeed but he is frightened that he doesn't have it in him. He was putting his pride to one side and saying "I'm scared. I can't do this alone. I need help. I need to know you're going to be there."

It was emotional and beautiful. I drove home feeling optimistic for OT's future for the first time. He did a very difficult thing yesterday and I am proud of him but I am also relieved that the bravado has gone because now I have a young person I can truly support and work with.

Friday, 16 January 2015

A Tale of Two Prison Visits. Part One.

The first thing I learned was that you get there early, to this particular prison that is. There's no need at some of them, you would just be hanging around, but here they call you in the order that you arrived, so if you are early you get a longer visit. Furthermore the car park is tiny so you take a chance getting there at the last minute. My second lesson was to wear shoes that slip off easily. They will make you take them off and show the soles of your feet so you don't want to be messing about with tricky buckles and laces. Thirdly you empty your pockets before you leave the car because if you accidentally forget something the metal detector might go off and you cause a delay in the queue: your ID and a tenner, that's all you take in.

I'm a bit of an expert now, I have visited this particular lad in almost every establishment in the South of England. Well not really, it just feels like it, but I have become familiar with a few and know the rules and routines. I know which visit halls have vending machines (coins needed) and which have a tea bar; I know which days the drug dogs operate and when they don't; I know if I will be given a wrist band or a stamp on the back of the hand; I know if I will need 10p for the locker or not; I know which visitor centre loos are best avoided. As we wait to be called most of the faces around the room are familiar, we are creatures of habit and tend to visit on the same day of the week each time. You can spot a first-timer: there's someone new today and she asks about the form she's filling in, how much cash she can take in, where we have to go when we are called. A regular visitor shows her what's what, we all hope we are not behind her in the queue.

The phone rings, we all sit up a little straighter and strain to hear. The Prison Officer reads the first 4 names, the one familiar to me among them, and I run across to the main entrance to avoid the worst of the drizzle. Another short wait, a shorter queue, "Next family!" - I am a family of one and not actually family at all but his only regular visitor. Paperwork and ID are checked, another short walk, another short wait. Empty contents of pockets onto a tray, hands out at your sides please, turn around, open your mouth, shoes off now please and show me the bottoms of your feet, thank you that's fine. Another short walk and I am let through the final locked door and into the visits hall. He is already seated and waiting, I know he will have spotted me the second I was let through the door and his eyes will follow me as I walk to the desk, hand over my visiting order and am given a table number. I turn in the direction pointed, make eye contact with him for the first time and his face lights up with a broad grin as I cross the length of the room. We share a long, tight squeeze of a hug and sit down to spend our two hours together.

Friday, 2 January 2015

A Significant Date

Christmas Day seems far more than a week ago and the New Year hangover has faded but, in the midst of the back-to-work to-do lists and the annual battle to return the tree to the loft, I spy a significant date on the calendar.

Two years ago today OT returned home after absconding since New Year's Eve. An optimistic trio of magistrates had granted him conditional bail on the 31st itself, the condition being that he remain at home from 8pm  each night, including that particularly tricky night. Fat chance, what were they thinking? I managed to keep him in the house just long enough for a shower and change of clothes before he disappeared again.

But on the 2nd of January the Prodigal Teen returned: tired, grubby, fed up with sleeping on floors and sofas, sick of hiding from police. He had decided to face the music, and the warrant out for his arrest, and we called 101 together to let them know that he was back. The paperwork hadn't kicked in yet, the police were in no rush, so we had some waiting time on our hands and we hatched a plan. December 25th had been a bit of a wash-out (for reasons described here - Ghosts of Christmases Past) and the turkey was still in the fridge with 24 hours left on its expiry date. With the pressure now off, why not do Christmas now? What followed was possibly the best and then worst memory of OT's placement with me.

The food preparation was relaxed and laid-back, we would eat when it was ready as there was no need for a schedule. The part of my role description that mentions helping the young person develop independent life skills had been somewhat redundant during this turbulent placement. It's hard to teach a young man to cook and clean when he is more often in a cell than in his bedroom, so OT's training began with sprout peeling and turkey basting. At about 5pm we sat down to share the result of our work...and it was good! After our late turkey dinner we took our pudding into the living room and watched his favourite film which I had bought him on DVD for Christmas. It is Titanic in case you were wondering. My hardened, challenging, persistent young offender's favourite film is Titanic: you couldn't make it up.

Shortly afterwards OT went to bed and while I was having a sneaky, late Yuletide glass of Bailey's the knock at the door came. Two police response officers stand outside, surprised to be told that OT is exactly where he is supposed to be and is already asleep in bed at 11pm. I ask if I can wake him up rather than them, they lurk behind me on the landing in case he tries to escape but there's really no need. He gets dressed in three layers of clothes he wants to have with him in prison, grabs his book of stamps and list of phone numbers, gives me a hug and then walks downstairs to wait with me and the officers for the police van.

This was the arrest that began the custodial sentence he is still serving, which will end exactly a month from now.

When you agree to a Supported Living placement for a young person with a history of offending and challenging behaviour, you realise quite early on that you are going to have to be flexible. I don't think I imagined that this would mean Christmas Day on the second of January but I am very glad it did. What a fantastic memory for us both to have of his last evening at home.