Wednesday 20 January 2010

Asking The Wrong Questions

Two children are in court today being sentenced for their violence against other children.

There’s been endless handwringing over social service failures in Doncaster, over the identity of the two children, some lingering and luxuriating over the injuries and sexual assault of the other children, and the inevitable yapping about how awful the mother and her feral children are.

Politicians, social workers and psychiatrists are now asking what can be done to avoid a repeat of the horrors of Edlington. How, in an affluent society, can children emerge as savages? And what can be done to stop them?

Let’s take children into care. Actually, lets take children from families on state benefits into care. Because we don’t hear anything much about the children of the middle or affluent classes. This is very clear-cut. Children who are brought up in environments of generational poverty are more likely to become feral. As anyone whose ever had anything to do with the children of many middle class families know, when they go off the rails it’s all a bit cosmetic. A bit of Amy Winehouse-apeing and they’re almost certainly going to fall back into the arms of their family to effect a miraculous recovery, to recall their ‘wild’ days with neurotic effect. Their antics takes the piss out of people who live this life forever.

Every single person I’ve met who’s had enduring and dangerous mental illness has come from a financially deprived background. Every. Single. One. Social workers, the NHS, the entire health and psychiatric business, politicians and those parts of society that are not poor need the poor. The poor create and sustain jobs, and act as a radical Other to serve the political system: if it is so shameful to be unemployed, if it is entirely proper to hate the unemployed, then you’d better stay in employment, eh?

Doncaster was castrated and disemboweled in the 80’s when people who voted for Margaret Thatcher were responsible for the mines and other industries being violently closed. Since then, the levels of poverty in Doncaster have improved, which is to say it’s not the depressed sinkhole it once was. And it’s still, very, very poor.

Never mind sports facilities and colleges and Sure Start and taking children into care: address the cultural attitude that says it’s just plain evil to be poor while the issue of middle class child crime is entirely overlooked. I’ve known a number of middle class families whose behaviour and that of their children was considered entirely fine, a bit of a lark. In a poor family leaving children alone for the weekend, underage sex, consumption of illegal drugs by children and child alcohol abuse brings in the police, the courts, social services and the media.

The questions are not “How do we contain feral children?” but “What creates feral children?” Not, “Why doesn’t social services work?” but “Why do so few middle class families foster children?” We know how to contain violent and dangerous children: we bung them into prisons and psychiatric hospitals. We know why social services don’t work: it’s not a job that many aspirational parents want for their children. But addressing this is far more challenging, and has far greater potential for reducing personal affluence than taking the children of the poor into the loving care of the State and allowing some other kids to be battered.

As a society we demand personal safety. And we also don’t want to fund what creates personal safety: quality social housing maintained by half-interested social landlords, that cannot be sold into the private market; the best nursery workers and school teachers heading for the most deprived area; huge shame and upset that a developed country accepts that some people must be deprived; psychiatric services run by people who currently work in neonatal units and other high-status areas. The market-driven society is not a human given, you and I have chosen it. Whilst it’s just wonderful for those of us who live in affluence it has, self-evidently, created a dangerous underclass. People who have any concept of community, of the interconnection of all things need to live up to that ideal. When children are raped and smashed over the head with a sink, we are all responsible.

UPDATE: Central government is finally taking control of Doncaster after the Council finally fell apart. The Mayor, an English Democrat, is entirely unsuited to and unskilled in running anything other than a mildly racist micro-party. (Hilariously, his tagline is "Things Happen When you Vote English Democrat.") Local councilors have remained silent throughout about corruption and incompetence perhaps because they seem to be knee deep in it.
The Audit Commission said politics at the council were "dysfunctional", and demanded the elimination of "bullying and intimidating behaviour".
Every member of the Council was voted in.

Tuesday 12 January 2010


A colleague and I sat having lunch together, talking about how his training in counseling was going. He was an experienced Christian priest not new to chaplaincy and he knew that becoming a counselor could only benefit his way of being with people. This wasn’t a pressing debate over how models vary or the theoretical foundations of his system but I was surprised when he said, “It all aids our purpose, which is healing.”

As individuals we’ll have different skills, specialties and interests in our lives as as chaplains and as people, but I think it’s worth taking some time to discuss what we mean when we talk about ‘healing’ and what role it might have in chaplaincy.

‘Healing’ is not the same as ‘curing’, but often these words are used in the same way. Many of us do ritual to ‘heal’ the Earth when in fact the Earth is not in need of healing but could probably do with some very mundane tidying up. Once more, this is a matter of being aware of the power dynamics in a relationship. For healing to occur there must be someone with the special ability to heal and someone in need of healing and the potential for abuse of power is obvious.

In my own practice, I know that I am not able to heal anyone of anything. I see my role simply to offer a therapeutic relationship, the intent of this relationship being to allow the person I’m with the space and opportunity to be any way they wish to be, with a limitation of not causing harm to anyone. My belief that this is the optimum way to approach the way of being of a chaplain is based in the Person Centered Approach, a mainstream psychotherapeutic model widely used in counseling and psychotherapy. The creator of the Person Centered model, Carl Rogers, was a professor of psychotherapy who perceived the existing models of human behavior as restrictive and models of healing to often be punitive; always an expert telling a vulnerable person what they are thinking and what they should be doing.

‘In his clinical practice he increasingly became convinced that it is always the client who knows what hurts and in what direction he or she needs to proceed if healing is to take place. The therapists function is to aid the client in the exploration and discovery of his or her own inner resources; it is not to impose, however gently, external solutions, strategies, interpretations or explanations. ”
‘Carl Rogers’ Brian Thorne 1992 Sage Publications

Person Centered people know that we’re all born pretty much perfect and that things happen to us that affect the way in which we experience life. We know that, given the optimum environment, we can all be trusted to make good decisions about our own lives and about our effects on other peoples lives. It’s a truism that humanity seems to make an art form out of cruelty, yet how would it be if every individual person were treated respectfully and trusted from birth, with guidance coming through filters of loving-kindness? It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know but all the research demonstrates that in a one-to-one, couples or group formal therapy situation of any and all models, it is the relationship between counselor and client that makes or breaks the perception of the client that the work is beneficial. Further, the therapeutic relationship is most valued by the client the more empathy and authenticity the counselor can bring to it. These three qualities of relationship are those which are the bedrock of the Person Centered model.

It’s clear that training in the person centered model and calling oneself a person-centered therapist doesn’t mean that these qualities will automatically be embodied. Many therapists who have a different theoretical model will come closer to the person centered way of being than numerous person centered therapists who translate these rigorous requirements into being sweet and nice. Sweetness and niceness is not what a person who is facing the most critical moments of their lives needs. When we’re alone in a storm and there is no shelter to be had, it’s good to have someone with us, to walk beside and accompany us, someone who can weather the storm and won’t need us to carry them. This is the essence of a good therapeutic relationship.

Because the research so clearly demonstrates that this is the case, it’s worth spending some time examining these qualities in some detail.