Working with, or doing to? Insights from Rotherham on childism, the prevention of child sexual exploitation, and work with young people more generally.

Posted September 17th, 2014 in Blog by admin

As the revelations about child sexual exploitation in Rotherham continue it’s the recriminations that take centre stage. True to form, the focus is not on the wider role of the institutions but on the accountability of specific individuals. It’s all part of a now typical process of soul-searching with the intent of ‘ensuring this can never happen again’ but one that tends to invest its energies in blame rather than analysis.

The reverberations will continue for a good while yet, particularly as this is most definitely not a localised problem. And as the furore dissipates, there will be analyses, albeit that many will receive scant media attention. We can only hope that there is something substantive within these that really helps prevent such events in the future. And yet thinking carefully about what is happening, and why these things happen, is not something we seem good at, probably due to the fear that exists of exposing further weakness in not just the way we work but why we work in the ways that we do.

It might help to think about the perverse irony of a policy context that obsessively seeks to ‘target’ those ‘at risk’. And to recognise that the effectiveness of our efforts to do this is often miserable compared to those of the perpetrators of the crimes against them. The tales of young women tying bed sheets together to escape the residential homes set up for their care and support are testament to this; they were certainly motivated to reach the cars (often taxis) waiting for them outside. What is it these men are doing that proves so attractive to them? The irony of course is that it is the young people’s ‘lack of motivation’ that is so often cited by workers as a reason they are so difficult to work with, a justification it seems to divert attention from their own failures. Likewise, the routine description that they are ‘hard-to-reach’ becomes ridiculous too.

And yet, as any determined and committed detached or outreach worker will tell you, the onus has to be on the worker, as the professional, to secure engagement. There can never be excuses. What’s effective is well known. The focus on the street teaches us much; it’s here that power works differently: where, whether you like it or not, young people have power. If it’s not happening for them they will simply walk away, which is power nonetheless.

Thinking from this perspective means only ‘low threshold practice’ will do. Being present, both in time and space, is one thing (working when and where young people are to be found) but it is the valuing of their values that is the philosophical and methodological beating heart of this way of working.

Now, ‘valuing young people’s values’ is easy to say. And strange too: how could we possibly value the apparent predilection for getting hammered on drink and drugs and other behaviours that would repulse many? And yet empathy (so often trumpeted as essential) – if it means anything – surely implies trying to see things from their perspective, trying to understand what value they get from living the ways they do. Each of which seems elemental to valuing them as persons, which, hand on heart, we all know, is not what’s happening here.

So there are uncomfortable truths to grapple with. It’s easy to say that the ‘love’ offered by those with malicious intent is sick or depraved. But this paying of interest in them has to be contrasted with that that drives them away: not being listened to, constantly being disciplined, forever subjected to control and sanction. It’s the relief from this that drives many to the street, and into the clutches of others. Which is precisely why street work exists, and appreciates that you have to work differently to be effective.

And yet the responses we are likely to see to Professor Alexis Jay’s damning report on CSE in Rotherham will likely spell more of this externalised control rather than less. A flavour of this emerged, perhaps coincidentally, just a few days prior to its release. With scant coverage, we learnt of the extraordinary numbers of vulnerable young people incarcerated in the prison system “for their own safety”. We’re told this is primarily due to the lack of places in appropriate secure institutions. But incarceration of the innocent wherever it is is both a scandal, and illegal at that: these are not criminals, they have committed no crime. It speaks more of the attitudes that dominate decision-making when it comes to the welfare, and education, of young people. That we would rather lock them up than try to find to a more humane response to the threats they face is testament to a culture that presumes power over them. Corralling and containing young people has become almost second nature, from these cases to the more subtle – which range from the dispersal powers of the police and support officers to school ‘lock-in’ policies that prevent pupils leaving school at lunch-times – all ‘for their own good’. Many of these practices have been exposed by geographers, for it’s this discipline that so ably demonstrates how these forms of power work.

Significantly, in reading the sordid testimony of institutional neglect in Rotherham, it becomes apparent that there’s more to say about how these forms of power and control work, or don’t work, as the case may be. The systems failures we have witnessed owe much to the bureaucratic cultures that underpin them. But it’s not bureaucracy per se that’s at fault; put simply we need good bureaucracy, not bad. The endless ‘paper-chasing’ is a case in point, a reality that can be so overwhelming that, extraordinarily, there can be little time left over for the work that might actually make a difference. I’ve said before, and will say again, social workers need to be liberated in order that they can prioritise social work.

In this sense we should be wary of those bureaucracies designed primarily to protect against litigation, ways of working that exhibit the hue of protecting the institution first and the people they are supposed to be helping thereafter. Which is all part of the general recourse to law, rules, systems and policy, rather than the human, and professional, process of judgement, in operation in today’s welfare state. Techne, it seems, is where it’s at; these are the system world approaches that Habermas so ruefully speculated on, in contrast to ways of thinking and acting that emanate from the lifeworld.

