Podcast Episode: Lifelong Links
Category: Social work (general)
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
INT: Lifelong links is a project led by Family Rights Group and delivered by local authorities. It supports children and young people in care to connect with and develop relationships with family members and other people who care about the young person so that they can become part of a lasting support network. Anne Begbie, coordinator of the Lifelong Links service at Edinburgh City Council, tells us about their programme, the setup, aims and achievements. We also speak to Megan Tait, a social worker involved in the service. Links to further resources, including young people’s experiences of the service are available in the show notes of this episode.
Michelle: Welcome Anne and Megan to this conversation, it’s great to speak to you about the Lifelong Links service. So Lifelong Links, it’s about rebuilding relationships. The reconnection really of children and young people in care with loved ones. So Anne, can you tell me where did the idea for the Lifelong Links programme come from?
Anne: Lifelong Links is part of the Family Group Decision Making team in Edinburgh and that team has always been, I suppose, quite privileged in that we’re allowed to be curious. We’re allowed to kind of push a wee bit and ask sometimes quite difficult questions of practice. We were aware of a significant number of children that were coming into our care system who seemed very disconnected from even immediate family. And that was just a bit of a red flag for our team, who we were seeing youngsters coming through and it was like, this doesn’t make any sense. These children have come from a family and where are these people. So, there was that kind of curiosity around why we pursued that. So, we took a couple of test cases and actually went to Register House with a couple of cases and accessed public records to do a complete family tree for a couple of these kids. And that gave us a bit of kind impetus, I guess, to take that to senior managers and say, “These children do have more family than we’re aware of and maybe we need to be checking out all of these families.” At that stage, I suppose, it’s fair to say, it definitely was about finding placements and I guess that’s where Lifelong Links has changed considerably. But at that stage there was a push on, we needed to keep children more in their family where it was appropriate.
The Family Group Decision Making and Family Group Conferencing is a world-wide model of working with people so we have a European network of services and coordinators and there’s a UK wide and there’s a Scottish wide. So, we got in talking with Family Rights Group who are really influential down south. It’s a charity around family conferencing. And they were thinking, they had a similar train of thought basically around what are we doing for our kids that do come into care and actually we really kind of disconnect them from their families, a lot of the time. Either we don’t know who their family are or we break that some of these bonds. And we don’t ask the right questions sometimes of youngsters, about who’s important to them.
Michelle: I can imagine the family tree exercise was quite nice for the children and young people to be engaged with.
Anne: That is one of the best bits. The number of children, I guess, in the intervening kind of 5 years. So, we’ve gone from, our, Edinburgh’s thoughts around we need to have better information, and then linking in with Family Rights Group who then developed a model which is where the Lifelong Links name comes from. So, they’ve developed a lot of guidance around, yeah lifelong links itself and a family tree is absolutely … or a really good genogram. But certainly in Edinburgh and I’m sure Megan will talk to us, you know, you’re then dependent on who your social worker is, if you get a good genogram or not and if you’ve got a family that are battling with you, that’s a really hard thing to get accurate.
But the family trees for kids it’s like a life changing moment for some of them, actually seeing where they belong. Youngsters that we’re, you know, bringing into our system are suddenly like, “Oh, my Grandad was in the forces.” Or, “My Gran worked here.” And they didn’t know that and they’ve lost that sense of their world. So, it’s lovely. One wee guy that we gave him a family tree and he was living in a unit, a residential unit, he immediately took it through to the office in the unit and asked them to put it in the filing cabinet and lock it away cos it was just so precious. And then they kept, really annoying the staff, but, “Can I just have another wee look?” and opening the drawer and peeking in. And it was just that it was there and it was the first time that they’d really had this sense of their whole world.
Michelle: Sure, really lovely. And so, there’s the family tree aspect but can you just describe then, the actual process of Lifelong Links?
