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Podcast Episode 8: The corporate parent’s tale

Dawn Williams talks to Ben van Wagtendonk of Gateshead Council and Joanne Stoddart of Darlington Council about the value of doing Life Story Work differently.


Please note that this transcript is auto-generated and therefore will contain some errors and natural pauses in conversation.

DAWN: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Creative Life Storywork podcast, where we explore how a creative approach to life story work can help children and young people who have been in care, make sense of their past and build a brighter future. A new model for life story work is being rolled out in the Northeast of England.

And this podcast shares the latest learning and investigates how it could help improve the lives of care experienced children and young people across the country. My name is Dawn Williams and I am an associate at Blue Cabin, one of the partners on this exciting work in the region. So far in our podcast series, we’ve thought about what is a story and who gets to tell it.

What are the ethics of storytelling? What’s told? and what’s not told. Creative Life Storyworks started in [00:01:00] 2018 with South Tyneside and in 2020 they were joined in a partnership with Gateshead and Darlington local authorities. So I’m absolutely delighted today to hear from two of the local authorities who’ve been collaborating to deliver life story work.

Sadly South Tyneside can’t be with us but I am. Absolutely delighted to introduce Ben Van Wachtendonk, who is the Practice Leader Service Manager for Cared for and Care Experienced Children and Young People’s Team, Children with Disabilities and the ASYE from Gateshead NBC, and Joanne Stoddart, who is Head of Assessment, Care Planning and Looked After Through Care at Darlington Borough Council.

Blimey, it’s a good job. I’ve got a good set of lungs to say those job titles. Um, I’m absolutely thrilled to have, um, Joanne and Ben in the room [00:02:00] today. And cause they have been, um. in the thick of it, delivering creative life story work in their local authority. So they are the absolute experts for us to have this conversation today.

Um, and I wondered, first of all, whether it would be useful, um, to just think a bit about what was your life story work provision before you took part in this program. Ben, I wondered if you would like to go first.

BEN: Thanks Dawn and hello, um, I think probably what I would say is that when, if I think back to when I first met Jenny from Blue Cabin, I think that was in January 2000, um, and you know, in terms of my career, I’ve been a social worker or worked in children’s social care for about 20 years now, um, and I think the answer to that is that You know, Ofsted and other regulators have always insisted that we complete life story work with children.

And I think it’s always been very simplistic, it’s just [00:03:00] been like, here’s a book, here’s some photographs, this is some information about you and that’s it. And then you get that, and the expectation then really is that, that foster care has put some stuff in a memory box for you, um, and, and that’s how it ends.

And I think, you know, if I think about my journey in, in, in life story work and thinking about that in terms of its importance to children and young people, um, one thing really stands out to me, which was meeting some care experienced young people, who, uh, one of whom gave a presentation about her, Kitten.

Um, and basically went through this and, and looked at this book that she had of a kitten, um, and the kitten’s, you know, first day in at her house, the kitten’s, you know, little brothers and sisters, the kitten’s, mom’s first color and everything like that. And lots of description about this kitten. And when she finished she said, why don’t I have something like this?

And I think that’s really stayed with me because really what I see our responsibilities when we intervene in families’, private lives, and we. say that we [00:04:00] don’t feel it’s safe enough for a child to live with their family anymore, that we become the custodians of their history and their life story. And I don’t think that we’ve always treated that with as much care and attention as we should.

So for me, what I would say is that our starting point was, was pretty poor, um, not just in Gateshead, but I would say in every other local authority that I’ve had the privilege to work in, um, and that it’s inconsistent at best, um, and not really what I would say is a priority often for practitioners and for social workers.

DAWN: Joanne, is that a similar picture in Darlington or did you have a different experience? No, it’s

JOANNE: exactly the same. I think Ben has echoed the situation in Darlington and in other local authorities that I’ve worked with as well. Um, for me, the experience of life story work, um, has been very much a one off event, a tick box exercise, a book Ben’s already referenced.

Um, it It’s almost an action [00:05:00] that’s, that’s given at a child’s looked after review in terms of has life story work been completed with the child. Um, and if a social worker says, yes, I did, you know, life story work at the age of six with this particular child, but this child is now 12. That tick box has been completed and people don’t necessarily revisit life story work as they should.

