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Podcast Season 3: Episode 7 – Making time for Life Story Work

In this episode of the podcast we hear from staff at Darlington Borough Council about how they carve out time and space for life story work.

In this episode of the podcast we hear from staff at Darlington Borough Council about how they carve out time and space for life story work. Get a real-life insight into a variety of roles in Darlington’s Children’s Services department, people’s experiences of Creative Life Story Work, and how staff and foster carers are being supported to deliver better life story work.

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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 Darlington Extra podcast. Welcome to Phil, welcome to Charlotte, welcome to Joe. You’re all very welcome here. I wondered if by way of introduction, cause I, I’ve heard on the grapevine that some of you are changing roles quite soon, whether you would like to introduce yourselves and say a bit what your role is in terms of delivery.

of life story work or delivery to children and young people in Darlington. Phil, would you like to go

PHIL: first? Yeah, thanks Dawn. Yep. My name’s Phil Austin. I was an advanced practitioner in the looked after and through care team, and I will soon be moving to be the team manager in the fostering. And supported lodgings team within Darlington.

So, really excited. Congratulations.

DAWN: Thank you. Thank you. Charlotte.

CHARLOTTE: Hi, so I’m Charlotte Swainston. So, I am currently a social worker in the assessment and safeguarding team for Darlington Borough Council. I’ve recently been [00:01:00] appointed as the Therapeutic Social Worker as well, ready to move over very soon.

In terms of life story work, so for myself over the last couple of well the last year really, I’ve been doing an expert in practice role which is focused on looking at creative life story work in Darlington. Trying to see, you know, how that runs, what we’ve got to offer and how we can develop that a little bit more.

main focus recently has been within the assessment and safeguarding team but definitely looking to see how else we could progress as well within the therapeutic side as well.

DAWN: Thank you Charlotte and Joe.

JOSEPH: Hi, so my name is Joseph Robb, I’m service manager for Looked After Resources, so that includes our Educare team, our family group conference team, our residential homes, fostering service and the therapeutic service.

So, I’ve been working with Blue Cabin on various projects, including our music making project for our babies. And also on strengthening and driving forward the life story work. So the [00:02:00] therapeutic team offer the therapeutic life, life story work. And then also looking at how we use.

All the other elements within support and social care colleagues with those.

DAWN: Fantastic. So already I’m getting a sense of a team where you’re building connections amongst team members and possibly the staff delivering that as well. And I’m wondering perhaps Charlotte, you might talk a bit about some of the research that’s underpinning that, that supports maybe the training needs or the leading into the delivery of the practitioners that you’re working with.


CHARLOTTE: So, so far within the expert in practice training that I’ve been undertaking, I’ve done a specific module with Sunderland University looking at research in practice. So we’ve, we’ve actually had a go at creating our own research identifying. Specific areas that we wanted to look into and, and running with that.

So I’ve been able to now apply that within Darlington. So we’ve been able to do some lower level [00:03:00] research with staff members individually to look at what their needs are, what their level of comfortability is with life story work, trying to see the procedural side of that as well. And We’ve been trying to apply that to then look at further training needs and look at how else we can build and develop the, the life story work with, that we’ve got within Darlington.

The area that I’ve focused on more recently has been with the adoption and when children have been given permanence as well. via special guardianships or kinship care, so that’s definitely an area within the assessment and safeguarding team that we’ve been focusing on and that’s something that we would like to develop a little bit more as well so that staff feel confident when they’re doing the life story work books, later in life letters,

DAWN: thank you. That’s a huge amount. Huge amount. And Joseph, in order for all of that to happen, where and how do you support your staff in terms of reflection spaces? Because that’s a huge amount of provocation and input that [00:04:00] Charlotte’s talking about there. And I’m wondering, how do you carve out the space for your staff to yeah.

To have that space. To have that time and space,

JOSEPH: yeah. Alongside this, our therapeutic service have also been offering some DDP awareness sessions. So looking at sort of playfulness, acceptance empathy and also offer therapeutic reflective spaces as well. So we are, we are conscious of ensuring that the therapeutic service.

Holds a small percentage of younger children to do that therapeutic life story work. But using it as something called a thinking space. As a reflective opportunity where colleagues, social work colleagues, early health colleagues will come and say We are presented with this, with this issue or you know, we’re just not sure where to go here.

Sometimes they believe in that it needs to be a therapeutic team that needs to take that work on. But actually supporting them and giving the confidence through that reflective space for them to deliver that work. They’ve got the relationship. And having that as an ongoing process so that they book back into ongoing, which is outside of their normal case supervision reflection.