Anne: Yeah, so we’re following the Family Rights Group process. Initially we had a very tight criteria because we’re being evaluated by CELCIS. We’ve tried to take any child where there was a need as opposed to just stick to criteria children. And that’s good because that’s going to give us a chunk when it comes to our evaluation of youngsters that did fit the criteria and youngsters that didn’t.
I mean it’s very straight forward, a very short referral which is similar to family meetings. We don’t get a lot of information, short referral, planning meeting about identifying what do social work know about this family but importantly what do the young people want from Lifelong Links. And it’s often just a really simple question to a young person about who’s important to you and who’s been important, that maybe isn’t in your life now. And I don’t think our formal systems always ask that question of kids. I think often, there’s a really good quote from somebody that worked in the Promise Team in Scotland about the state decides who your family is. And for our kids that go, very often, from one placement to another and another and you know, they’ve been at home, they have a foster placement, a short term one, a medium term one, a forever family and that could break down and suddenly they’re on 3 or 4 or 5 families, but actually the focus tends to be on the one they’re living in at that moment and these other families get a bit forgotten. So, it’s trying to find the good and strong relationships they’ve had that will kind of see them on.
Michelle: And tell me, where does Lifelong Links fit then within the context of Family Group Decision Making or conferencing as it’s also known?
Anne: Yeah, we sit in the Family Group Decision Making Team, so we adhere to the same principles of kind of future focused, (… unclear) free, child centred are the three kinds of main drivers for family meetings. We want to and we have independent coordinators. So, I’m an independent coordinator, so I don’t have any … I’m not doing any assessments and I’m not making any plans or decisions about the young people. Any information we get through Lifelong Links gets fed into a child’s plan through a social worker like Megan. We’re not part of that and I think in many respects it’s similar to Family Group Decision Making, it opens a lot of doors for us. We’re not perceived as a threat or, we are social workers but we’re not perceived as that by families. I think we’ve just got a different hat on and I think that sometimes opens doors where families can be quite oppositional to social work. They might actually say, “Yeah, I’ll tell you who’s in my family.” And they’ll give you a bit more information. I’ve got a couple of examples of that.
One wee guy whose mum had kind of put him out the house when he was 11 and he was accommodated. This wee guy didn’t know his dad, and mum and dad had split up when he was a baby. And the only person he wanted to meet, when I met him and said, “Look, we do lifelong links. This is how it works. What would you like?”, “I’d just … can you find my dad? Can you find my dad?” and the only person, the only way … cos he didn’t even really have a proper name for his dad. So, the only way we could do it, was kind of approach the mum who had been foul to social work. But when I went to her door, I just think she saw me as somebody different and she wanted him, she wanted her son, although she was having nothing to do with him, she wanted him to know his family.
Michelle: Okay. So, the whole point of what you were trying to achieve with him getting to know his family, that approach in itself or that outcome made her change perceptions of you as a social worker almost?
Anne: Yes, yes absolutely.
Michelle: Okay cos that’s really interesting. I suppose, it is a really interesting question around how does it fit in terms of general social work practice. Or does it fit or is it something quite distinct?
Anne: I think the process that we follow, Lifelong Links is very distinct, I guess. It sits, I think it absolutely sits alongside. There’s always a need for statutory social work, that’s always going to be there. And actually, Megan could maybe speak to this but you know, as a practice team social worker, it’s about time and space to do some of the digging that Lifelong Links does and some of that really asking the curious questions and tracking and tracing people, contacts for kids. Megan, do you want to …?
Megan: Yeah, I mean absolutely I think just in terms of it being, I mean it sits alongside, really well just for the things that Anne is pointing out and highlighting. There is that, there is a lack of time and space and also a lack of knowledge about the avenues to go down, the tools that you use. I mean, of course as the practice team social worker, you know, you’re dealing with the kind of here and now often with the child so to have a colleague or another professional, another social worker who’s just focused on looking at family, family trees and kind of looking at the missing pieces of the puzzle, I think as well. And I think it also really depends on the relationship as well you can have with the worker from Lifelong Links as well and I think it’s about working together and how best to support the young person and what to do with that information. I think it’s really important you work together.