There are loud echoes of this in the testimony provided by Professor Jay and the several others who have tried to analyse and think critically about this issue. Albeit a number have often had their conclusions disregarded by power, they offer profound insights as to what really does work in relation to these vulnerable young people. They expose another irony, that the practices seen to be the most effective are the ones that fully appreciate power and control, but seek to be otherwise. Doubtless, these are insights that can support the prevention of child sexual exploitation but might also illuminate education more generally.

It was the commentary of an anonymous source (a decision taken most probably due to the same culture of fear of falling foul of bureaucratic stricture) that was so telling:

We repeatedly fail because we fail to make that critical relationship with those children. If we don’t have that relationship then all we are is a bunch of talking heads. We are good at gathering around in meetings, discussing cases ad infinitum. But what we are not good at is recognising that all this is futile unless you’ve got a relationship, that you’ve got a handle on that child’s circumstances and whereabouts.

This is the voice of someone whose aims and objectives are clear, someone determined to do what it takes to effectively target young people in residential care and foster homes. That the context of their work was to do something about poor attendance at school is a distraction; as part of a multi-agency team, they knew that prioritising ‘engagement’ and the development of positive relationships is the basis of all effective practice.

Here we see a regard for what’s implicit in anything ‘relational’: it’s what happens between people that matters. Needless to say, trust is a relational concept. External and unilateral forms of control only make securing this engagement more difficult, perhaps even impossible. The worker states many in the team “hadn’t got [these] relationships” and “weren’t able to engage”. Thence, the futility. We should note also that, regardless of the specific objectives (in this case to improve school attendance) it’s a proximity-based approach: focussing on getting close to, being present, building and maintaining relationships with young people. It’s this that makes the appreciation of other issues (such as CSE) possible. But it relies on trust in the worker to respond to these other realities; it is all too easy when controlled by systems to become so focussed on one issue that we fail to recognise the multiplicity of others that may exist also, never mind do anything about them.

I can attest to this from my own experience. I have vivid memories of going out on the streets with detached workers contracted by the [then] Primary Care Trust to ‘deliver’ sexual health services. On turning a corner we came across a group of perhaps 80 or so young people outside some shops, behaving almost hysterically. I asked a few of them what was going on (a young man had been stabbed on the estate only a day earlier) only to witness these workers trumpeting: “does anyone want any condoms?”

It’s easy to be critical of them but the causes lie in the controlling effects of a systemic approach to the work, and the prescription to follow the ‘rules’. It is this that inhibited their ability to engage in the first place. Not that they didn’t know this; they voiced concerns to me as a visitor about the instrumentalisation of their work but, as before, feared expressing these concerns more widely.

A key point is to appreciate that, in the cases outlined, the issues of attendance and sexual health are so often connected to others, including perhaps child sexual exploitation. The capacity then, to act in these flexible ways, is clearly constrained by the policy drivers that create these prescriptive systems in the first place. Where’s the efficiency in that?

Returning to our anonymous source, he refers to a young woman who “wanted to speak to me” (rather than the staff of the residential care home in which she lived). What was he doing that he was the one she sought out? Or to put it another way: why didn’t this young woman want to speak to staff at the home? Needless to say, any meaningful answer to these questions demands analysis of how power and control works for the stakeholders (of which – it pains me to have to state – the young person must be considered primary).

Further reflections take me back (several years) to research I conducted about the provision of sexual health education to young people in public care. My research methodology was to collaborate with detached youth workers, in the knowledge that the answers young people gave to questions about who they sought advice from (on this sensitive subject) is likely affected by the environment in which those questions are asked: the relative freedoms of responding to questions posed in the street are so often more revealing than the answers given in spaces and places where external control dominates. This is geography also. The range of responses staggered me; from those imagined, like family and friends, teachers, youth workers and social workers, to school nurses, and the staff of GP practices and specialist services, but also those working in juvenile justice, and even a police officer. It was glaringly obvious that it wasn’t what was on someone’s name badge that mattered but the quality of the relationships that existed.

Unfortunately, the presumption that these relationships are easily secured has led to a policy landscape, and a raft of interventions, that are increasingly specialised. That these are often interpreted by young people as just another form of control: ‘I have to talk about what they want to talk about”, only distances them further. Here we find further evidence of a system world at best problematic, and one that appears increasingly indifferent to, and incapable of engaging with, young people’s social reality – as they see it. It’s an indifference that unfortunately often translates into action that can fail to hit the spot, or even induce inaction. But then why should we be surprised; isn’t it part of the children and young people’s social reality that their views are routinely, and culturally, disregarded?