But it’s [00:05:00] purely a focus on that, on that family or that specific issue. Yeah.

DAWN: Goodness. I’m trying to imagine what the jigsaw of possibilities are in trying to ensure that that happens. ’cause that’s not an easy task, is it? To get that in place, but vital. Yeah, vital. Yeah. For thinking and learning.

JOSEPH: Yeah. And part of that so we’ve, we are expanding that air service.

So we have additional workers who’ve come in there. So two of our therapeutic workers are currently doing the certificate. So they support with Richard? With Richard, yes. So they are supporting to, to give us extra capacity. For those conversations to take place.

DAWN: Very good. And Phil, might be a hard question for you, but I’m just thinking about you as somebody new coming into the, somebody, somebody working in Darlington for a while already, but new coming into the service.

What are some of the skills that you think you need in your toolbox in order to step into the role that you’re about to go into? It’s not an interview question. It

PHIL: feels like it, yeah. [00:06:00] And I don’t think I’d have got the job if I’d been asked that one. But but yeah, no, I think it’s a really good question.

I think, I think as social workers, sometimes, you know, life story work gets bandied about a lot. So we discuss it a lot and I think actually, you know, some of the training and some of the work that we’ve done. With obviously Blue Circle and with Richard. It’s helped a lot of us as social workers to understand that a bit more, to actually give us practical tools to go out and a, and a framework I think, you know, to undertake that work.

So I think again, you know, Social workers did find it quite daunting, you know, and, and worried sometimes about, about doing the wrong thing. And although it’s something I think there’s a real passion to go out there and do the work. You know, I think, I think we are feeling more equipped and more supported by some of the, the training, but also the therapeutic support that’s in place.

And I think one of the things moving into my new role as the fostering team manager is about the, the foster carers starting to deliver. Some of the all about me work with the young [00:07:00] people and I think this is so important I think they’re best placed actually to start doing some some really good work with young people and again We know from the research and you know the earlier we start that That that work and start to engage young people in life story work We know the outcomes for young people are are much better.

You know, they can They can learn from that and it supports where they’re living and it supports their placement. So, so again, I think a big part of my role will be around supporting the foster carers in their training and embedding life story work and embedding the all about me booklet and work with the young people within, within Darlington and within Darlington placements.

JOSEPH: Can I come in on that as well, Phil? Because I think sometimes we can get caught up with language we use. So we talk about life story work and people think it’s, we’re doing something different. And it’s about how do we normalize that, that language that actually, the stuff you’re doing now, it’s your life story work.

The art of it is how do we analyze that, how do we [00:08:00] pull that together to make it meaningful? Whatever journey that, that person, that child’s on, whether they’re at home, they’re coming into care or, you know, we’re looking at permanence. And I think some of the barriers, some of our challenges has been to normalise their behaviour so social workers have the confidence that what they would do, their direct work is life story

PHIL: work.

Yeah, I agree. And I think from, and again, from, from being here today and listening to Richard again, you know, some of the things, the advantages I think for the foster carers, you know. Where these children are living is, is understanding that child better, understanding perhaps some of the reasons and some of their experiences that have led to the behavior.

And again, it was so powerful today to hear how, how foster carers potentially and social workers interpret some of those behaviors. and are scared and are frightened of that, you know, and actually by understanding that and engaging young people with our support in these conversations, I think will help us to support the children and support their placement.

I think it’s, it’s, it’s potentially really life changing kind of stuff [00:09:00] without being too overdramatic. It’s

DAWN: just so lovely to hear you talking about it in such a holistic manner. For all of the parts of your service coming together. Joseph, you mentioned before the project with babies. This is the place that you’re working on.

I wondered, because that seems to almost be the very start of life story work with those babies and those foster carers and potentially adoptive parents coming in as well. I wondered if you wanted to say something about that.

JOSEPH: Absolutely, yeah. I think I think what it’s allowed us to do is empower some of the carers.

So, it’s had a lot of, On intentional consequences. It’s it’s created a support network for the foster carers with that with that common understanding and and actually bringing bringing together those baby carers who might have had some concerns and then create that network. But what we have found is that some of those rhythmic foster Noises.

Has supported after contact. So a family time. So after someone maybe maybe when a child or a baby [00:10:00] has become quite on regulated, the carers have played the music and sung the songs and that support is in terms of that emotional stability for that child. But what’s been really powerful is that we actually had a child who’s moving on to adoption.

And what was beautiful is that with permission of the group, the adopter and the baby’s future sister and brother come into that group and actually were engaged in that and then they took a song bag away with them And we understand that that is still being used now we also had something called baby in the park over the summer.