Anne: I agree. I mean, there’s a couple of bits I’ll just pick up from Megan. There’s the bit about as a coordinator, I may or may not be working directly with a young person. So, there’s something about how we sort out between who’s the best placed person to do the direct work with the youngster. So, some like the wee guy I spoke about with his, you know, been put out the family home. He really had nobody, so he really, he saw me as the person to kind of do that work but Megan’s got a case where you’ve done all the work with the young person and I’ve done a bit of work with the family and found the family and done that kind of bit. So, it can be divided up absolutely depending on what works better for the young person.
Megan: Absolutely and I think it depends on kind of where the young person is maybe in their journey: how old they are, where they are developmentally as well. And also, what relationship you have with the young person. There’s so many variables and I think it’s so individual and so important to have a good plan that you work through together to make it what’s best for that particular young person or child.
Michelle: Yeah, and you’re stressing the importance there of the relationship with the young person. Can I just ask, is there a lower or upper age range?
Anne: Initially the criteria were over 5 and under 16’s but we found that really restrictive and actually what we did find was, for the younger ones we would like, just a family tree at a very early stage has been helpful. And it may be that then a social worker would revisit Lifelong Links further down the line but at least they’ve got that as a start. It’s one of the aims of our Edinburgh Services that every child that comes into care has a fully researched family tree. And I think we need to really drive that and stick with that because I think that’s a great starting block. But we’ve had some older kids where we’ve done Lifelong Links but there’s been younger children in the family who’ve been going for adoption so you get that kind of by-product of, they get a bit of a service as well. I think under 5’s probably are too little to be engaged but we’ve had kind of 6/7 year olds. What we’ve discovered is it’s that kind of 14 plus is taking up much more of our time.
Michelle: And can I ask, is Lifelong Links then, is it about moving young people into family placements?
Michelle: Right okay.
Anne No. That changed very … it was the wrong way to come about it. There’s always going to be youngsters that need to be in care but what we need to be building are these connections and strong relationships that will see them once all the professionals walk away. You know we’ve got continuing care in Scotland but you know, beyond that we need to have youngsters that are connected to people that are going to have their back. So, that’s one of my youngsters said that, “I just need somebody that’s got my back.” As professionals, you can do what you can but all of us are going to walk away at some stage.
Megan: Absolutely. I think it’s that, it’s sense of belonging for the young person and you know, having that kind of, if possible. I mean, they’re in care, they’re looked after for a reason, because their family members that they’re with or knew weren’t able to look after them for whatever reasons. And it’s just yeah, trying to find a young person a group of people or an individual that they can have a connection to and it helps them make sense of who they are.
Anne: One of our early examples, one of these family trees we did to take to senior managers and say, “This child has got a family.” Was a wee guy and he, he was 9 I think when we picked it up, and the coordinator: it wasn’t me that went out, that tracked his parents who’d gone on and had other children but also his granny and his great granny. And great granny was an older … and she had how ever many children, umpteen grandchildren and umpteen great grandchildren of which he was one. And when the coordinator spoke to her, she said, “Oh yeah, I remember him. Tell him it’s Granny Ice-cream.” And that was her kind of nickname in the family. “It’s Granny Ice-cream. And if you see him, I’ve got all his birthday and Christmas presents in the cupboard upstairs.” So, she’d continued to buy and at that stage he’d been out of his family home for about 5 years. You know, how much of a risk was that great granny ever going to be to that wee guy and why could we not have a system that allowed him to get birthday cards and Christmas cards and presents from a great granny. And actually, but our system blocks that and nobody had found her and had that conversation.