So I would agree with everything that Ben said in terms of um, it’s not at the, at the standard it needs to be at. It, it isn’t life story history. It’s, it’s a one off event usually with a traditional approach in, in, you know, a memory box or a book with photographs or a bit of explanation in. Very simplistic and, and completed at a time.

In a child’s life and not repeated usually that’s my experience of life story work. So

DAWN: Ben, you talked about meeting Jenny at Blue Cabin. So what was it about, uh, the offer [00:06:00] of creative life story work that made you want to get involved in Gateshead? I think

BEN: for, for me Dawn, um, What I would say is that, um, it’s probably the most important part of the work that we do really, isn’t it?

And I think I’ve always felt that. But if I go back to, you know, the original question is, of what is my experience of the quality of that work? And that really made me think about why is, why is it not prioritised by social workers? And why is it not seen as being the most important task that they undertake?

And what are the barriers to people doing this well? You know, in defense of my colleagues and of my profession, I would say some of that is because it’s not taught. You know, it’s not something that we’re taught about when we qualify as social workers, unbelievably. I think a lot of it’s about a lack of confidence that practitioners have, about being brave and having brave conversations with children and young people.

I think that often social workers come into the profession to protect children and [00:07:00] families and young people and I think they’re always conscious of Talking about the past and reopening old wounds and those for me have been the barriers to professionals doing this. It’s a lack of confidence in how to have those difficult conversations with children and young people.

Um, and I think when I spoke to Jenny, what really struck me was that. We’ve probably been thinking about this in totally the wrong way all these years and that actually it’s as much about celebrating what has happened and what they have achieved as it is talking about some of the painful and difficult experiences that they’ve had in their life.

And it’s given that whole picture, I think. So, what really drew me to the program was the, um, the creativity aspect of it. The fact that it was shaped around, um, children and young people doing, you know, some lovely, beautiful activities. Um, but also, the main focus, or one of the main focuses, is about giving social workers and other professionals who work with children and families, the confidence to deliver the work and the skills and the [00:08:00] toolkits and the training that they need to feel that this is something that they can do.

Thank you. And, you know, I think, I think for me, that’s, that’s what really piqued my interest. And I, and I just feel like it’s a really clear model, um, and helps local authorities to, um, actually understand how to deliver this work in, in the right way.

DAWN: Having brave conversations is something where I was not nodding my head.

Joanne, um, can you remember back to first hearing about the creative life story work offer? And I wonder what, what it was that drew you to thinking, yes, this, this would fit in

JOANNE: Darlington? I have very clear memories of, of meeting with Jenny, um, the first time to discuss, uh, this possible programme that we thankfully became engaged in.

Um, for me, it offered a solution to some of the barriers that we’ve already discussed in terms of how we were approaching life story work for, for our children. Um, [00:09:00] I think the, the Primary consideration for me was the quality of support that was going to be provided by Blue Cabin and colleagues like yourself and Jenny.

That was a primary consideration. Very professional in approach, and it gave me confidence in thinking actually can we engage in this? Is this something our children are going to benefit from? Is this something our foster carers, trusted adults are going to benefit from? And then the other aspect of it was It was absolutely innovative, really, really exciting opportunity, and we were approached by Blue Cabin, so we were really felt very privileged that we were being approached.

And we’d also had previous sessions with Professor Richard Rose, which had been so welcomed. And so well engaged in, and it was the whole package in terms of, you know, we, we had just had, um, a 2018 Ofsted inspection where we were, you [00:10:00] know, um, noted that our life story work, um, approach was not where it needed to be, um.

And everything just came together in terms of the timing of this, um, offer from Blue Cabin. Um, I would echo what Ben has said there in terms of, um, practitioners lack of confidence as well. I remember vividly sitting in a team meeting with, um, social workers, where we were talking about life story work.

And I was quite surprised really. I think it dawned on me in terms of the lack of confidence that practitioners had in engaging children and young people with life story work because predominantly they were worried about what they were going to trigger for that particular child and how would they manage that or would they, would they destabilize a child’s home life if, if they did engage that child with that work.

So the opportunity to become involved in, in creative life story work, it was, it was a. Totally different perspective with a huge amount of support from Blue [00:11:00] Cabin um, through the programme. So, very, very different perspective and something that we were really genuinely excited to get involved with and, and we’ve got no regrets in getting involved with, with this programme at all.

BEN: I guess it’s really made me think about, about where does that, um reluctance or lack of confidence as a profession come from to engage children and young people in these brave and difficult conversations and to help them to make sense of some of their early childhood experiences, but also, you know, their present and what’s going on for them here and now.

