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Aftercare…or just care after the fact?

February 15, 2012

When we take children into care we do so to make their lives better, we do because we have a duty to “promote the welfare of children…who are not receiving adequate care and protection” and we do so because they “require care or protection which they are unlikely to receive unless the court makes an order”. The hardest part of the job is that we aim to make lives better but so often fail to do so. Sure we can stop things getting worse, but when we set ourselves such lofty aims is that good enough? This is something that comes back to me when reflecting on my work, and can be seen in so many aspects of our work. Aftercare provides a good place to see this dynamic in action – by the time the young person is in aftercare they are an adult, and we can reflect on the long years in care and the effect they have had, for good or for bad.

The legal basis for after care is grounded in Section 45 of the Child Care Act which states “Where a child leaves the care of a health board, the board may assist him for so long as the board is satisfied as to his need for assistance and he has not attained the age of 21 years.” This is in turn supported by a National Policy on After Care and Leaving Care detailing the processes and procedures.  There has been some criticism of this set up, in that by stating that the health board “may”, and not “shall” the law does in fact provide little guarantee of support and services once a child turns 18. The political fig leaf on this issue has been provided by Subsection (4) which states that “In providing assistance under this section, a health board shall comply with any general directions given by the Minister” and has been used by Former Minister for Children Barry Andrews to direct the HSE to formulate and implement a comprehensive aftercare policy to provide services to all children leaving care. Despite this, it remains, as described by Geoffrey Shannon, a “hollow promise”, with supports subject to funding and resource availability, which all too often are not in fact available. There are still plenty of cases without an allocated Aftercare Social Worker.

On the ground aftercare is generally provided by an Aftercare Social Worker, who handles most, if not all, of the aftercare cases on the team. This creates a huge caseload of young adults needing support and help, a caseload that like any overly large caseload begs the question how good can these supports be when they are spread so thin. This is not to denigrate the hard work and commitment of after care workers, it is more a comment on the over burdening of frontline staff that the HSE goes in for. In fact the work of the Aftercare Social Worker can be even harder given that the young adults who are the clients can drift in and out of services and can be some of the hardest to engage. Getting a child to engage with the reality that their life is about to be turned upside down as supports disappear can be frustratingly difficult, particularly when it is a child who will be getting very little from the service. Despite what Helen Buckley patronizingly says, it’s not just a matter of “just trying harder”, for some kids turning 18 means freedom from Social Worker, from residential units and the freedom to go out and destroy themselves. In reality most support, both practical and financial, is only available to people in education or training.  If you are in education there is a lot of support, assistance with fees, assistance with rent, and assistance with the cost of living. If you’re not, you are left to rely on social welfare.

The research both here and overseas shows time and time again the poor outcomes for children in aftercare and for children with care history. A lot of time and energy is being spent to improve aftercare services. Courts and Guardians Ad Litem are paying more and more attention to aftercare provision to obtaining commitments to support and funding. More and more policy documents and reports stress the importance of aftercare, and rightly so. Consider the fact that so many of us don’t leave home till closer to 25 instead of getting thrown out at 18. Even when we do finally leave there is a social safety net there for us which is not there for young people leaving care unless the HSE improve services!

However, there is a certain air futility to all of this. The young people we are dealing with in aftercare come from deeply damaging and destructive backgrounds, and are often just that, deeply damaged. They have also been through care, which brings with it its own trauma and harm. Given all this hurt it’s not surprising that so many don’t prosper at all. Compare them to the other children in the communities most of these kids come from, that is lower socioeconomic areas (a polite way of saying lower class really, but we cant talk about class can we) where educational attainment is low and social exclusion and unemployment are high. The majority of kids in these areas will struggle in life and education, few of them will end up as doctors, barristers, politicians, bond traders or chairman of some financial consulting agency. When measured that way, kids in care don’t do relatively bad, but is that really good enough? Given the pompous rhetoric of Social Work making life better it’s not good enough. Given the amounts of money spent on Social Work it’s not good enough. Given the fact equality should a central value of any society it’s not good enough. That young people in care do as well as some of their peers in marginalized communities shows there is something much deeper wrong, both with our society and with our care system and it is something that starts long before the young person gets anywhere close to 18.

Here’s the rub, Social Work is treating symptoms, and doing so badly. We need to start treating the root causes, the root causes of the social exclusion and poverty that drives of many of our referrals and their negative outcomes. That is a challenge that is perhaps beyond the scope of the individual Social Worker, drowned as they are under deadlines, caseloads, court reports and case notes. However there are avenues for collective action in social work, our union, the Irish Association of Social Care Workers and their Children and Families special interest group. Of course, outside of social work there are even more ways to engage with the political system and to work for social change, but who has the energy for that after a long day in the trenches?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2012 03:45

    Just found your blog – very interesting. Same issues here in Australia of course. Band-aid solutions will never fix a system that is not working and not doing the job it is supposed to do.

  2. August 20, 2012 16:05

    “The hardest part of the job is that we aim to make lives better but so often fail to do so.”

    100% correct. Considering children are 7-8 times more likely to be abused in corporate care than at home, surely it is time to create something new and better.

    Not copying USA and UK and Sweden would be a start.

    As one girl put it so well on leaving “care”

    “Care is the one place where you can legally abuse a child and get paid for it”

    I speak to many children after their time in care and very few felt they benefited from the experience and despised the taboo of being a looked after child- a no body’s child, usually suffering PTSD from being removed from home with little or no explanation to the child. The alienation from natural family was mentioned so many times- the lies the children were told which led to disassociation, abandonment and of course self abandonment etc.

    Studies are all there ,showing the dark side of fostering and adoption, but the media rarely sheds light on them.

    Sadly, children are society’s ££££££ making industry and how it is growing in Ireland and yet children are worse off that children of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

    We have judges, solicitors, barristers, guardians, social workers, psychologists, access workers, care workers etc all making a living off the backs of the poor families.

    How much money is spent on court corporation proceedings to get a child into corporate care?

    Any service user sees it as a failure on the part of the HSE if a child has to be removed, unless the child has no natural family.

    I know one grand mother who fostered all her grandchildren at no expense to the state until recently, when it was more profitable to place 4 children in different foster homes and give the tax payers the bill. Those child had everything – love, affection,massive gardens, toys, etc and were so happy. Now a year later they have all regressed and require psychological help and other therapies.

    But as I researched further, it was all about profit from children.

    The eyes of the world are on Ireland and rightly so.

    Our past showed how abuse in care was the norm- suffering – good for the children of Eve ill Eve.

    That abuse and torture was all kept hidden.

    Nothing has changed as in camera rule is used to keep the truth re children raped and abused in HSE care secret with no Garda involvement required.

    A one HSE Barrister put it ” don’t be stupid Catherine, we don’t take ourselves to court”

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