Rachael Owens is Practice Development Manager in Hackney’s Contextual Safeguarding Team, working with the University of Bedfordshire to implement contextual safeguarding across their services. This blog documents Rachael’s conversation with one individual engaged in a recent initiative designed to safeguard a peer group of young women through group work. The names of all those involved have been changed.
When I arrive, Marion is preparing the evening meal. She invites me to sit at the kitchen table as she decides what else the dish needs. I settle in, asking culinary questions as she sprinkles in various seasonings. When the meal is safely in the oven, she comes over with her tea, sits opposite me and asks what it is I’d like to know.
I have come to see Marion because of her involvement in a recent initiative in Hackney, designed to safeguard a peer group of young women through group work. In response to a number of concerns about a group of friends, including frequently going missing together and sexual exploitation, two groups were set up to run concurrently: one with the young women and the other with their parents and carers. A joint celebration session was organised at the end of the 9 week programme.
I ask Marion what was going on before she started attending the group. She shakes her head: “My granddaughter, Sienna, I had such a hard time with her…she was running away, not knowing where to find her, night time, daytime, not answering calls to us, everyone was in a panic not knowing where she was, not knowing what danger faces her…and then reporting her to the police missing, and stuff like that…so after reporting her missing so many times, they come together to ask mums to form this group, so these were mums that were experiencing the same things….that was happening to their daughters. As a matter of fact they were linked together – they were friends, from the same school, same area, things like that. So in order for us as parents to stay together, we linked up together”.
The two groups were initiated by Hackney Children and Families Services – the young women’s work being led by Young Hackney’s Prevention and Diversion team that works with young people who have received out of Court disposals, due to the common offending theme; and the parents/carer group by clinical practitioners, building on a multi-family group model. Unlike this model, however, these new groups were designed for an existing peer group and their parents/carers, running separately and concurrently but with key points of intersection.
Our Contextual Safeguarding team is keen to learn more about how to successfully run initiatives like this, where extra familial risk are addressed through building and strengthening relationships: be it between parents/carers and their young people; existing peer groups; and, often for the first time, between the parents/carers of existing peer groups. I am therefore curious to know from Marion what went on.
“So, via this group, parents, grandparents, carers of the kids were able to link together. We’ve been going every Wednesday evening…We talk about all the things we are experiencing, with the girls…and so, I started to find out I was not the only one in this situation. Before I was really panicked, I was stressed, to the MAX. But I really thank God for Hackney Social Services because they really helped me – they put on maximum effort to help with Sienna. And today, with the circle of social workers and with the group, us all talking and eating and socialising, as it were, Sienna, has come back to me.”
Marion is convinced that attending the group has changed things for the better: “Today I should say, Sienna is much better, much much better. She has started to stay in, keeping away from company that caused her to run away and shop lift and all these things, smoking. I’m not saying she is perfect but in my sight she has made a great change…yes…before she was very sceptic with Social Services. They were coming to her, asking her questions and stuff like that. I think because now they are like family-ish, having all these wonderful social workers speaking to her, on her level, where she can understand, on a level that is not frightening her or intimidating her, instead of them calling, she is calling them!”
In a previous role, I spent many hours talking to recently missing young people and the parents/carers. I would often hear about the breakdown in empathy and warmth between them, where neither seemed to see each other’s point of view. I sensed their despair about how on earth the gulf which had opened up between them could be overcome, and would try to hold out for them the possibility that something of their earlier relationship could be rekindled. It is therefore moving to hear Marion talk about the transformation in her relationship with Sienna. She talks about their vastly improved communication and understanding, and a changed perspective on working with services to get support. I’m curious to know what was it that she thinks brought about this change.
“In the group, we learnt about something called sexual…..” she pauses to remember, “Exploitation, yes that was it, and about how it can happen and how serious it can be. I didn’t even know – as old as I am – that it was that serious. After we spoke in the group, and other mothers bring forth their different opinions on it , the things that people have experienced around them, then I realised the group was really important. Because even though you’re aged double, it doesn’t mean you know everything. I’ve learnt about that, so now I know better how to cope in situation when Sienna has a tantrum or attitude. I know now how to go about dealing with her.”
I ask Marion if she can explain a bit more about what she does differently now, that she might not have done before.
“Before” she says, “Sienna, she didn’t like people shouting at her, but I didn’t know that she didn’t like it, but now after hearing other parents talking about their experiences with the different kids – I realised. And then I asked Sienna about what I’ve done to her, and she said she doesn’t like shouting and when people shout at her she feels like getting angry. So via the group I was able to sit down and ask Sienna different little things, that I heard from other girls that affect them…so I realised it was affecting her as well.”