Michelle: Yeah, so all of these things you’re talking about, the sort of belonging, the connecting, the sense of identity, you’re really saying that you can’t underestimate the importance of these things in a person’s life. And that this Lifelong Links work that you’re doing is really crucial to ensuring, I suppose, more positive outcomes and lives for younger people.
Anne: Yes, yeah. We talk here about single stories. You know, when kids come into our care system, we lead them down a single track and actually, it shouldn’t be. It should be much broader than that.
Michelle: Yeah, yeah.
Anne: And that acknowledging the different families and relationships they’ve had. And even if some placements have gone really badly wrong, there’s usually somebody there within that extended, if it’s a foster family, somebody in that extended foster family, that wee one has still been really, really attached to and felt really … and they just disappear. It’s tough so we need to … yeah, I think a lot of it, you’ll hear me saying a lot, need to get a bit better at that. And I think we are, I think this is absolutely the right path we’re on.
Michelle: Is there a risk, do you think, that this Lifelong Links could unsettle or disrupt care placements? And or risk that it could unsettle or disappoint the young people involved?
Anne: Megan, do you want to go first?
Megan: Yeah. I think, I mean I’m just kind of drawing on … Anne, you’ll have a lot more examples and experience to draw on from this but just in terms of thinking from my experience. You know, I think it’s that balance of care and liberty. You know, children have a right to, and young people, have a right to a family life but you’re also kind of, you might be concerned if the family that you’re finding may have had a negative impact when they were growing up and this is why they’re in foster care and things like that. So, that’s one aspect, I guess, that could cause issues for the child, you know bringing up things for them. But then there’s the other part about if they’re in a settled placement, long term or you know there’s been multiple placements but this one’s been working for that young person so bringing new people into it could well disrupt it. In my experience, it’s possibly done that because also where the child or young person, sorry, was in their age and stage development transition period of turning 16 and it may have been that the young person’s placement may have broken down anyway. I think there’s a risk, yeah, there’s always going to be a risk of that. But it’s about you know, the young person has a right to know who they and where they’re from so, it’s just doing your best to work with that young person or child or foster family to make the best of the situation for the young person.
Anne: Yeah, I think we can’t ignore the fact that youngsters will always, they’ll start to ask or they’ll start to look themselves. And again, examples of quite young kids, 9, 10, beginning to look on Facebook themselves.
Anne: Because nobody’s giving them that information and actually is that more risky? And these kids get distressed that they’ve got no support built round them. I mean part of the planning in Lifelong Links is about who is there to support them. So, as Megan says, if a youngster’s got a good relationship with a foster carer or their social worker then grand. And so, we’re trying to get in at a stage where you can support them as best you can and build that kind of scaffolding round them because I think they will discover things that some of it’s great about family, some of it’s horrendous. But I think they’re always going to be curious; they’re always going to ask. And we can’t pretend they’re not going to do that and if we don’t facilitate these conversations, I think, they will look anyway. And I guess the biggest fear is some youngster would kind of take-off and actually go and meet family unbeknown to other people and that could go really badly wrong. So, I think there’s always a risk.
Michelle: And generally the youngsters will always ask the questions first, is that it?
Anne: Yeah, we don’t … we’re not going in with any preconceived ideas about who this youngster might want to see or not see. Yeah, it’s just very much, “who’s important to you?” And sometimes it can be just one person and then months down the line it will be another person. And that also, I should say, that includes professionals as well. So, I’ve connected a lot of youngsters to professionals that have been really important to them and some of them may develop into a kind of longer you know, somebody there for them throughout their life. And I think that’s one of the themes of The Promise is you know, as professionals there’s that link to, we are building relationships and we can’t just sever them and kind of walk away if youngsters want to come back and chat to us then that’s okay.
Michelle: What kind of professional relationships would they be?
