Can Europe Make It?

Duplicate families and alternative families: taking care of youth

Some past models of good practice, especially those which were associated with feminist youth work projects from the mid 1970s, are in fact well worth remembering and even reviving in the Rotherham case in the UK.

Angela McRobbie
15 September 2014

As the events surrounding the publication of the report on the child abuse case in the South Yorkshire English town, Rotherham, continue to unfold, with more than 1,400 young people having been sexually assaulted over a period of years, and the likelihood of this being an ongoing situation,  there are some specific questions about how girls and young women who find themselves reliant, not on parents or relatives for the safety and well-being, but on the care system, are catapulted into situations which put their lives in danger.  

These girls have been passed among groups of men, some paying, others not, for sex acts and they are left emotionally traumatised possibly for life.  The factors which trigger this pattern are events over which children and young people have absolutely no control, such as severe parental illness, no relatives able to step in and ensure a normal teenage life of school and homework, no one there to ‘take in’ and look after a possibly difficult and truculent girl, all in a context of severe material disadvantage and urban poverty.  Boys are no less vulnerable and for them too sexual molestation has been a recurring feature of life within the care home regime.  

The British children’s care system has long had a reputation for failure, and with cuts in public spending now in place for several years there seems to have been little in the way of fresh thinking or new imagination as to how to care for the nation’s most vulnerable children and young people. It has been up to journalists to highlight every so often what is in effect a dereliction of duty, along with the poor training and career prospects of care workers and a refusal at a wider political level to confront the state’s virtual abandonment of these children, as lives with little or no value.  

For sure government has taken steps to make adoption easier and there have been various attempts to encourage families to come forward as foster parents: indeed, there is hardly a bus in London that does not show an advertisement for fostering. But this does not work for many if not most older children, (some of those abused in Rotherham were just 11 years old) who have had so much to deal with and who have so many behavioural difficulties they become difficult or even impossible ‘to place’.

In recent days ‘front-line workers’ ie those employed in the care system have spoken about how they felt powerless when they knew the girls were going off for the night, having being first of all seduced by the young male perpetrators who presented themselves initially as boyfriends but who quickly became abusers and exploiters.

The care workers knew what was going on but were not listened to by the police when they reported the girls as missing (as they are obliged to do when a young person in care does not return ‘home’ at night) nor did they have the resources or the know-how to intervene themselves. In an article in The Guardian the journalist Suzanne Moore described her own time as a residential care worker, full of compassion but unable to stop the girls leaving the home to wander the streets and end up ‘on the game’.   

It is a fair point to make: the idea of trying to stop a determined and possibly angry young teenage girl from going off to meet a ‘boyfriend’, short of physical restraint is one that confronts most parents and is indeed quite futile. But the wider question it raises is how these young people growing up in exceptionally high levels of urban poverty can get a chance themselves to learn about sex, love and relationships, when they have already been so damaged by years of emotional neglect?

If in the case of girls we also factor in the omnipresence of forces of sexualisation which mean that young women have virtually no chance to opt out of the requirement to self-publicise and self-visualise according to the norms of heterosexual pornographic normativity (the current favoured phrases in the Daily Mail online Femail column for celebrity bodies are that they have  ‘ample cleavage’, or ‘bare derrieres’) - then the task of providing help and support to such vulnerable children for whom there has been little guidance as to how to differentiate between sex and love, is indeed one that requires a huge investment of time, professional expertise and inevitably, funding.

Schools cannot be asked to undertake this task. In any case children who are in care are most often erratic if not non-attenders. All the other professional services are unable to or untrained in this kind of task. Indeed for many young people at risk nowadays it is the police-force who are the most immediate point of contact. This in itself tell us a lot about the decline of ‘the social’ and the disappearance of public-mindedness in contemporary Britain.  

The French philosopher Bernard Stiegler in his book, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, reflects on the flight from adult responsibility and the decline of public citizenship in contemporary neoliberal society. There is no longer a sense that adults have an active role to play at a community level in the lives of children and young people. Instead everything is devolved to the family and to biological parenting, and any other non-familial role is viewed with suspicion, a situation aggravated of course by the uncovering of such high levels of abuse by those who in the past were decorated by exactly these high expectations of moral authority.