This process that Marion describes, of sharing and learning in the group leading to the renewal of her relationship with Sienna is inspiring. I comment on how it really sounds like it has helped to improve their relationship.
“Yes, 100%. Instead of living like adult and she’s the child, now we kind of come down to that level where if I say ‘Sienna don’t go out with X,Y and Z’, maybe I didn’t used to tell her why before, but now I tell her why so she can have an understanding as to why I feel worried when she’s gone and don’t come back all those hours, and what can happen, it has happened to other young girls.”
Marion has talked a lot about the solidarity and support she has gained from the other parents/carers in the group. Again, this is something I am particularly interested in, because often when I’ve asked parents/carers of missing young people if they have any contact with the parents of their friend’s peers, or even any idea who their child’s friends are, they would invariably shake their heads. This has led me to wonder whether it would be possibly to bring such parents together, as long as some of the practical problems, such as confidentiality could be overcome. Marion’s testimony confirms my sense that it can be incredibly powerful. Through coming together Marion and her peers are now able to work together to safeguard their children:
“So this is the sort of thing we do now… I saw Kelly, one of Sienna’s friends someone where she shouldn’t be, so I called her mum, I let her be aware of where she was, and if she sees Sienna, in the same way, she will do the same. So we don’t just know, and keep it to ourselves we circle it. It’s a BIG relief. You are caring about me, I’m caring about you. And we’re not just there for ourselves. Before, it was out of hand but at least now, if they go missing we know where to look for them. Because if we had known each other before, when it just started, we would have probably been able to control it before it gets out….but we didn’t know each other. So if Sienna was with Kelly’s mum, I wouldn’t know where she lived or anything”.
Marion is extremely positive about the group. She thinks there should be more like them where parents come together to support each other in forums, and where young people too come along to talk about their experiences. One of her recommendations for how it could have been improved is to have had it earlier, before the problems escalated. Her other is to involve parents/carers like her in the delivery, so they can share their experiences and encourage them to come together.
In the final two sessions the parents/carers and girls groups joined together to share their learning and experiences. What was this like I wonder? Marion describes how it was exciting – they played fun games like all holding hands in a bit tangle in the middle of the room and then eventually worked together to untangle their hands to make a circle – Sienna found this lots of fun, she says. But there were also some poignant moments. Marion tells me about a game they played in which a young person was asked to place themselves in a chair in the middle of the room and then indicate how supportive different people in their lives were, by how close they were allowed to stand to the chair. She remembers one girl using the ‘sculpt’ to communicate to her mother how unsupportive she found her during the period when she was having serious difficulties outside the home – she was asked to stand at the edge of the room with her face turned away from the chair. Marion says it was good to see that when the young person was asked where her mother would stand now, she put her right next to the chair, showing that things have vastly improved. It was still a very powerful message, to her mother, done in a playful way, to say that she had not felt supported during that time, and they have some work to do to make things better.
I was hoping to meet with Sienna too, but she has had to go out. Marion says she has enjoyed the group experience a lot, and it has helped her to make decisions about where she lives permanently: “Sienna told me, she feels so safe and secure living with me, and knowing that she has someone to run to in case of anything, someone who can make decisions for her, or help her to make decisions. She did say that, in the group last time… she wouldn’t naturally say these things”. I wonder if Marion is an exception. Were all the parents in the group open like her, willing to learn and be gently challenged? She believes they were, an impression which I also had from the group’s lead clinician who told me that all the parents/carers were all willing to try a new strategy and share it week by week. I suspect that this has a lot to do with the thought that was put into making sure the groups were safe, open and non-judgemental spaces, where there was a lot of listening and understanding, alongside the planned programme.
By now Marion’s dinner has started to give off tasty smells and it’s time for me to leave. Before I leave, she shares with me her vision for more groups or forums like these that can make a difference in the community. Marion’s hope is that maybe if parents could come together, and understand their children, care about them and invest in them, there would not be so much loss of life, stabbings, and drug selling in the area.
Over the next 18 months, the Contextual Safeguarding project in Hackney is keen to enable many people like Marion to find such a voice, to inspire others and discover their part in helping to make our borough a safer place for young people.
If you have any questions regarding this blog or wish to get in touch with the author please email Ruth.Atkinson1@beds.ac.uk