Anne: Health visitors, teachers, guidance teachers. I met a health visitor as well with a youngster and they were great, and again a kind of older youngster so now 18/19 kind of age, and it was around that decision, why we’re removing you from home, why are we taking you away from your mum. And that health visitor owned that decision as part of the group at the time. It would be social work, nursery teacher, health visitor and the health visitor was able to say, “Well, I was part of that decision.” and explain why and what they had recognised and it was really healing for that young person, just to hear that again.
Anne: All these youngsters have access to the file, they could read it in a file but actually hearing it from somebody. So much better, so much kinder.
Michelle: Some of the young people then that have maybe more negative experiences of the reconnection, if you like, or the relationships. How do you support that?
Anne: Just using our skills and knowledge and experience. It’s about practice and actually we do have to help kids through really hurtful and horrible sad situations.
Michelle: You just kind of explained really simply there Anne, but there’s a lot to that no doubt in terms of the skills that you bring to it. So, I guess, I’m just trying to really understand that process that you’d have to then go through with a young person.
Anne: And we’ve certainly got experiences where youngsters have connected and then a few months down the line going, “This is not what I expected.” The family are just coming from very different places, they’ve had … the youngster that’s been in care for a long time has got a very different outlook on the world and there’s a family there that are still in the same chaotic messy situation that they were when they were removed.
Anne: And they’re like, “You know what, I have this kind of informed choice.” I suppose right at the start of Lifelong Links, we’re always making it clear that you know, we might not find people. Some people just don’t want to be found and if we do find people, they might want nothing to do with our service or nothing to do with the youngster. But a lot of the youngsters, with some of the feedback we’re getting is, but it’s better to know.
Anne: So, then it’s building in that trust, with any youngster. Megan will be the same. With anybody that you’re working with, is about trying to say, “You have to trust us to do the best we can and we’ll keep you informed at every step of the way. If it’s not good news, then we’ll tell you as well and we’ll support that and we’ll be here to talk it through and yeah, be shoulder to cry on if that’s what it takes.”
Megan: I was just going to say as well, you know it’s really important to, if there is that kind of bad experience or it’s difficult for the young person to go through this process then it’s really important for all of the adults whether they’re the foster carer, professionals to work together to support that young person and have good relationships, so a kind of a multidisciplinary approach to it.
And I suppose there’s the other side of it as well, just as you were saying about the young person saying, “this is not what I thought it was going to be and I’m not sure about it anymore.” But you know, also the family members letting the young person down as well. So, that can be an aspect of it, that they’re well meaning, good intentions, really keen to reconnect with that young person or child but because of their own difficulties and chaos in their life that that has ended up being too difficult for them as well. So, it’s about helping the young person understand that separating what’s not to do with them and it’s not their fault.
Michelle: Yeah, that will be very important.
Megan: Yeah, absolutely. And to kind of just help them understand the link if they’re … you know, depending on how old the young person is, about, “this is maybe why you’re in foster care. There was some of that going on when you were little and that’s why you weren’t being able to be looked after by some of your family.” And you know helping them understand it’s not their fault.
Michelle: And Megan, just from your experience, was this something that you were really keen to be involved in? The Lifelong Links? So, did you particularly gravitate towards it or how did that come about?
Megan: It was actually right at the beginning, was it in 2017?
Anne: It seems ages ago.
Megan: Yeah. When Anne and I just had a brief meeting and I was about to take some kind of planned longer-term leave at that point. So, we met, I remember we met and it was, yeah, just as the pilot … it was when that was happening and when there was that kind of … there was that criteria.
Anne: There was criteria.
Megan: Yeah, so kind of touched base then. There was a referral made because of the young person who it was about, they were one of the young people who kind of went from placement to placement. Had quite a few in a few years so, it did get kind of left by the wayside because there was placement breakdowns, there was the here and now to deal with, there was crisis. So, very much, one of the reasons why having this Lifelong Links is so important as a practicing social worker, you’re dealing with these kind of here and now crisis for the young person which takes up your time.