We actually use some of those sounds in some of the opera and actually we are finding that for one child, it’s actually supporting their development and speech and tone. So it’s actually having a bigger consequence or a bigger impact. impact than we had believed, but but what we’re also seeing is that those babies are now actually feeling more content and it’s, it’s part of their it’s what they come to expect now and, and they’re a lot more relaxed.

Other, other carers can come and interact with the [00:11:00] child in a different way. We had babies who were sort of fearful of new, new faces and it’s, it’s supported them in terms of their own emotional stability as well. So it’s been absolutely

DAWN: wonderful. It’s just such a pleasure. And it. Talking to Lucy, who who manages that project, we were, we were laughing at the thought that of the unexpected successes of the workshop, it’s never been usually when all the participants fall asleep.

That’s the sign of a great workshop. It doesn’t ever come out in any of the others before, with all of them having their bottles and then falling asleep, which we just were laughing, thinking we never see that written anywhere before. No, exactly.

JOSEPH: And, and some of the next stages around how do we use our family time workers to look at some of those and support the parents as well.

So, so birth parents who, who were coming to family time using that as a means of them engaging, which actually is evidence for them in terms of any assessment work going on. But also, you know, sometimes. I don’t want to say that, but some of our fathers feel a bit apprehensive or a bit nervous. How do [00:12:00] we empower them to create that connection with a baby as well?

Because that’s, that’s then familiar for that baby.

DAWN: Brilliant. So Joseph, you’re seamlessly moving into my next question there, which is in terms of next steps for creative life story work, life story work in Darlington for all of your roles, really. Charlotte, what about you in terms of your research and practice?

What might the next steps be? So what

CHARLOTTE: we’ll be looking at doing is trying to, to create and deliver some training for staff members and specifically around certain areas. So looking at the research that we’ve done where it’s been identified as those areas that people lack that confidence in and they’ve identified that that’s an area that they would like further support with.

So we need to create some evidence based research around how that’s going to be and how we can upskill the workers that we’ve got. And then that will hopefully be rolled out on a regular basis as well, looking at developing tools as well so that we’ve got the workbooks and also making sure that staff members [00:13:00] are aware around how to do direct work with children effectively and build those relationships up.

And I think just, Continuing to have that relational discussion with everybody involved as well, so that we’re always aware of what we need to improve on and what we may need to adapt along the way as well. Yeah,

DAWN: fantastic. Phil, what yours might just be, what your hopes are, I suppose, given that you’re not really even in post yet.

Well, no, my hope or my plan. Your

PHIL: plan. My plan is that we will roll out All About Me to the foster carers. That we will have a policy and a procedure, that we will be training and supporting the foster carers. And I think, I think again, it’s a big cultural change because I think there’s always the thought that this is work done by social workers or by, by another.

So I think, you know, there is going to need to be a lot of support but we, we will provide that support. And I think we’re going to learn a lot along the way, you know. But I think it’s a really positive, positive step in the right direction. I [00:14:00] think it’s going to be really good. for the young people in our, in our foster placements.

I think it’s really positive.

DAWN: And final words to Joseph.

JOSEPH: So I think we’ve got various strands. So we are looking at the this is the place, the music making for babies. We’re looking to see how we can use that within our early help service, our Building Stronger Families. How we use some of those tools to upskill some of the workers.

Equally, we are looking, as I mentioned there, around our family time using the pace model apparent as alongside the music to to make that more meaningful for the parents and the children. Charlotte’s been, is currently quite instrumental in supporting us in the shaping the policy and procedures around social, so social workers, early help workers can actually pick up this and understand, well, what does it mean?

How do I do that? creating a resource for depending on the age of the child. So that social workers have this, this resource that they can go to. And then how do you analyze that? So, so what does that mean next? And then also us being more self sufficient with this you know, I think we’ve, we’ve, we’ve had support from [00:15:00] Richard Rose for the last, now this is our second, third years.

So how do we own this as Darla now? How, how do we make it our own? Yeah.

DAWN: It’s been an absolute pleasure and a joy. What a team! What a team! And I’m really looking forward to, maybe it’s in another year, maybe it’s at your next conference, coming back and finding out what has been the Darlington way. What have you forged together as a team, but marvellous.

Absolutely a pleasure and a joy to speak to you. Good luck in your new roles and safe journeys home. Thank you very much. very much. Thank you.

* break *

DAWN: [00:00:00] So, sitting in our on tour podcast studio at Darlington Extra I’m delighted to be able to grab a few minutes with Alicia Lynas and Chris Bell. Welcome, welcome this afternoon in your marvellous conference. Thank you. Have you been enjoying workshops this morning?