And I think, you know, we’ve been really fortunate as part of the project to spend a lot of time with Richard Rose and, and talk to him a lot about, you know, him being a critical friend and looking at what it is that we’re doing. And I think one of the things that’s really stuck with me is that if you think about social workers experiences, um, and the emotional welfare and well being of children and young people, their views have been massively influenced by, um, [00:12:00] adolescent mental health services.

Um, And their sort of mantra is often that until a child’s settled in a stable placement you can’t do any of this work with them and actually that by doing this you will destabilize them and upset them and, and all these other things. And I think really what that’s built up in our, in our profession is almost like a paralysis.

Um, where people are so frightened of getting stuff wrong and breaking down. Uh, a child’s home, um, or disrupting their life, that they just back away from it. And it also, I guess, a bit like some of the language that we use that we’re trying to undo, um, it becomes a bit like a coat of armor that professionals can wear, because they lack confidence in that area, and they can just then handily say, oh, well, hold on a second, you know, I don’t want to upset this kid or destabilize their, their life, that

Actually, you know, you need to have these conversations, otherwise children leave our care with just [00:13:00] totally incomplete narratives, and that is far more damaging for me, I

DAWN: think. And certainly in the, um… The live classrooms that, that Richard Rose has been, has been running, that’s been one of the biggest themes, I think, that have been emerging from people really relishing the practical tools that he’s just giving them that they can use tomorrow.

Yeah, I’m going to go and try this tomorrow. It’s a bit of wallpaper and some felt tip pens. I can do this. I can do this tomorrow. And, and supporting. foster carers, social workers to have a go at doing it. Um, there’s been some of the things that I know have been coming back in the chat when we’ve been in those live classrooms.

Um, Joanne, what, what else, what has, now that you’ve been running creative life story work in Darlington, what are some of the Things that have stood out for [00:14:00] you during the course of the program. What have been some of the sparkly moments that you remember? I think,

JOANNE: um, I’m gonna say the first thing that’s come into my head, which probably is a challenge as well, but in a nice way.

So the thing that’s coming into my head is where we have really, really Tried to, um, encourage, um, a child or a young person or even their foster carer, because we have had, you know, a small number of foster carers being reluctant, probably to engage, probably for the reasons we’ve said concerned about what, what may come of this.

Um, and what really, really stands out is the feedback that we’ve received, um, where a child may have, um, struggled to engage or has attended the first or second of the six sessions and started to engage at that point, started to, to really enjoy it. And then at the end of the six. sessions has been sat there saying, I don’t want this to end.

I want it to continue. Um, [00:15:00] I’ve enjoyed this so much. Um, and I think for me, that is the standout that, you know, we’ve, we’ve worked hard to encourage, um, some of our, um, young people to, to engage and for them to just sit there and say. I want this to continue. I just think it’s absolutely fantastic and just shows the, the energy that the artists have, um, you know, spent in, in preparing and supporting and the pastoral support workers in, in those sessions.

I just think it’s brilliant. And that, that’s the bit that stands out for me. There’s lots of things that stand out, but that is the main one. I’ve

DAWN: just been reading some of the quotes from some of the. young people, um, taking part in it. And the one that made me laugh was from a child who said, um, uh, the bits that he didn’t like, um, were the breaks during the All About Me sessions because they were too long.

And next time, could the breaks just be shorter, please, so that they could get more work done in the sessions. They made [00:16:00] me laugh. Ben, what have been the… standout moments for, uh, delivery of creative life story work for you in Gateshead?

BEN: I think sort of similar to Joanne, I would say one of the things is, I mean, the feedback from children and people has generally been really overwhelmingly positive.

Um, and, you know, I think that’s, that’s great. I think they’ve really enjoyed the creative element of it. Um, and, and gained a lot from that. But I think probably the bit that stood out most is the comments of foster carers. Again, I would echo what Joanne said, and that they often were quite reluctant to engage in the work for all the reasons that we’ve talked about before.

And all those messages they’ve been given over the years about not disrupting children’s lives and this, that and the other. Um, but I think what, there was a couple of comments where people just talked about how much closer their relationship was with that child. Or how they had a greater understanding of their lived experience, of their needs, of who [00:17:00] they were as a, as an individual.

