When I was a social work student I specialised in working with groups of people who needed to access social care but were often voiceless or suppressed within the system. As with all those who seek state support these people were referred to as ‘clients’ of the services. This is actually where it began to irk me. Clients as a word suggests business. Not as is in ‘clients have a strong voice and will not be messed with’, but rather clients are one cog in the big wheel of the business and the huge industry of care that we seem to have developed in this country. By a twisted world upside down effect it seems those in need can now be quite comfortably viewed as a bit of a problem, a glitch or even a drain on the ‘care’ industry.
As part of my practice based learning. I devised a ‘Clients Committee’ model. The purpose was to facilitate an independent user led group made up of adults with learning disabilities (another label that now irks me seeing as I’ve met many social care managers who seem to find it harder to learn than their clients). Anyway, the dude ‘clients’ attended an adult training centre and once a week I would take their meeting minutes for them based upon their conversations around changes in the support services they felt were needed. A lot of the talk centred around rights to have relationships, to choose their own individual style and to have more funding for the meeting to get better sandwiches. Nothing changed. It was an ‘interesting’ experiment, a token gesture. It was still a shit sandwich.
After proceeding to work with ‘clients’ of women’s refuges, traveller sites, drug and alcohol projects and HIV services, I had seen enough. In almost every area of social care I saw the ‘clients’ often remain static in their position of powerlessness and unmet need whilst workers gained power, very often by being the agents of budget control and the keepers of the status quo.
Some things I have experienced in working practice, although seemingly small, stand out. I was once given the job of making sure ‘clients’ with HIV or AIDs who came into a drop in centre could access healthy and nutritious food. The budget to feed up to 12 clients per day was £12. I became a master at fresh vegetable and fruit shopping. One day the big bosses from the NHS were coming for a meeting. As well as my usual £12 for the ‘clients’ the manager of the project gave £50 that day for a meeting ‘buffet’. I felt furious. When I questioned this I was met with a wry smile (a manager’s special) and a response that patronised me as being a quaint but outdated revolutionary.
Incidents of this nature were not rare and led me to feel personally unable to work inside such systems. Subsequent academic study led me to analyse, once again, how certain groups of people are marginalised, although this time it was culturally through the mediums of the popular press and television.
Everything I experienced led me to a life changing decision to become an adoptive parent to a very young dude (whose mum was also a dude) and who needed some full on support and advocacy.
In that process my daughter and I both, like her birth mum, became ‘clients’ of the social services as well as the health authority. In the eyes of the care system I became just ‘mum’. Declawed and unprofessional. My daughter became a person talked about in her presence as if she were invisible and whose name they could never spell right in her correspondence no matter how many times she told them.
When Mencap were eventually wheeled in to support my daughter they covered the backs of the poor practitioners whose incompetence eventually caused her serious harm. Even a National charity for dudes is not beyond bending or editing the truth, of selling their ‘clients’ out if commissioning is at stake. And they are not the only ones.
There had been a gap of many years between my training to work with social care ‘clients’ and my becoming one myself. I thought things would have moved on and ‘lessons would have been learnt’. More fool me. Despite the annual reporting of abuses in social care settings and harm coming to clients of the health and social services being featured on news items and documentaries, poor practice, tokenism and budget led interventions seem still to prevail.
Some practice failures may be small but when on the receiving end they can be the proverbial straw. My personal ‘shit practice gong’ of this month goes to a health visitor who rang one of my family members at home to congratulate her on the birth of a lovely baby daughter and to arrange a hello visit. Would have been a thoughtful gesture if her baby hadn’t been still born the previous week.
But now to Connor. I didn’t know him or his family but I have felt personally touched by his appalling and avoidable death and the strength and bravery of his family and friends in the darkest of times.
Initially the shock was in hearing he had died. This shock became compounded by the response from Southern Health to his death and to his mothers grief. It is truly incomprehensible to me.
I cannot pretend to feel the grief or have any true understanding of what Connors family are going through. But I know I genuinely feel empathy, a sense of there but for the grace of god go all of us and a really huge feeling of anger.
My daughter was on the verge of being admitted to an assessment centre not very long ago and the conversations with me around this potential intervention chilled me to the bone. She would not be able to have contact with me initially nor could she take in her security pillow, her phone or any familiar objects from home. The inference from the start was that ‘we need to see how she is away from you because it’s probably some family or home issue that is the real problem”. I read with horror Mark Neary’s recent blog about his sons anxiety at being severed from his place of safety in the name of a professional assessment. But our children didn’t die.
I know there are great and emotionally intelligent expert professionals in both social work and health care and I know professional bashing is a hard stance to take in times of low resources and outsider aims at ‘criticise to privatise’, but how could Southern Health be so cruel.
You can’t buy or train in truth, empathy and remorse anymore than you can illicit forgiveness and understanding via a cold bureaucratic and funded PR fob off.
The response to this case from Southern Health bosses shows the emotional maturity of a small child who is denying they ate the chocolate when it’s clearly all around their mouth. I find it embarrassing.
The people who support Connor and his family are collectively angry. We don’t feel like being particularly polite or forgiving of the unavoidable death of a healthy young person through negligence and poor practice. This isn’t something that happens to all of us but the lead up to it, the ignorance and pseudo care that allowed it to happen is recognised by many of us in our experience of being a ‘client’ or the relative of a ‘client’.
Southern Health can accuse Sara of being difficult to handle, suggest she might perhaps move on now, infer that Connor was just another ‘client’ who sadly had an unfortunate accident, that those seeking justice for him and other dudes are akin to internet trolls, but it won’t wash. Its bigger than them. We are far too revolted and Sara’s strength as a campaigner in love and honour of her son means she is now leading what could easily become a significant and broader revolution in how society views, talks about and supports all dudes in this country.
I for one am living in hope of significant cultural change being instigated by this campaign. No matter what Southern Health do to discredit the integrity of Connor and Sara’s experience, no matter how much they cover their eyes, ears and especially their backs, it wont change that.