Friday 30 April 2010

A Paternity Squabble, A Smashed UpTV and Catching Up with An Ex Colleague

There are plenty of days where I just don't want to talk or write about any of these issues any longer. There is a thin line between the cathartic relief this blog provides me with and the negative reinforcement of seamlessly dysfunctional lives and the ludicrously insane policies and initiatives that purport to act as a solution. In short, writing about these issues and recalling certain experiences frustrates me as much as it acts as a release valve. There will come a time when I will write no more on these issues. Just like the work itself, this blog will have a shelf life. In fact, all of the stories on this blog are written retrospectively so as to protect the confidentiality of those I work with. Any story that you read will have happened anywhere from two months ago to two years depending on how long ago it was posted of course. In fact, I have in the recent past stopped working in Residential Care Homes with 12-17 year olds and I am now solely working with 16-25 year olds within various Supported Housing projects through an agency. In the not too distant future I will also leave this sector. In one of my future posts I will outline the incident that was for me the final straw which led me to quit the residential care sector.

Meanwhile, back in the world of Supported Housing one can observe the goings on in the lives of many of our more dysfunctional members of society. Some weeks back I overheard one sixteen year old girl relating gossip to a friend regarding another teenage friend of their's:

"Did you know that Millie [another 16 year old] doesn't have a clue whether the baby is Jason's or Mike's and it's causing all kinds of hassle? Well, I told her to ring up ITV and they can get the baby Jeremy Kyled [to get a DNA test]."

For those of you unaware of the Jeremy Kyle Show on ITV in the morning, it is a vile programme where the descendants of pirates, fishwives and the rest of the lumpenproletariat slug it out over disputed paternity as well as other issues such as whether smoking crack is conducive to being a good role model for your children. Inspirational and life affirming TV it is not. I do find thought that about five minutes of it will fill you with a sense of gratitude that you are not living the lives of the participants. Any longer than that and you can hear your soul oozing out of your body so corrosive to the human spirit are it's contents.

A few weeks back I bumped in to one of the ex managers from a care home we both worked at as receptacles of abuse from the discarded offspring of the underclass. How I wish I could share with you that we relived tales of heartrendering transformations of disaffected, damaged and feral teenagers, but as I am sure you are aware by now that is a rarity thanks to a system that is useless and ineffective. Anyway, he reminisced with me about some of the idiotic dressing downs he got from his superiors for trying to impose standards as well as guide and direct the youngsters in the home he was managing.

"Well Winston, just before you were working with us Rachel (see the post Driving Miss Crazy) was getting ready to go to college one morning but she was very dirty and had on a t-shirt that was completely covered in food stains. As I was aware that this may bring her unwanted negative attention even bullying from her peers I told her she shouldn't go to college dressed as a homeless person. It might have been blunt but that's what she needed to hear as she was smelly and dirty. Anyway, instead of addressing the issue she telephoned head office and complained to my manager who then reprimanded me for my forthright advice, in that the language I used could have been viewed as oppressive or words to that effect. Then there was the time Rachel smashed up the wide screen TV in the lounge whilst having a tantrum because she couldn't get her way. I informed her that as a consequence I would not replace the TV for a month. Once again she phoned head office and complained and they telephoned me and ordered me to replace the TV immediately as it was Rachel's right to have one. [she had one in her bedroom anyway that she could have watched]. Like you used to say to me Winston, how does that system help Rachel if she never learns from her mistakes and the system fails to give her consequnces for negative and self-destructive behaviour?"

I think on that note I will leave it for today. It is sunny and I think I will do something life affirming for the rest of the afternoon instead of trailing through the tales of social detritus that are now woven in to my consciousness.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Honesty is Not Always the Best Policy

Many of my colleagues believe strongly that young people should be able to act and speak with little or no constraint without fear of judgement, censure or negative consequences. As one of my colleagues, a father of two teenagers under the age of eighteen, put it:

"I buy my kids booze and let them get drunk at home. In fact my daughter (16) had a party in the house last week and I bought her a bottle of Bacardi and I did so for her friends as well. I'd rather they did it under my nose and I don't see anything wrong with it as I used to drink when I was their age."

One of the consequences of this man's excessively ultra-liberal approach to parenting is that one of his kids is also dabbling in drug use and has been in trouble with the police for possession of drugs, but as he put it: "My daughter is just smoking a bit of spliff and she shouldn't be criminalised for this."

Well, yes she should, it is after all a criminal offence. However, that said I don’t think she should be penalised her whole life for a minor offence. Needless to say this staff member feels that we should turn a blind eye to both alcohol and drug abuse within the project even when it is being committed by under eighteens.

Now, whilst I do agree that young people should be able to talk to adults openly, I disagree with the notion that adults should then eschew their responsibility to provide a degree of judgement and a negative consequence for bad behaviour.
However, in both the care and supported housing sectors terms like ‘judgement’, ‘authority’ and ‘discipline’ are viewed as oppressively obsolete concepts that have little or no place in dealing with young people.

