The Value of Showing Empathy
On 3 February, the Association of Child Protection Professionals convened a conference on Child Poverty: Rising levels during Covid-19 and impact on child protection cases – shared best practice for 2021. The fifty participants included a very wide mix of GPs, safeguarders, trainers, students, nurses, and social workers. A joint presentation was made by Thomas Croft of ATD Fourth World and Francesca Crozier-Roche of the Parents, Families and Allies Network. In feedback surveys, 100 per cent of attendees said it was ‘quite or very valuable’. Francesca’s remarks are below.
I am a JNC youth and community practitioner, a single mother to two children aged 15 and 2 for which I am a full-time carer to my 15-year-old. My son struggles to manage his emotions and behaviour because of being in full-time foster care for 6 years and being offered NO SUPPORT before or after his experience. So therefore, I have the same skills as any therapeutic foster carer in the field.
I am also a parent-to-parent advocate and child advocate who works with families experiencing the child protection (CP) process. I pride myself in advocating for the rights of parent’s families and children throughout the CP process, while also educating them on their own rights. I work alongside Birmingham University as a service user contributor to implement change from an academic perspective and have had the pleasure of working alongside Dr Joy Fillingham to write a book on these processes. I am also a member of Parent Families and Allies Network (PFAN).
PFAN believe that parents with lived experience of the child protection system should be centrally involved in reforming child protection and promoting a more humane system of support for parents and families who are in difficulty.
The segregation continues
I would like to echo what Tom was saying earlier: it is because early intervention isn’t there that many parents get classed as neglectful. These are not parents accused of physically or sexually abusing their children. But the minute a child protection case is opened, parents are stigmatised by professionals, by society, and by all audiences.
Once you are in the “CP category”, you are cast as an abuser. This is how the feelings of hostility arise in parents: parents who have a child protection case become segregated away from the rest of society. Even after their children are returned to their care, most find that coldness is still present in the way parents are treated. So, the segregation continues. There was a time when it was the police who were the ones to manage CP, and it was children’s services’ ethos to keep families and children together by nurturing partnership working.
I would like to begin by talking a little about values: how do we come to have values? And how do we as humans define what they are? Intersectionality plays a huge role in how your values are formed; they can be defined from your parents, family members, peer groups, environmental surroundings and external situations, basic needs, gender, creed, race, religion, sex.
I personally believe that your experiences through life are what shape what you believe and what you are willing to do to create change. It was not until I got to university to undertake my degree that I ever challenged this concept. What were my values, where did they come from, who were they shaped by? Were they my values and moral compass?
I spent over ten years going through the CP process and have finally came out the other side. My life experience has shaped me into the person that is in front of you today and has had a massive impact in ingraining certain values in me.
What is ‘unprofessional’?
The question of values comes up a lot when I work alongside other professionals. I have had professional training and I can engage with professionals and academics in discussions of theory. Often, I hear people say that it is unprofessional to engage with people emotionally.
I massively disagree. I value showing empathy to parents who are struggling to cope with their CP case.
This is not a value that I chose freely; it is a value I display because of the life experience I have had. I know what it feels like to be faced with a professional who seems robotic and going through procedures rather than attaining the gravity of the external situations, all while my basic needs and my children’s basic needs are not being met. I will always show my empathy towards other parents, because when the titles are stripped away, we are all HUMAN.
A toolbox for change
For parents who may be living in poverty, life can get hectic sometimes. I see parents who do make progress but who get almost no recognition for that. Empowerment is so important to the growth of a human being. Think about it: if a parent never gave their positive recognition throughout the process, they would be deemed not emotionally responsible to respond to their child’s emotions. Yet as professionals we do not seem to recognize the same psychological impacts for the parent.
This is an example of why parent-to-parent advocacy is so beneficial. Parents need support too. Yet, because they find themselves in poverty, it is like they have forfeited their right to access services. When people are denied a right because of poverty and left to struggle alone, I personally think this is a form of abuse. As a society we are responsible in making sure that the Maslow’s hierarchy of basic human needs are MET. You must give people a toolbox, to create change.
When you live in poverty, your human rights are denied in ways that do not happen for others. Everyone deserves to have their voice listened to and taken seriously. Too often, voices coming from a place of poverty are dismissed, they are looked down on. Others always seem to think they know better. When in fact your right to have a voice isn’t respected, this causes great emotional harm to a person and can affect their mental health.
In the most serious cases, this can lead to tragic consequences. In one family I have been supporting, their 14-year-old daughter was in the care system. I would consider the system to have abused her basic human rights by not listening to her. The processes put in place were not respected or followed.
All the child was asking is to be listened to, for their feelings and views to be heard — but was dismissed. No one in the system was listening to her.
On Wednesday night, this young person took their own life. The parents were not allowed to see the young person due to Covid-19 restrictions, while in care; and now their separation is irreversible. For me, as a mother whose child has been through the care system and as an advocate, it’s important to echo that child’s voice and to carry their story forward.
Never off the clock
If a professional were to get the phone call I got on Wednesday night, they may not have picked up the phone, or might not have dealt with her death until Thursday morning due to their working hours. But I never consider myself off the clock. Because of my life experience, I must be on call 24/7. I might have chosen to be driven by work and having a good job. But because of the life journey I have been on, it’s injustice that drives me. To me, being a professional and being present as one parent with another: these things are all wrapped up together.
The problem of children who are not heard was there long before Covid-19.
But now with the pandemic, certain professionals have become even more lackadaisical about their responsibilities. Covid-19 has become a societal excuse for delays.
But children who are 12, 13 or 14 just do not understand delays that impact their whole lives. The government guidance about Covid-19 aims to take the risk to life very seriously. But families in the child protection system also face great danger that we need to take just as seriously. There is harm that can never be undone.
As a parent-to-parent advocate, I always want to be sympathetic and human. At the same time, my professional training helps me to bridge gaps between parents and professionals. I try to help parents ensure that their basic needs are met. Social services often do not even consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When parents are struggling without decent housing or food, how can they meet their children’s emotional needs? Therefore, one of my values is to offer parents recognition that their needs are not being met. These values have been imprinted on me by what I have gone through.
My approach is different from the one professionals use, but I know it works. In my past six years of being a parental advocate, I have been able to reunite so many parents and children. So again, before I end, I would like us to return to those most basic but important questions of values and remind ourselves:
As professionals and human beings what are our values? What shapes you as a human? What shapes you as a professional? What are you core values of the profession that you practice under? Are you modelling your values?