CHRIS: Yes, workshops this morning, so it’s been great to have all of the, the team together but obviously create some space for reflection and learning as well.

DAWN: Fantastic, fantastic. I wondered if we could start First of all, by you just saying a couple of words about what your role is in Darlington so that we can, and yeah, your job role in Darlington, Chris, would you like to

CHRIS: start? Yeah, of course. So, I’m Chris Bell, I’m the Assistant Director for Children’s Services at Darlington Borough Council and that entails all of our social care services from, for children.

from our early help services right the way through to to our assessment teams and our children in care and care leavers as well. And also incorporates our fostering service and our children’s homes as [00:01:00] well.

DAWN: Gosh, that’s a big portfolio.

CHRIS: It is, but what I always say, the great thing about, or the privilege I think in the role is because of Darlington’s size.

It gives me the opportunity to, to see right the way across all of our services. So I think we, we often challenge ourselves really to think about the journey of, the child through services and for me being able to see all of our services very much from the very start to the very finish just gives quite a unique perspective and has us really well pleased in terms of, you know, trying to build and design our services around the needs of children and young people across Darlington.

DAWN: We were just talking to Richard Rose and he was talking about being able to make connections across the local authority and that speaks to what you just said there. Absolutely.

CHRIS: It’s a big. It’s a big reason really why we’re here today in terms of the Darlington Extra Conference. It is around trying to build the connections I think both within the children’s services, but one of our uniquenesses really within Darlington is we have a people’s directorate that incorporates children’s and adult services, so we really get [00:02:00] That sense of, you know, we know that relationships are vital to the work that we do, but making those connections professionally to build those relationships is just absolutely at the heart of what, what we’re looking to do.

At the heart.

DAWN: Alicia, would you like to say a bit about your role? Because I think you’re quite, well, fairly recent into role, is that true?

ALISHA: Yes. So I’ve been in post for just over a year, but I started my social work career at Darlington as a newly qualified social worker. So I’ve done a full circle back to Darlington, which is where I knew I wanted to be.

So I’m the head of service for looked after children and resources. So that includes our children in care, our care leavers, our residential children’s homes, our fostering and supported legends team, and our educator service and our family group conference and service.

DAWN: Wow. So you’ve got a hugely unique perspective to be offering in that circle of, your professional career coming

ALISHA: back in. Absolutely, from the baby social worker, taking my first steps through to a really [00:03:00] fortunate role that I have now.

DAWN: Fantastic. Fantastic. And I wondered, well, I’ll ask you both the same question. I’m wondering we’ve got a focus on life story work and creative life story work.

And I’m wondering how that’s supports the strategy that you have in place in Darlington for care experienced young

CHRIS: people. I think the first thing that I would say is what we try to do is have a strategy that encompasses all children and we really try and as we said earlier build those connections. I think in my earliest I was I’m a qualified social worker my work has always been with children but I think one thing I was really quite struck by early on in my career is life story work really felt like something that we we did.

I’d say two children who were at a certain stage of their journey and really primarily were talking about the adoption end of things and it felt like a piece of work that was done at a specific moment in time and, and I was, I’ve always been really keen to challenge that conception and [00:04:00] see life story work in its broader sense and actually my, you know, my vision for our services is we complete life story work all day, every day.

That is what we’re doing. All of the children that we support and work with, they have a context, they have a history, they have a. story and it’s incumbent on us if we’re gonna support and assist them to work with them to understand their story in order for us to help shape the future. So that, that notion of actually life story work is for everyone is something that, that I find really powerful.

DAWN: Alicia, would you like to say something about, about why capturing those stories of children and young people in Darlington is so important? I

ALISHA: think I’m able to say. So, as a social worker, I often remember a young person who, until he understood his life story, had very much blamed himself for him and his brothers coming into care.

And when he received and we did life story work, it helped him understand that actually, we’d been involved since his adult brother was a small child. And it kind of relieved him, really, [00:05:00] of the pressure of feeling that he’d been responsible for everything. foster care myself. So I’m very lucky to be able to see what it’s like for a child to come into care and care for a child and how important it is for those children to understand their life story.

Children often would come to me with a lot of questions and not really any answers around why it is that we’re in care. So I think being able to be part of it on that level as well. gives me kind of quite a unique perspective that I think I’m really lucky to have.

DAWN: Fantastic, goodness, multi perspectives that you can offer, all coming into that role that you’ve got.