What then are the fruits of this approach, where all authority is undermined and where young people and children can be forthright with adults in how they lead their lives without fear of censure or the absence of any kind of judgement?

Well, from what I’ve observed (in schools, care homes and supported housing projects) the first casualty of this approach is the deterioration in the consciences of many young people. The absence of any judgment has led to a moral climate where anything goes regardless of the effects it has on oneself or the wider society. Here are just a few examples of what I’m referring to: girls from the age of 12-18 openly talking about their sexually promiscuous lives in front of staff without any degree of how inappropriate this is, feckless young men openly talking about children they have fathered casually (they don’t use protection as they don’t like how it feels) with no compunction for the fact they can’t/don't or wont support their offspring, kids as young as 12 openly admitting to being under the effects of drugs when you are talking to them and teenagers/young adults that openly talk to you about various kinds of criminal activities they are involved in with no sense of shame or remorse. What’s more if you challenge any of this behaviour they often get confrontational and accuse you of being ‘judgemental. ’ The majority of staff and management have inculcated them with a hostility to all forms of authority that they view as a right in itself.

Now, I was no angel as a teenager and I expect a degree of rebellion and the pushing of boundaries in young people. However, it is the role of adults to provide such boundaries and do their best to enforce them and if they are a wise adult they should expect their young to try to circumvent the boundaries laid down to a minimal degree. Thus it always was until adults that have never grown up themselves decided to be friends with their children instead of parents.

There was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I smoked a lot of cannabis which brought me in to conflict with both my parents and the law. My education suffered a lot for a few years as did my mental health. Throughout that period of my life I was often troubled by my conscience which nagged me incessantly about the fact that I was living a dysfunctional existence. However, that conscience didn’t evolve in a vacuum, but was shaped and formed by the society in which I grew up, which deemed it unfitting for one to be stoned out of one’s brains day and night, week in and week out. Eventually, as problems mounted due to my lifestyle (including an appearance in court for drug possession) I had to seek help from my parents, but it wasn’t an easy or comfortable conversation being honest with them and nor should it have been. Knowing I had caused them trouble, worry and hassle played heavy on the conscience they had helped instill in me. Although they were supportive in helping me, they were judgemental and laid down some immediate consequences for the way I had been living my life. This is what I needed from them, although I didn’t see it that way at the time. If they had taken the softer, non-judgemental approach with me and tried to be my friend then I would probably still be living under their roof smoking a bong and trying to learn the didgeridoo. I am grateful that my parents tried to parent me when I needed it rather than be a friendly colluder in my own dysfunction. It’s a pity that the care and supported housing sectors don’t operate a similar approach.

They say honesty is the best policy, but I would rather have a young person lie to and deceive me about his or her dissolute lifestyle as this is an indication of guilt and perhaps shame, (the guilt and shame may one day be the thing that reforms them), rather than have one ensconced about the house honestly and openly destroying him or herself in a non-judgmental fashion.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Fleeting Moments Of Inspiration

There are fleeting moments of uplifting inspiration in the work I do, granted it's rare but it does happen from time to time. Earlier today, one of the girls I keywork was going on her first driving lesson. Catriona, 17, who left foster care last year is one of our success stories. Her Mother was an active alcoholic and from a young age Catriona had to play the role of parent to her two young siblings. She was very close to her Father, whom the Mother left and then informed Catriona and her siblings that he wanted nothing to do with them, this tunred out to be untrue and Catriona has located her Dad and now sees him regularly. Catriona entered the care system aged 12 and was split up from the siblings she was close to and loved dearly.

Catriona had a mixed experience of the care system with some succesful foster placements and some not so successful. She admits that until she was 15 she was a bit of a troublesome teenager until she had an epiphany of the trajectory her life could take. In her own words:

"At 15 I realised that I was more or less all alone in the world and that whatever I did and how I behaved would affect where I was going in my life. Although I didn't like school and had no interest beyond GCSEs I decided to work towards doing something with my life and not just sitting around drinking and drawing benefits like so many other people I know."

Catriona was so responsible and mature in her attitude and behaviour that Social Services allowed her to leave care at 16, most kids stay on until they are 18. She now lives with us in our Supported Housing project and works part time in a local hairdressers and is almost finished a hairdressing course at the local college. We never have to write her letters about paying her share of the rent or talk to her about bad behaviour. In fact, Catriona often has to stay elsewhere as she loses sleep due to the undealt with anti-social beahviour of other residents. Now, instead of holding up the likes of Catriona as a shining example that one's childhood doesn't have to pre-determine your path in life I have to listen day in day out to the disempowering mantra that young people with anti-social behaviour problems behave the way they do due to their negative childhood experiences. A convenient theory that then allows the young person to self destruct and the agents of state intervention to abdicate all responsibility.

I've been getting a bit of attention in the National press this week. Im in the Daily Mail today and the Guardian yesterday. I find it interesting and quite reassuring that a lot of the supportive comments on the Guardian's website are from people that have or are working in the same or a similar field.

