The Mulberry Bush’s AGM and 70th Anniversary

On Friday 6th July ’18 I attended the Mulberry Bush’s AGM which also coincided with their 70th anniversary and the launch of a book charting their history and current practice. It was also an occasion to show off their new household, the Burrow, purpose built to accommodate a small group of children who need to be there the whole year round while a suitable home base is sought. Having a look round the Burrow took me back to my first job in a brand new probation hostel in Old Windsor called Manor Lodge. It was an innovatory design for which the architect won a prize. It was a great learning experience for me to be in a newly formed team awaiting the first residents. I was part of the discussions about how new residents should be welcomed, the pace at which the group should be built up, the selection of a compatible group, rules, sanctions, rewards etc. This experience helped me to realise that it takes some time to establish a culture, at least two or three years. Establishing a therapeutic culture takes even lounger as the culture has to be tried and tested.

At the AGM both John Diamond, CEO, and Rich Rollinson, Chair of Trustees, spoke about the past year.

John Diamond and Rich Rollinson

The creation of the 52 week household, the Burrow, and admitting the first child to it was a major achievement. Lee Wright’s appointment as Director of the school and John Turberville taking on the role of Chief Operating Officer was also a significant change.

There were two guest speakers, Eliza Manningham-Buller (former head of MI5 and now Chair of the Wellcome Trust) and Peter Wilson (Consultant Child Psychotherapist and co-founder of Young Minds).

John Diamond and Peter Wilson

Eliza spoke about her time at MI5 and how she rose through the ranks, so to speak. She was in charge at the time when terrorism was the main threat, especially the threat from the IRA. She spoke about failure in a way that is very relevant to therapeutic work with children. She drew the distinction between failure that occurs despite doing your best and culpable failure. With the former it is important to be supported to learn from the failure whereas the latter might be a sacking or resigning matter.

When I first worked at the Cotswold Community, in 1972, I was part of a staff team in one of the households that had insufficient experience and training to cope with the emotional disturbance within the group of teenage boys. We were overwhelmed by the consequent daily acting out and despite our best effort and working ridiculously long hours it culminated in a fire which destroyed a significant part of the household. This was a failure of the first kind that Eliza referred to. We’d been working for a year in a downward spiral, trying to hold things together and the climax was the fire. Things got better from that point onwards, partly because they had to, but mainly because the rest of the Community got behind us and supported us through this painful learning experience.

Eliza also referred to the times in her MI5 role when she needed to say, “I don’t have the answer”. Reflective practice often means facing up to not knowing and trying to figure things out with other people over time. When I moved from the Cotswold Community to the fostering organisation ISP in 1999 I was shocked by the lack of reflection and the demand for instant answers. Any answer would do, it didn’t have to be right, just instant. Over time I managed to change the culture but it was an uncomfortable process.

Eliza concluded by talking about the work the Wellcome Trust. It spends billions of pounds on research into health matters. Following a recent review of its strategic aims the Trust has decided to focus on the mental health of children and young people.

Peter Wilson gave an outline of his own professional development and how periodically this brought him into contact with the Mulberry Bush. He paid tribute to the Bush’s survival when so many therapeutic communities have closed, including Paper Harow, where he was Consultant Child Psychotherapist. He referred to Balint’s concept, “the basic fault”, which I think is very similar to Winnicott’s concept of children not achieving “emotional integration” which Barbara Dockar-Drysdale developed into the treatment of emotionally “unintegrated” children at the Mulberry Bush and later at the Cotswold Community. Peter also spoke about the importance of listening to children, of trying to understand, of saying nothing if need be while trying to work the child out. He also emphasised the need to cherish the moments when there is a real and genuine meeting of minds and feelings. In the training I did with foster carers I emphasised the importance of those moments when a child may lower his/her defences and allow you in to share the pain etc., or to reveal a younger part of themselves that had been hidden.

It was good to be reminded of these things and a refreshing change from the dry business of most AGMs.