Responsible others are nowadays subject to vetting and to police checks which, though entirely reasonable indeed crucial, must further deter the assumption of the kind of role which would indeed create a culture of public mindedness and an investment beyond the private sphere of the family for the generations.

So there is a self-fulfilling prophesy as people step back. Social workers and teachers who in the past would take home a child or young person and put them up for a few nights as respite no longer could risk such actions. Informal agreements for fostering of the type that used to exist when a local parent through the school would look after a friend of their own child for a few weeks when a parent falls ill or has some unfortunate thing happen, have come to an abrupt end.

This stepping back is also manifest in what may seem like the cold professionalism of the various adults occupying positions of responsibility in Rotherham who have indicated that they could do nothing, or were powerless to act. Others say they were intimidated and hence fearful to make a public noise about what was happening.

Stiegler looks inside the private domestic sphere, or the sanctity of the family where he claims consumer culture infantilises adults. They are encouraged to become mere playmates, good fun to be with rather than sources of a sound ethical education.  Possibly he is thinking about fathers and male relatives rather than mothers and women in the community, though he does not spell this out. Nevertheless the challenge indeed would be for men, as he puts it, to play an ‘adoptive ‘ role. Is there a feminist case to make that men need to be re-socialised to assume positions of responsibility in the care economy?

Other sociologists have made similar points, Zygmunt Bauman decries the state of things where there is an unwillingness of the public to get involved, to intervene in matters beyond the confines of their own immediate self- interest. This he attributes to the culture of privatisation and individualisation. Loic Wacquant in his important  book, Punishing the Poor, shows how in the cases of both France and the US welfare claimants have been progressively shamed for their dependence, blamed for their own misfortune and increasingly find themselves managed and overseen by the criminal justice system rather than by a compassionate social state.

All three writers implicitly or explicitly mourn the passing away of social democracy, the ideal of the public good and the investment of public money in welfare. It is as though because elements of those past systems have come into disrepute, the whole infrastructure can be easily forgotten or cast aside.

Lessons remembered from the 1970’s

Some past models of good practice, especially those which were associated with feminist youth work projects from the mid 1970s are in fact well worth remembering and even reviving in the Rotherham case.  Care workers in Rotherham currently report that the girls were hanging about amusement arcades or fish and chip shops at night.  In past times where there was a functioning Youth Service street work or outreach work had a valuable role to play, well-trained graduate youth workers would be given designated areas or neighbourhoods where they would be expected to build trust with girls such as these and provide informal counselling services.

Often they would even have the resources to set up self-run drop-in cafés where a range  of services  would also be provided.  Young feminist social workers would focus on girls and young women and their male counterparts would hang about with and build up relationships of trust with boys and young men.  In the UK most of this range of professional services is either gone or tragically depleted. Jobs working with disadvantaged young women no longer have any status, never mind glamour, in the modern work economy.

This lack of job satisfaction let alone a good career track is in sharp contrast to what happens  in Germany and the Netherlands for instance, where for more than 50 years the field of social pedagogy exists as a respected professional field, and youth workers and social workers are held in the highest regard.  Early second wave feminist involvement in what used to be called ‘maedchen-arbeit’ led to various experiments being turned into long-term policies. One of these involves small units which function as a ‘home from home’. Runaway girls have the chance to live locally and thus continue schooling in a small unit of perhaps 2 or 3 other young people cared for on a 24 hour basis by co-resident youth workers.

Alternately local authorities can also appoint a qualified adult (let us say a feminist trained in social pedagogy) to visit and form a friendship on a one to one basis with a troubled girl. Such arrangements can go on for many years. In such cases this entails neither official fostering nor adoption, more like long-term professional care-giving.  

In contrast, everything in the UK seems best dealt with by attempting to duplicate a ‘real family’ which for teenagers rarely works, with high rates of breakdown in both adoption and fostering. It is ironic that it is only in the last few weeks that David Cameron presided over a new programme designed to boost the social work profession by introducing new fast-track careers for well qualified graduates, similar in style to the recruitment of super-teachers. Better late than never, but for working with young women this should also mean learning from the feminist past while also looking at the ‘alternative family’ model found in these European social pedagogy approaches.

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