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Safety Work

My son is now 15 and is going to live with his dad. I should have done it a long time ago. (Marley Carroll, November 2018)

At this point I am simply counting the days until she is 18. (Witsend, March 2019)

There are plenty of other similar comments on the Silent Suffering blogsite, and many other places where parents meet up to vent their pain and frustration, and to seek advice and help. An understandable response from a parent,  if the problem is one of regular and increasing violence and abuse over a protracted period of time; rather shocking that it has come to this point where parents feel they can no longer carry on; but ultimately not the preferred outcome if what we are aiming for from the start is greater safety all round.

If a child has to move out to keep everyone safe, the best-case scenario might be a therapeutic setting, experienced foster carers, perhaps a residential school, a hospital, or even secure accommodation, where issues contributing to the abuse and relationship breakdown can be addressed. Sofa surfing between friends, or being shunted between relatives may be a more common resolution. Parents of older children may find they are placed in “supported lodgings” where support may be a misnomer from individuals without the qualifications and understanding to offer specialist help and guidance to vulnerable young people. Organisations such as POTATO and Special Guardians and Adopters Together have much to say about this practice. Other parents report that their younger children have become exposed to drink and drugs, and vulnerable to exploitation, when placed in residential care because a family can no longer cope with them at home.

When a family asks for help, what do we imagine they ask for? What do we imagine they need? Is it the removal of other children for their own safety, leaving the parent to continue to struggle with an angry, needy and potentially dangerous child; and those removed to contemplate why separation from parents who love them and are trying to protect them is the best solution? It might be some advice early on. It might be the provision of therapy to calm things down and work them through. It might be longer term support through an organised programme to restore safety and good family relationships. It might be separation – or respite as a first offer.

Separation offers a drastic response to the need to offer safety to family members, but who exactly are we keeping safe, and why do we imagine that this is the best way to do it? Is there another way?

I started thinking about this a while ago after reading a series of tweets from parents and individuals either seeking support themselves or concerned about what they had heard about others. In March, @FionafromYorks tweeted: Disappointed to hear last night that a mum of a 17yo young man, struggling for years to cope with his daily meltdowns and was told by her she was giving up far too easily, asking for respite. What a . deserve respect & support

Other comments and tweets that I have collected over time include a parent stating that their partner and other children had moved to a hotel temporarily for safety’s sake; and more recently the plea: Officially out of steam for it all. Where are the CPV parents’ refuges? I need one.

The reality is that, if anyone moves out, it might be a partner who feels unable to remain part of this particular family; it might be siblings moved to a family member for a while; but the likelihood is that it will be the young person causing harm who does so. Families are doing ‘safety work’ all the time. How can we support them in this, working with them in what they are hoping for: to keep safe, to stay together, to restore healthy relationships, before it all gets too much and they crash and burn under the weight of impossible emotional and practical demands?

I am struck by how many people report that respite was once an offer but is no longer available to them. Under The Breaks for Carers of Disabled Children Regulations 2011, local authorities in England must have regard for the needs of those caring for a disabled child if they would be unable to continue without breaks being given, or if they could carry out that care more effectively if breaks were given. Families who would have benefited from this in the past are increasingly finding that the funding has been withdrawn in the face of central government budget cuts. Yet report after report points to the benefits (emotional and economic) of respite care to all concerned. Indeed, the NSPCC and Action for Children 2015 report: Supporting Adolescents on the Edge of Care, The role of short term stays in residential care, outlines the value of breaks for the long term outcomes of young people and their families; and at the launch of the Monash Report on Adolescent Family Violence, in August 2018, Liana Buchanan, Principal Commissioner for Children and Young People in Victoria, described the provision of respite for parents, and accommodation options for young people as a ‘no-brainer”. Somewhat bizarrely (or perhaps creatively) we now find authorities “trialing” respite care as part of the Innovation Programme; and there is a focus on appropriate accommodation for young people as an alternative to youth custody.

Sadly, it is likely that there will always be some families where the complex needs of the young person make it difficult to remain at home. Severe mental health needs may mean that long terms secure care is needed (see for instance Raising Devon or Herding Chickens). For many families the level of need will be less, or the support available early on will enable the family to stay together, and to move on. Nevertheless, for some families experiencing CPV a short break gives a chance to breathe, to sleep, to have some normal time with other children and friends, to regroup and to draw the strength to carry on.

When families ask for a break, what do we imagine they are experiencing? What do we imagine they have tried already? What do we imagine will enable them to remain together safely and to work towards a happier resolution? Is it respite care? How can we find a way to make this possible?

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