I’m wondering how in terms of the Because it’s workforce development who’ve organised this conference here today. How your strategy translates into some of the training that you’re offering, your social workers, family workers, the multitude of other roles that we’ve got here today. And how’s that, how is that supporting?[00:06:00]

Your vision of work in Darlington,

CHRIS: as you said, I think our workforce strategy is very much built on co production. So the idea being that, you know, I’m not no one person, even me is responsible for our workforce strategy. It’s about understanding from the workforce what their needs are, as well as what our strategic vision is and combining that together.

So the work that we do alongside our workforce development is very much tailored and informed by the workforce strategy. So we, one of our huge benefits in Darlington is our size. We’re very small. But that means that we have really strong relationships with the frontline workforce. So we have a really, I would like to think, a really good understanding of, of what their strengths are.

We listen really carefully to any gaps in terms of training and development and then we feed that directly in with our colleagues in workforce development to meet those needs.

DAWN: And how does that translate into the teams that you’re working with

ALISHA: Alicia? I think it’s very much around the passion that our [00:07:00] workforce have around getting life skills.

We’ve managed to get some people to be experts in practice. Somebody within both the safeguarding service and our cared for children service. And I think that just allows social workers to dip into support whenever they need it. As well as kind of that real commitment that we want all of our children to understand their life story and have that support.

So I think because we’re small we can communicate those messages and be able to see that come into practice. We’re really well supported by our therapeutic team. going to offer drop in sessions so that when people are struggling with how do I approach this issue with this child and help them understand, they’ve got that guidance.

But also for those children who need that therapeutic life story work, we’ve got people specially trained to provide that. Q.

DAWN: And also I wondered if you wanted to say anything about Richard’s, some of your social workers doing the diploma that Richard’s offering as well because we’ve been hearing, we’ve been [00:08:00] talking to some of them before about.

The importance of that opportunity for their, so theory into practice, really.

ALISHA: I think it’s also about giving people an opportunity to really hone in on that expertise. And it’s, it’s, it’s multifaceted in that it benefits all of our children by having some people who are particular, have a particular expertise in it.

But also, it’s for those individual workers who’ve got a real passion that we’re supporting their overall development. And I think, again, that’s something Diane’s done very well is that. We’re really well support our workforce to develop into whatever role they want to be. And it’s, you know, the support doesn’t just stop when people pass their ASYE, it’s all the way through the career.


CHRIS: and I think there’s something within that around what I was speaking about earlier, listening to the workforce and what we, what we understood through listening to the workforce is that not everyone sees leadership and management as where they want to go, but Certainly in the, in the more traditional sense, your options are you either remain as a practitioner in a [00:09:00] certain role, or you’re progressing to leadership and management.

So we’ve worked really hard with workforce development to understand what do those different pathways look like. Alicia mentioned the, you know, the experts in practice. It’s very much around identifying individual strengths in our workforce and supporting them to develop those, which in the very traditional linear sense would be.

You know, if you excel at something, then we’ll move you into a management role so you can, you know, in part, but actually all that then does is takes you away from that skill base and puts you into a different context of very much how can we amplify the knowledge and skills that some of our fabulous practitioners have and spread that into the wider workforce.

And, you know, they’ve seen some really positive impacts of that work.

DAWN: Just interesting because the image that comes into my head then is rather than it being hierarchical, going up that way, you’re almost encouraging people that can be horizontal where that you can go along and build the

CHRIS: ballad.

How their learning experience can expand outwards rather than having to expand upwards, which I often feel by [00:10:00] expanding it upwards, we’re then taking people away from what they have their real skills in doing. And passions,

DAWN: as you were saying, as you were just saying before. And I asked Richard this.

question so I’ll ask you as well. If you were to give some advice to another local authority that was thinking about strategies and policies to embed life story work within workforce development given that you’re a nimble local authority, what would your advice be?

CHRIS: I think for me I would say it’s really important for an organization to know themselves before they embark on this work so to understand what their existing culture, what their strengths, what their, you know, areas of development already are and have those well understood.

I think that allows, that, us having had that allows, has allowed us to embrace the work with, with Richard in a much more meaningful way than if we were perhaps at a less mature stage and, and, you know, didn’t really understand what the [00:11:00] organizational culture is. Yeah,

DAWN: thank you.

ALISHA: I think it’s about working with the workforce to understand what they need and communicate it directly back to children.

I think when you’re looking at any sort of change or improvement in practice, it’s always about what does it mean for children and that’s what social workers and family workers are most passionate about.

DAWN: Thank you very much for our conversation this afternoon. Thank you for offering up some of your lunch time.

Enjoy your workshops this afternoon and congratulations on a marvellous conference. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you


Produced and mixed by Will Sadler of Anya Media. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts by clicking one of the following links:

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