And bearing in mind some of those children have lived with these people for, you know, two, three years, I, I think that’s phenomenal. Um, you know, and, and hopefully what that leads to is a much more… Secure and stable relationship for them as, you know, caregiver and person who’s being cared for. You

DAWN: started off by saying the thing that stood out was probably also a challenge, but what else has been challenging in the delivery of creative life story work?

I think,

JOANNE: sadly, um, the past two years, we’ve had the pandemic, we’ve been in lockdown, and, um, we’ve had to have, um, the, the creative sessions undertaken via virtual means, so that has been a challenge in itself. Um, I think everybody has been absolutely brilliant in organising that and making sure everything’s in place.

But, um, to have everybody in one room, um, and building those relationships between children and carers [00:18:00] and, and the artists would have been everybody’s preference, um, I know. So that has been a challenge and the health and safety around all of that, all the boring bits that the pandemic has brought to us all.

Um, I think the, the other challenging, um, It has been because we’ve been undertaking this program with what works is the research elements of that. And I think, sadly, we have been, um, you know, we couldn’t offer this to every single young person, child and young person that we would like to. We were, we were restricted with that.

And I think that has been one of the most frustrating elements of the program because of that research. element. Um, we went into that with our eyes open. We would rather, you know, a percentage of our children have the opportunity to engage with creative life story work and all the positives that, that come along with that.

But that has been a challenge, especially when, you know, your cohort of children is randomized and you can see children [00:19:00] who are excluded, who you know would absolutely benefit from engaging in one of the sessions. Um, and that’s, that’s been quite sad to see that. But that’s part of the research project and we fully understood that, but it has been a challenge in trying to, to not let that take over the whole program and try and focus on the huge, huge positives and the strengths of the program overall.

So for me, that’s, that’s a challenge.

DAWN: Ben, do you have any different challenges that you’d like to offer?

BEN: No, I think that during the sort of life course of the project, I would, I would agree with Joanne that those are the probably the fundamental challenges that we’ve faced. Um, I think probably for me, one of the challenges is about how do we move this forward.

Um, You know, and, and you know, I, I very much am committed to this model and I, and I, and we can’t just do nothing. Um, but it’s about [00:20:00] working in collaboration with Blue Cabin and, um, you know, Darlington and South Townside. I think to think carefully about how we develop this program further and continue with this offer.

to children and young people. And that’s probably the next part of the challenge for me. And thinking about how we do that.

DAWN: And that was a very neat segue into my next question, which you’ve already answered there, Ben. So I’ll, I’ll ask you to, to, um, Joanne, um, what might your next steps be in Darlington for, um, delivering creative life story work?

JOANNE: But we’re really, really keen to, to continue with the momentum that has been built up. Um, we’re already, um, in discussions with, with Blue Cabin, um, to look at how we can, um, fund. And I think we’re going to be part funding. I think we do have the funding available. Um, I’d. Don’t think I’m talking out of turn there to make this happen in some shape or form over the next 12 months.[00:21:00]

We do want to get to a position where we are able to use practitioners who are experienced in this area and train them or try and use our in house resources a little bit more because. You know, we do have a whole practitioners are very experienced, but some are more experienced in creative elements, let’s say, and I can think of one or two social workers immediately who are extremely creative, um, who would be absolutely fantastic to, to engage, um, some of our children and young people in creative life story work and, and, and.

be confident enough to hold groups, et cetera. So we are in the process of, um, trying to work through what we can genuinely fund for the next 12 months in terms of keeping the momentum going. The last thing we want to do is have a cliff edge and just drop back to where we were back in 2018 and we won’t allow that to happen.

Um, we, we will do everything in our power to, to keep moving [00:22:00] forward with, with. this approach to live story work. Um, we’re already in discussions with, with yourselves, uh, Blue Cabin in terms of how we can make that happen. Um, and the commitment from Darlington is, is very, very firmly there to ensure that momentum


DAWN: And Ben, I hijacked that question for you. Do you want to add anything else to

BEN: that? I think it’s probably really, really similar, I guess, Dawn, and I, and I, you know, this, this. Podcast for me is about celebrating what life story works about, but we also have to be realistic about what resources we have to, to, to support that.

Um, you know, and I think that that is the reality of working within a local authority at the moment is that resources are incredibly stretched. Um, But that doesn’t mean that our commitment isn’t undimmed, um, and we want to, um, find ways that we can continue to collaborate and work together, really.

