This story was written by Mandy Lynch. Mandy describes her path to, and experiences as, a social care worker in residential care centres. If society can be judged by how it treats those on the fringes there are few places as far on the fringe as these centres. It's a long read, it's a sad read, and it's a great read.
Finding my way
I always knew I wanted to get a degree, therefore having completed my leaving certificate I began my journey with a Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) course at Coláiste Dhúlaigh CFE. I completed a FETAC Award in Special Needs Assisting. Social Care was not one of the careers that I had investigated or looked into in great detail until my co-ordinator from my FETAC course called me aside and suggested I consider a career in Social Care. I wasn’t sure initially but I realised from researching how diverse social care was. I applied through the CAO, was accepted onto the Level 8 course at Institute of Technology Blanchardstown, and my social care journey began.
I began working in Social Care in October 2012 during my second last year in college. My first job was in a residential care home for young people at risk.
“Physically and emotionally draining“
Residential care is that it is not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination. There will never be two days that are the same, and you will be kept on your toes throughout your shift. Many people work in the area for a short time and move onto other career areas. It is an area that has a high turn-over of staff because of the high burn out rate of staff, as residential care can be physically and emotionally draining. It is an area that has been plagued with bad publicity over the years due to historical incidents and abuse cases, deaths of young people in care etc. However, there are many that work within this area and enjoy the diversity and challenges they face. Working as a social care worker you can have the best and worst day within a matter of hours. It can be the most rewarding and the most frustrating job depending on the circumstances that present themselves.
Why do these young people end up in care?
There are many reasons why young people end up in care. For some there has been Social Work involvement over the years, sometimes since birth due to ongoing family issues e.g. alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, the young people posing a danger to themselves through crime or drug misuse, regular absconding, risk taking etc.
Children in residential care very often come from foster care breakdown; many young people have gone through various foster family placements within their short lives. They tend to come into residential care from the age of twelve. Some can be younger but in general most are twelve and over. These young people have often had a lifetime of hardship and had to develop a number of coping skills to survive.
They have often been placed in extreme circumstances due to their own or their family’s situation and are distrustful of entering the care system. Oftentimes, they have had little or no supervision and will have huge issues entering into a system that has set rules/boundaries around bed times and behaviour e.g. assaulting staff is not tolerated. Many have had so much responsibility for such a long time that they find it hard not to be in control. Others, due to the placement breakdowns and constant moving, have lost all trust in the system designed to protect them. They have had to develop numerous relationships with staff teams and are reluctant to engage as they feel they will be moved again.
Often, a young person will arrive and not all of their case history will arrive with them and this is a serious issue. This prevents a full needs assessment being successfully completed as some needs may not be known by the staff team. This can cause frustration for the young person also where they may have been engaged with a particular service e.g. drug counselling and no information is given to staff and they are not aware of their being a drugs issue until sometime later.
Young people have varied and complex needs. Safety and security of the young person, minimising or addressing at risk behaviour e.g. drug misuse, criminal activity, sexual behaviours such as promiscuity, aggression, anger issues etc. Educational needs where they have missed or have been excluded from education. Often educational assessments are required to assess the level of support or diagnose any educational issues. There can often be long waits for these assessments. School placements often breakdown quickly and the young people find it difficult to manage their behaviour in a school setting. Youth Reach is a further option but often the young people are very reluctant to engage in any educational support and will refuse to attend.
Many young people have not developed the coping skills to address feelings of vulnerability or anger and can display challenging behaviour through aggression, property damage, physical assaults, self-harm, absconding, suicide ideation, cutting themselves, drug and medication overdoses etc. Mental health issues can be difficult to get diagnosed, and even when diagnosed ongoing support for these needs can be difficult to assess due to the high demand on an overburdened service that is struggling to cope with the numbers referred to it.
The young people are not often in a position to recognise that they are in crisis and it is only their behaviour, your knowledge of the young person, and your relationship with them that can assist you in highlighting the needs that they are presenting with but may not be fully aware of.
Sufficient psychological supports should be made available to all young people in care but often it is difficult to engage the young person and sometimes assessment appointments are difficult to access due to long waiting lists etc.
Problems with the care system
The care system facilitates young people in often having unrealistic expectations of what adult life is like. Most care homes operate a system of consequences they are often not followed through upon. Some young people develop manipulating behaviours and will often verbally abuse, threaten or assault staff to get their own way. Although reports are often made to Gardai due to policies that are in place these reports may be frowned on in a private organisations.
Staff shortages and the resulting lack of consistency can cause problems. Some staff will allow young people do certain things when they are on shift and other staff won’t, resulting in escalating behaviour management problems.
In the private sector there is little or no debriefing available to staff after incidents serious or otherwise. Often there is no provision for assault/ injury leave or sick leave. Staff burn out and become stressed, resulting in a constant turnover of staff.
Information sharing between organisations is often delayed and this further impacts meeting the needs of the young person.
Many young people have been offered but declined to participate in independent living programmes and have not developed skills such as budgeting, cooking etc. Sometimes they are given an apartment and have no idea how to progress, how to sign on, pay rent, open a bank account, shop, cook, pay bills etc. A lot end up losing their accommodation and end up in hostels as a result.
An apartment should not be sought for the young person unless they have actively engaged in an independent living programme and have demonstrated the skills required to maintain themselves. They are going from a cocoon into a whole new world where they must stand on their own two feet. I have seen children leaving the care system who are not ready to live an independent life. This really saddens me as they struggle to meet the demands of adult life.
They should be encouraged to participate in educational courses or find a job. Once an apartment has been sourced they should move in during a transition period with staff support and on- going independent living skills participation, sourcing a doctor in the local area etc. Staff involvement could be reduced with pre-arranged call out hours to address and work on any other issues relevant for the young person. An on-call service for the young person should also be maintained 24/7 to support them through any difficulties they may face. The system should reflect the ethos that we are there to assist young people to reach their full potential, and to support them on their journey, to provide them with the skills and support to see them beyond their eighteenth birthday when they are left vulnerable with little or no supports.
The government of Ireland need to drastically develop appropriate aftercare for young people in its care. There are currently no proper aftercare service for young people leaving care. This is so unfair on these young people who have already had so many hardships in their lives, and not knowing what will happen when they leave care creates a lot of anxiety for them. Due to lack of development on behalf of the government in this area, too often social workers and social care workers hands are tied.
What I’ve learned
Through working in social care ‘residential’ I have learned about the challenges of the job. I have learned to be an advocate for vulnerable people, acting as a voice for them. I feel that residential care is a career that is not suited to everyone and this includes me personally. Although I have enjoyed my time working in this area of social care and have learned a huge amount about young people, their family dynamics and challenges they face, I have also developed great experience and skills from the staff I have worked with which I know will be of great value to me in my career path. I feel that residential care is not the right area for me and I hope to find a new area of social care more suited to me. This is the great thing about social care work, you are not tied to one job, there are plenty of paths you can pursue.