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.