So, finally the young person that ended up being in a placement, that yeah, it wasn’t for a really, really long time but it was relatively for this young person, it was a good experience. It was the right fit at the time and there was many, many benefits and because of that we were then able to re kind of look at the referral to Lifelong Links. And for me it’s an incredibly important service, it’s the missing piece of the puzzle. And it doesn’t always need, I mean for this particular young person, there was no family.
So, it was just hugely important and this particular young person’s sense of identity was just pretty much non-existent and was clearly having an impact emotionally and getting in the way of developing as a young person and moving on with their lives. So, that was hugely important. And then other times there’s one small bit of the puzzle missing. It could be that their mum has died quite a long time ago, when they’re young and they don’t know anything about that side of the family. They have their dad; you know they’re maybe not living with their dad but they know about that. So, it’s just really about either creating something when they have nothing or putting together the missing pieces.
Michelle: I’m presuming this was piloted, that you piloted Lifelong Links at some point in the last number of years? And this is something that’s been happening at Edinburgh City Council?
Michelle: So, there must be benefits then for other local authorities and services in actually running a similar service. Is this happening across Scotland or should it be something that is?
Anne: Not quite across Scotland, we’re pushing. And Family Rights Group have a Scottish Director of Lifelong Links so, they are trying to push other local authorities or third sector. So, we’ve got, Glasgow are heavily in Lifelong Links. And a lot of it’s down to funding, you know Edinburgh Senior Managers right from the start said, “This is what we need to be doing, this is the right thing to do for youngsters.” But I think The Promise will really drive that forward.
Anne: I mean, the promise has been written for Lifelong Links about relationships and connections and that kind of on-going responsibility we all have to the looked after population. I think it sits really comfortably with that.
Michelle: So, what’s next for Lifelong Links?
Anne: What’s coming next in terms of Lifelong Links? I think we’re beginning to see, particularly youngsters, we have a couple of youngsters, but in continuing care. So, kind of 18, 19, 21, 23 year olds who are asking more questions about their family and their identity. And I guess, we didn’t see that before because they were so out of system by that stage that actually because we’re keeping kids in the system longer, rightly. Whether it’s in foster care or residential care, they’re living there for longer. So, they’re asking these questions.
So, we’re beginning to do that and it links really closely to access to files and you know we need to be better at how youngsters can do that and support them with either reading files or being given accurate information from files and things because I think that’s another, kind of filling that gap, that kind of jigsaw bit of it. We’re also looking at young parents, so, at that moment where youngsters are getting into relationships and having babies then actually is there some Lifelong Links work around their family trees and people that they’ve become disconnected with because of choices that people have made. And can we connect them with families so that they’ve got more of a scaffolding again round them as they move onto young parenthood and being young parents.
We’ve also got a kind of a toe in the water with the prison service. I think a significant number of youngsters that have been in our care system end up in Polmont for example, in Scotland, and I think again, these youngsters … That was one of the other drivers, way back, was that kind of youngsters that were in Polmont who came out to nothing. The relationships had been completely fractured and actually Lifelong Links fits there. So, we did start to do that but we’d like to pick that up again and look at that kind of avenue as well. I think that’s another important one.
I think older life as well, as people get on. We did have for a while a couple of health and social care coordinators in Edinburgh. So, they were doing family meetings with older people but actually the theme of Lifelong Links and how disconnected and isolated some of these people were as well, even in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. These coordinators have done a couple of meetings with a bit of Lifelong Links where end-of-life really looking at how can the family support but also reconnect with people they’ve lost contact with. So, there’s lots of opportunities.
Michelle: If people listening are interested in learning more about Lifelong Links, should they contact you, Anne?
Anne: Absolutely, yeah. Either directly or through the Family Group Decision Making team in Edinburgh. Yeah.
Michelle: Well I think we’ll wrap it up there. And I’d just like to thank you both very much for speaking to me about the Lifelong Links service. And wishing it every success going forward.
Anne: Thank you. Thank you very much.
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