Some theory might help here (albeit, I acknowledge, what I propose sits outside the neoliberal paradigm that validates all ‘reasonable’ thought). Nonetheless, try this: ‘childism’. It’s an idea we need to go back quite a while for, but its perceptive enough to challenge the assumption that power – in the form of adulthood – always knows best.

Childism is the automatic presumption of superiority of any adult over any child; it results in adult’s needs, desires, hopes, and fears taking unquestioned precedence over those of the child. It goes beyond the biologic necessity that requires adults to sustain the species by means of authoritative, unilateral decisions.  (Pierce, 1975: 266)

This is not merely an historical anecdote. Consider, for example Jake Chapman who recently suggested taking children to art galleries is a “total waste of time” and that “children are not human yet.” Or, Shona Sibary, enraged by her children’s bad manners, a situation she puts down to having “lost control” due to her liberal dispositions. Her proposition, to regain control, is simple enough: instate an authoritarian approach: “From this day forth my children will do what they are told, because I have told them to. Whether they like it or not.” Doubtless both are attention-craving agent provocateurs, and yet, when we reflect on young people’s realities, we find these sentiments alive well, even in vogue, not least in the attitudes that prevailed in Rotherham: not listening to young people, saying they are making things up, not taking them seriously. In sum, a climate that devalues them; just as their aggressors did.

Childism means we see them as “physical creatures, as opposed to thinking beings”. Its omnipotence affects us all in that it teaches us to “focus on the exercise of raw power rather than on volitional humaneness”.  It doesn’t just inhibit the protection of the vulnerable (and, as noted, validate their incarceration, ‘for their own good’) but it ‘retards the development of potential’. The essential dynamics of a young person subject to childism implies then they are “hardly ever permitted to initiate action or control a situation.”

With an appreciation of these simple truths, we see our cultural presumption that we are living in a progressive age (a term so abused now it’s often referred to as the ‘p’-word) drift off into the ether. And following it any notion that ‘pupil voice’, or ‘student’ voice, or young people’s ‘voice’ more generally, means anything.

Unless that is, we take engagement, and relationships seriously. And this means appreciating that in our work it’s the pejorative acts that are just as telling: our posture, our gestures, our tone of voice, and the minutiae of our everyday interactions with young people. Being aware of this, might we then be able to catch ourselves and prevent the systems we work in turning us into an “inflexible bureaucrat who endows his minor post with all the terrors of a colonial master”?

Beyond us, where does this leave the policy prescriptions of ‘assertive outreach’, ‘non-negotiable support’ and helping young people ‘make the right [sic.] choices’? We see then that it’s policy, and the ideology that informs it, that can be childist also. And can so easily incorporate us into its working.

And yet, there’s a lot we can do. A good deal, as ever, draws its own power from life world thinking and life world acting. This is a different kind of power, a power that grows as we endeavour to assist young people in becoming powerful themselves – more autonomous, more self-determining. But don’t fall into the trap of narrowly conceiving of these concepts in an individualist paradigm. These aims have to be understood in a social sense, they’re born of mutuality, co-operation, conversation, dialogue and negotiation: that’s what relationship-based working means.

As the man said: “you’ve got to get a handle on that child’s circumstances”. And the best way to do that is to talk to them, and listen, properly. Of course, as he says also, these conversations can take us into uncharted waters, where we might be inclined both to doubt (“did that really happen?”) or grasp quickly for the tiller of control.

But these are not the instincts of all, nor are they ones we cannot supersede; this guy is among many who know that its engagement and relationships that matter, and that they are worth going out on a limb for. And can only be secured by actively adopting an anti-childist position. This way of working rejects instrumentalism, and by implication, ‘best practice’ (as if a technical response can be rolled out here, there and everywhere – as if context doesn’t matter). Which makes it anathema to the policy meisters who believe everything can be reduced to the numbers.

And yet, the structural violence of these systems is fought daily by many, knowing as they do that it exacerbates violence rather than mitigates it. That many of these folk are youth workers is perhaps the greatest irony, for it’s their ways of working that the evidence here shows is most effective: a commitment to engagement, a commitment to relationships, and a commitment to working with the uncertainties that all this implies. Youth work is, like teaching, lest we forget, fundamentally a relational practice through which protection is enhanced, not weakened. The fact that youth work, again like teaching, has become more and more a technical operation, with democratic practices cast aside, because power now ‘knows what’s good for young people’ only goes to show how childism is still rife, in politics, in policy, and unfortunately now, in practice. Despite all the challenges, including dealing with the charges that will be levelled against you – of being ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’, and ‘romantic’ – youth workers and those who share these humane, democratic philosophies must keep faith with their beliefs. Good, and effective, practice demands it. But beware, you will be told daily that you are wrong, that what you believe is ludicrous, that your opinions don’t matter; you will become subject to childism also.

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