“It is really hard to ask people what they actually need”. My strongest grounds for hope in 2015 lie in the rigorous honesty that I found recently in Barrow-in-Furness. A team of child and adult health and social workers has been formed there to serve their most vulnerable families, calling itself Love Barrow Families. A beautiful inversion of the ‘troubled’ language emanating from the centre.
When I say ‘serve’, I mean that this team has authentically put itself at the service of the families they support. They have set out to shape their role and methods around the priorities agreed by the families themselves. Priorities as simple and challenging as ‘not to live in fear of having our children taken away’.
The reason Love Barrow Families gives me hope for next year is that this team is made up of public sector workers, continuing to work within the public sector. And here is some of the language they use:
“ Look beneath the label and see the people”.
“Expect assets. Most people want to give”.
“Give of yourself. That’s what most of us entered the helping professions to do”
“Connect with others. Be clever enough to understand the complexity”
“Listen carefully and quietly so that they take a leap of faith and help you understand and treat the real problem.”
“Strong enough to bear the distress and resilient enough to have hope. Hope is contagious and can be passed on”
This team knocks into a cocked hat the idea that charities are the sole guardians of values. I have never experienced such powerful commitment to doing the right thing.
As I say, there is a searing honesty to the work of Love Barrow Families. They are there for the whole family, and they are uncompromising on child protection. They believe risk to the child can only be reduced by supporting the whole family, and they do not hide from families that they may have to make painful decisions if it is doesn’t work out.
Above all, the families want to be able to trust in someone. It is really telling how often the word trust comes up because you realise how betrayed and punished the families must have felt in the past. Love Barrow Families gains that trust through honesty. Because they are statutory workers, they can’t position themselves as protecting the families from the state. They have to be clear up front how it all works so there are no surprises. You can’t trust what you don’t understand, and yet we hear time and again that vulnerable people rarely have things explained to them. This has to be about culture not capacity.
The results are found in comments like these from the families:
“you care, you just care”
“when I said I could only concentrate on one problem at a time you listened and trusted me to get there”
“I know that she can stand in my shoes and my children’s shoes. No one’s ever done that before”
The honesty that this takes isn’t limited to the relationship between workers and families. It requires the workers to take themselves on. As one commented, “it is really hard to leave behind the safety blanket of professional methods and learn something new”. For me, this is the heart of the matter. We talk about public services changing, but we usually mean structurally. Love Barrow Families shows that when you ask people what they actually want, their answers can have big implications for you as a professional. It can take you into uncertain and vulnerable places where you feel much more exposed.
The psychology of change is an increasing theme that is coming up in the work of LankellyChase. When you try to change things, you realise the degree to which institutions, with their structures and processes, help to manage underlying anxiety. If you change the institutions you have to find new ways of processing the anxiety. For Love Barrow Families, ‘being a team’ is a big part of the answer. So also is ensuring that workers can remain resilient and healthy. One thing I haven’t mentioned is that they are having lots and lots of fun.
I am hopeful for 2015 because we are starting to see people seizing the opportunity that our radically changing world has created. They are giving themselves permission to put aside the practices and cultures that have frustrated and disillusioned them in the past. And they have reconnected with their personal mission and with their belief in the people they set out to serve.
What I fear is that less honest ways of managing our anxiety will prevail. We will focus on money, demand, structure, risk, reputation. Above all, we will project our anxiety on to the most vulnerable. This is why LankellyChase took the unusual step of funding a statutory body. Because wherever we find the germs of change, we have to give them all the help we possibly can to become contagious.