When I was Principal of the Cotswold Community I regularly attended the Association of Therapeutic Communities annual residential conference held at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor Great Park, usually in mid-September and lasting three days. I think I attended every year from 1986-98. I found it to be an inspiring event, a chance to meet and discuss the work with eminent leaders and pioneers in this field. It was also an event where you were actively encouraged to present the work you were doing to be discussed by fellow attendees. Theses presentations for me were the spur that I needed to write papers about the Cotswold Community. If the papers were good enough they could end up being published in the then International Journal of Therapeutic Communities. I didn’t attend this conference after I left the Cotswold Community to join ISP in 1999 which, looking back, I somewhat regret.
A few months ago I was contacted by John Diamond (CEO of the Mulberry Bush Organisation) and invited to participate at the Windsor Conference in an “observed conversation” with Richard Rollinson and Adrian Ward, the subject being, “key principles of therapeutic childcare”. Adrian declined on the grounds that he was completely retired from this work. I probably should have done the same but was flattered to be asked and was intrigued by the prospect of a return to Cumberland Lodge. I’ve never been involved in an observed conversation before so I was keen to meet up with Rich Rollinson a few weeks before to rehearse how we would do it. In fact we met twice at Costa Coffee on the outskirts of Faringdon. We each decided to arrive at five crucial features of therapeutic childcare and hoped that we could weave a conversation around them.
On the way to the conference I would drive past Manor Lodge probation hostel in Old Windsor. This was my first job after graduating and where our children were born, Ann deciding on home births. I decided to call in and see how it was doing. It was a brand new hostel when I was appointed and won an architecture award for its design and was officially opened by Prince Philip. That was fifty years ago so it wasn’t surprising to see the place looking a little care worn. I eventually managed to get someone to come to the door but it was clear I was not allowed over the threshold. The hostel was going through a refurbishment and had no residents. The guy I spoke to wasn’t at all interested in my involvement in the early days of the hostel so, somewhat deflated, I went on my way.
Driving through Windsor Great Park and along the long drive leading up to Cumberland Lodge brought back lots of memories and the same sense of anticipation as to what lay ahead. However, I was just going to be there for a part of the day rather than the whole conference. I managed to join the beginning of a large group meeting which was discussing an earlier presentation that morning. There were fifty or more people sat round in a large double circle and it suddenly hit me how different our conversation would be in the middle of this fishbowl effect compared to the relaxed unobserved conversations Rich and I had had in Costa Coffee. After lunch Rich and I went to the large group room to await our fate.
After being introduced by John Diamond we started our conversation with Rich producing a bag of ashes from his fire, for dramatic effect, which led me to talk about failure and my first year at the Cotswold Community which culminated in the house I was working in being set alight by one of the boys. That first year was a living hell. The emotional damage and the acting out of the boys overwhelmed our staff team which was not strong enough for the task. I think it is an important part of therapeutic childcare to acknowledge mistakes openly and learn from them. I think the problem I had in that first year was the inability to think and process what was happening because we were so overwhelmed by the difficulties. I think there is an important role for consultancy to help a team and individuals in it to try and “see the wood for the trees”. At the Cotswold Community we were very fortunate to have Barbara Dockar-Drysdale as our Consultant Child Psychotherapist, followed by Paul Van Heeswyk when she retired.
The remaining four features that I brought to our conversation were firstly, the emotional significance of food. Especially for foster carers it can be very difficult when a child rejects their lovingly prepared meal and adds insult to injury by stealing food from the larder or fridge. It feels like a very personal rejection of their care. We can turn this round and replace this rejection with empathy by enabling carers to understand how emotional deprivation during infancy is closely linked to poor feeding experiences which in turn lead to food issues in later life. This development of empathy will enable the carer to arrive at imaginative solutions to the stealing and hoarding of food like providing a box of food which the child can go to and help himself anytime he feels the need to steal.
My next feature was Barbara Dockar-Drysdale’s work on the treatment of emotionally unintegrated children. This helps us understand children who experience unthinkable anxiety which often manifests itself as a panic rage possibly triggered by something quite trivial. It’s like a volcano with the pressure building and the eruption will seem huge in comparison to the minor frustration which triggered it. The other very difficult to live with and understand aspect to unintegrated children is their compulsion to disrupt functioning groups. This might be a family meal or the classroom in school. A functioning group confronts the unintegrated child with their inability to function so has to be destroyed. Needless to say this can be hugely frustrating for the group that wants to get on and function.
Both Rich and I thought it important to talk about loss and how children moved from pillar to post so many times during their time in care that there was no room to experience loss. It was a good sign when a child could start to feel sad about what they had lost or in some cases never had. We needed to support this sadness rather than jolly them out of it and recognise we were seeing the emergence of the real self.
My last key feature for this conversation was the role of leadership and the importance for leaders to understand the primary task of therapeutic care. When I look back I can think of some therapeutic communities that made a huge mistake when they appointed a business person as the leader during a time of financial pressure. Ultimately these communities closed because they lost their way and referrals dried up. Or, in the case of the Cotswold Community, we were taken over by a parent organisation that thought it knew the therapeutic task better than we did and interfered to such an extent that the primary task was lost and referrals dried up leading to closure.
Rich and I had some positive feedback after our conversation and in particular some people found it refreshing that we talked about failure. On reflection I think it was easier for me to talk about failure because I was not there representing an organisation, just myself.