I'm crossing my fingers that I make the Orwell shortlist that will be announced later today.

Friday 9 April 2010

When Policies Clash with Reality

If the Tories get in I will be ending my blog. Why? Well, it’s because David Cameron has come up with one simple idea that will solve all the problems associated with British youth and thus my rantings will become obsolete. He has decided to send all 16 year olds to concentration camps for the summer where they will be shown T.V footage from days gone by of how tough the majority of teenagers used to have it what with getting belted about the head at school day in day out before having to endure a lifetime of tedious backbreaking work down a mine or in a factory.Well, at least in those days young people had jobs to go to and houses they could afford to buy or rent.

Cameron is the master of gimmicks and policy announcements that at the end of the day will go nowhere and if they do, in many instances, will have no effect. Didn’t he used to have a wind turbine on the roof of his house to generate electricity that he was forced to take down? Maybe he could stick it to his head to see if it can generate any sensible ideas in relation to youth issues.

The main problem, amongst others, with Cameron’s National Citizen Service is that it’s voluntary. He has embarked upon this plan as an antidote to gang violence and the more serious manifestations of youth disengagement. If these youths won’t engage constructively with the myriad of services already available to help them turn their lives around then how does he think he is going to manage to do it? Maybe he will threaten to hug them again as he did a few years back. If Cameron wants to help the really disaffected youths at the fringe of our society, a minority but a sizeable one, then he should take his lead from the Eastside Young Leaders Academy.

He says that the root cause of vandalism and youth crime is a lack of discipline and that this initiative will be the cure. Well, discipline involves people often having to do things they would rather not be doing in order to improve their character and requires one individual to transmit the discipline to another as there are very few teenagers that willingly and openly invite discipline in to their lives. The more feral kids in society need discipline and structure so let’s have a plan that has these values at its heart and in order for it to be effective it needs to be compulsory. As a voluntary measure it’s akin to shooting the horse before you’ve even opened the barn door.

The initiative is also aimed at all 16 year olds and not just gang members and those youths who haven’t been effectively socialised. What sane teenager who behaves well or relatively ok at school and isn’t involved in crime or anti-social behaviour will want to spend time in the company of their unruly and aggressive peers? For some of these kids the summer is the only break they get from thuggish behaviour that blights their lives in bog standard comprehensives. Luckily for them it’s voluntary so they can spend their summers doing what they please a right they have surely earned.

Cameron’s speech to announce the National Citizen Plan also reveals Cameron’s strategy of trying to appeal to voters of all persuasions. In this speech he was careful to mention the word discipline (to appeal to the more Conservative voter) but emphasized that this scheme would be voluntary (trying to appease the more liberal minded). I am tempted to vote for the Conservatives (I like the noises they are making about school discipline and cutting police bureaucracy) as well as the Lib Dems (tax policies and efforts to cut inequality) but Cameron’s lack of any clear, committed and consistent stance in many areas worries me. He appears to be a man more concerned with seizing power than one with a clear vision.

After reading about Cameron’s plan to turn the lives of yoofs around it got me thinking about all the harebrained plans and policies I have to work with. In fact, right outside the office on a notice board there is one outlining our policy on Keyworking (a.k.a Support Working, Link Working just in case anyone finds the term Keyworking offensive they have options). The policy outlines all the different qualities that the resident’s personal assistant, sorry KeyWorker, should exude, thus instilling at a young age that the state is there to serve you before you have done anything in service of the state. Most notable of all though is the definition of what keyworking purports to do: “helping you to realise your goals in order to move forward in life.” This definition doesn’t allow for the fact that many of our 16-25 year old residents don’t have goals beyond getting as wasted as they can on a regular basis. This then involves me having to support them in setting some goals all the while being “careful not to impose one’s own value system” as one manager put it to me recently. The residents who don’t have goals never turn up for their Keyworking sessions and have to be threatened with eviction to engage in setting goals they don’t aspire towards. All of this is recorded, monitored and audited by layers of state financed bureaucrats.

Then there are those residents, usually the older ones but not always, who have goals and aims and are progressing and just want to be left alone to do so which they should be permitted to do. They resent formal support plans that state obvious goals like: continue to pay your rent, go to work etc. etc. They can’t understand and neither can I, why all this needs to be written down and why they have to talk about it every two weeks for an hour. They feel patronised for having their lives interfered in and they are right. However, as they can’t afford to rent properties of their own due to unjust rents they are forced to adhere to the state’s ludicrous interference to qualify for a roof over their heads.

If Cameron’s dream of becoming Tony Blair’s successor falls flat on its face perhaps he can get a job as a policy officer in the Supported Housing sector. Just like Dave’s National Service initiative, many of this sector's policies bear no relation to the realities of the young people they work with and are just as ineffective at combating some of the more serious problems associated with our young. Another similarity is that just like politicians when faced with the evidence of the failure of their policies, they will do their utmost to convince people that it’s all working wonderfully well, despite all evidence to the contrary.