DAWN: Um, and I think, for me, with my blue cabin hat on, one of the, um, joyous things has been listening to the, uh, three [00:23:00] authorities in meetings together.

Sharing ideas and supporting each other as to how that might happen. Have you tried this? We’re doing this because you’re all very different. But that sense of a collegiate way of working has been fantastic to be a part of. Um, my last question now really is, um, and I’ll ask Ben first, um, what I’m just thinking about people might be listening to this podcast from other local authorities.

And I wondered. What advice you might give to a colleague in another authority who was considering dipping their toes into the world of offering creative life story work? What words of wisdom would you offer? I don’t

BEN: really know whether there’s words of wisdom that I can offer Dawn, but I think, I think from my point of view.

You know, if, if the majority of local authorities, you know, if you look at Ofsted reports, it says exactly the same thing. You know, Ofsted inspection. Again, it [00:24:00] highlights in that report the sort of inconsistency, uh, and the paucity of life story work for children and young people who, who uh, live within Newcastle, you know, and, and I think that’s the same as comments that have been made about Gateshead previously and as Joanne said, Darlington.

So for me, it’s about, you know, what have you got to lose really? You know, and, and what have your children and people got to gain? And what your children and young people have got to gain is a huge amount. Um, and for me it’s about being brave. Um, and, and just doing it. Um, and you know, I, I think Richard was great last week because I sometimes, um, sort of run away with myself a bit.

And, and I think, right, well I’ve just got to do this for every child. You know, in Gateshead, you know, there’s no point in just starting small, we just need to do it for everybody. And Richard’s right in saying, no, slow down a bit. You know, in the first 12 months, think about a realistic number of children and young people that you can do this work with, and then evaluate it and make sure that it’s of good quality.

And I think he’s right, and I think that’s the way to do it. And that, you [00:25:00] know, within the next sort of, you know, 24 to 36 months, you’d be in a position where actually you are standard, as standard. Offering a really good quality level of life story work to all children and young people that are, um, in our care.

And, and that’s the point that we want to get to, isn’t it? Because that, that’s how you, you know, make that ingrained within your processes and within your offer as a local authority and make sure that that’s being seen as something that’s really important. So, really, I think my, my advice would be is that, you know, not to feel overwhelmed by it because it’s such a big task and that you can just take it a bit at a time.

Um, but ultimately, you know, you’ve got nothing to lose and, and you owe it to the children and young people that you work with to do it.

DAWN: Joanne, final words of advice to a colleague in another authority.

JOANNE: I was just noting down a couple of words there, Dawn, um, just to build on what Ben’s saying. Going with an open mind.

Don’t focus, don’t focus on the challenges that we’ve [00:26:00] talked about. Challenges come along with everything. But the outcomes for the children really, really outweigh the challenges that you’ll encounter. Take advantage of the support from Blue Cabin and Professor Richard Rawes because you won’t look back if you do.

Meet Blue Cabin for yourselves, meet Richard for yourselves. Meet some of the artists and engage in some of the sessions because we did that and it blew us away. Meet some of the young people that have been involved in the sessions, meet some of their carers, listen to what they’re saying, see some of their feedback, just give it a go.

And ultimately we’re all doing this for the benefit of the children that we’re working with who have had a really poor start to their lives and just, just go with an open mind and give it a go and you won’t look back.

DAWN: And on that fantastic note, Joanne and Ben, I’d like to say thank you for your time this morning.

Thank you for such a [00:27:00] lovely conversation. It’s been, um, really energizing to look back over the time and how far we’ve come together as the three local authorities delivering Creative Life story work and to think about from your unique perspective, what that’s been like to deliver that. Uh, with your local authority, um, roles.

Thank you very much. Whether you’re a foster carer, someone who has experience of the care system, or you work with children and young people, we hope this episode has given you an insight into how we could make life story work better for young people. You can find out more about our show at wearebluecabin.

com forward slash podcast, and we’d love to hear your thoughts. You can record and send a direct question or message to the show via the website, tweet us at at we are blue cabin. Or if you’re one of the 1, [00:28:00] 500 people taking part in our creative life story work learning program, you can always get in touch through the online learning platform.

If you’d like to listen to future episodes, remember to subscribe wherever it is, you usually get your podcasts. And if you’re using Apple podcasts, please do leave us a review as it really helps others to find our show. Bye for now.


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