War! What is it good for?

15 June, 2020

In the midst of the 75th anniversary of VE Day recently, we happened to be thinking about the high prevalence of mental health problems amongst children looked after. This distress is commonly attributed to the impacts of early relational trauma and adversity upon these children. However, maybe there are also other sources of distress which add to these children’s loads.

We are talking about the distressing nature of being from a family involved with the statutory safeguarding system, and most particularly, the adversarial legal nature of this system. Perhaps, in addition to their experiences of adversity and trauma, children looked after are distressed because they are living in the midst of a war raging between their parents and the state, our society, via Social Care services? Professionally, it might not look like a war, but experientially, it might feel like a war. And it is important to say that this is not to criticize the people of the law and court systems, but to question the usefulness of the system itself in this particular context.

In a war, each side attacks the other with a deadly serious intent to win. This is a fierce battle and sometimes involves even war crimes. To grow up living with a foster carer who may become cast as the agent of one side, whilst also seeing and belonging to a biological family from the other side puts children in the crossfire. The hideous term for innocent civilian casualties of war is ‘collateral damage’ isn’t it? In earnestly seeking, with good heart, to protect its youngest citizens, can this be what our society inadvertently makes children looked after into?

But it doesn’t stop there. Although one side or the other may emerge victorious from the battle, does anyone fighting a war really emerge unscathed? We believe that we very often see signs that the adults too, from both families and professional groups, are distressed and scarred by the experience of combat.

Given the unpleasant British national ‘sport’ of baiting Social Workers, we must emphasise here that we have the highest regard for our Social Care colleagues personally and professionally. Yet, perhaps some of what they show us at times are the scars of a war veteran, or the armour that any sane soldier must wear to survive.

In the midst of a war rumbling on and on, costing lives, is it conceivable that both sides could thwart the mission they’ve been given? Might they just lay down weapons, emerge from the trenches, and honestly say ‘We hate this. We’re really upset by it. It harms all of us in different ways and to different extents. We all came to war for a good cause; to give children good lives. Indeed, we’re both fighting for the same cause, but we see things quite differently. Maybe we have more in common than we ever realised from behind our barricades. But now that war has begun, it is causing more and more harm, and so it needs to stop. We need to find a different way to resolve our differences and make it right for children.’.

How about instead of splitting into adversarial sides, we joined together, families and state, to find a way to work it out for the good of our children? Just like divorcing parents, who despite their differences, work something out for the good of their children whom they both love deeply. This doesn’t mean it will be just peachy. There might well still be some hard lines to hold in order to give children the good lives that they are all entitled to. It’s not what is decided in the end perhaps, but how we get there together, without the need for a damaging process of war. If we could do it this way, the additional distress added to the load borne by children looked after could at least be lifted off their shoulders. And perhaps parents, families and the professionals who bravely represent society’s stake in every young citizen could be spared the pain of the bloodshed too.

Let’s go to our absolute ends to stay out of court – the theatre of war. Let’s throw everything we’ve got at working it out together between families and professionals. And let’s demand that the money, energy and creativity spent on war waging is redirected towards peace making.

Jen & Jael

A Gwent Partnership Board Service