I wrote following after the untimely death of a young person I cared for recently. I wrote this while still in a state of disbelief, as such it is rather polemic and perhaps a little pessimistic. Some themes developed that I have been reflecting on for some time, that I think represent significant challenges for the sector and the work we do.
I thought it may be of interest for the journal or in terms of reflecting on how we address the challenges identified. I have some ideas in this regard.
I have changed the name of the young person and omitted identifiable details to preserve anonymity.
I first met Emily just after her she had celebrated her tenth birthday. She was precocious, and pretty, dancing and singing her way through most days. There appeared to be little to set her apart from other ten year old girls, a bit more tuned in, perhaps, cute and cunning and she lived in a children’s home. There was more going on for Emily than first impressions suggested, abandonment and neglect had blighted her earliest experiences she was never sure if she was due a kick or a cuddle and interactions were fraught and guarded, she could be saccharin, at times, such was her eagerness to please; her presenting self carefully constructed to protect her from anyone reaching in and agitating the volatile and explosive shame at the core of her being. Emily died alone a few weeks ago; she was 21 years old, a tragic end, equalled only by her tragic early life.
I have sought comfort from the conviction that Emily had a decent experience of being cared for at the children’s home. Her relationships with some of us there developed so as she became part of our extended family, an important part of our lives and an emblem of professional pride. After Emily, or one of the team moved on, our common interest was concern for her and our shared experiences were reviewed in stories; episodes of profound comedy, tragedy and drama. She was loved, I never told her and she wouldn’t have thanked me if I had. If ever I watch The Big Bang Theory, on TV, I’m brought in mind of Emily, such was her likeness for Penny, not only did she grow up to be an alluring and attractive young woman, like the character in the show, her asinine tendencies masked an acerbic wit, humour and mannerisms that said, ‘I may need some help to understand your world but I’m not an idiot’. Emily could read people like no one else; she could play the fake and those on the make, off the park. She could be real too and she was, within the sanctuary of the home and the relationships that developed there. To share time with her was a joy, spending hours helping her choose a dress for the school Christmas dance was one of the many unguarded, amusing and moving of my experiences. I was the awkward doting parent and dared to connect with elusive optimism, flirted with the belief she could be exceptional, such was her intelligence, her grace and humility – Emily had the right to the future I hoped she’d have and not what fate decreed.
Emily wasn’t able to carry the safety and security she felt in the home outside, the external world was a black mirror, every time she dared to engage with it her sense that she was something of the other, less than, unworthy and inadequate was aggravated. Any kind of meaningful interaction was to enter a relational labyrinth and risk a plunge into an existential abyss. It grew darker as moving on became an imminent reality.
Her last few months at the service must have been like dining, first class, in the gondola of a zeppelin in free fall, knowing it was going crash and burn, not knowing when. Emily‘s demise was less dramatic, she survived long enough to put some distance between herself and those of us who cared for her, diminishing the extent to which we will feel any responsibility for her death and affording us the opportunity to rationalise this. Ultimately the outcome was the same.
Survival is a dastardly business; you are compelled to appear vulnerable enough to elicit kindness but can’t be seen to be so vulnerable as to appear a liability, compelled also to perform absurd contortions of identity; eternally tormented. Better to embrace a functional numbness that allows you to make the kind of horrific compromises you must make, to become what you need to be. I hesitate to speculate the extent of Emily’s entrapment in this Faustian bind, the torment in the end must have been unbearable and her tentative grip on life, perhaps, too painful to hold on to. I learned everything I know about the effects of trauma from Emily.
I am now aching for the wasted potential, angry that her identity and heritage were taken from her at the beginning of her life and, feeling inadequate, that the system, of which I am a part, was ineffective in addressing this injustice. A system defined by inquiry reports, the details of which are ignored and stoke up the pyres of outrage to feed the public’s appetite for simple answers to complex issues. The pre-occupation with protection, concern for corporate liability, suspicion and mistrust cause process paralysis and a hesitant culture of care. Opportunities for development and meaningful experiences are squandered to prevent another scandal, all the while assuring a greater catastrophe. Young people may exit services perfectly preserved but no less vulnerable. This is the system to which we all belong and contribute to; the bogeymen, their victims, the hapless and the hopeless are part and product of this; not conveniently apart from it. Ask not for whom the bell tolls.
I remember the banality of planning meetings, bartering over the extent of the resources that would be afforded to Emily, reduced to the lowest possible price, when the urgency of a high level of support was pressed with a prophecy of a premature death, those of us that cared for her were shamed with accusations of melodrama, over-attachment and lacking the appropriate objective professional perspective. It’s on issues such as these that careers perish, the terror of impending irrelevance, the existential abyss, I’m committed, but no martyr, I capitulated, I had to. The question I’m now begging is, how we can possibly claim to advocate for the oppressed, disadvantaged and vulnerable if we are similarly predisposed within our own profession and where the accountabilities to which society holds us are bureaucratic, reductive and ultimately unethical?
One of the many effects of the fragmentation of social care services that characterise the people they support and commissioning agents, as customers, is that the cost of providing these services has become all too visible, the proverbial bottom line. But this isn’t the bottom line; a genuine evaluation would consider the social, economic and cultural cost of not having these services. Cruel and tragic. Solidarity is not the preserve of the militant idealist but an emergent necessity.
The support offered to Emily was withdrawn because she was said to have disengaged from the service deployed to provide this, a convenient attrition that absolved us from our responsibilities and locked her out. Engagement was our brief not Emily’s. I’ve been counselled that we did all that we could, as a young adult, she made choices and it was these that led to her demise; this isn’t even close to the truth. The illusion of freewill is the folly of the masses, fuelling an epidemic of neuroses, the impossibility of perfection and the shame of imperfection, success indiscernible, and failure, a smoking gun.
Agency defines the capacity to make informed choices, not age, this requires social, economic and emotional resources that Emily did not have; we did.
I am struck again by the terror of impending irrelevance, those of us who work in social care have unwittingly subscribed to a professional identity that upholds the prevailing Darwinian dystopia. To collude with the dysfunction that deprives young people of their right to existence, development, acceptance and meaning, when we are in a position to change this is inhumane. We nurture aspirations towards objectivity, rationalism and the ability to understand data and manage budgets and value these over human qualities, such as, compassion, empathy, understanding and the ability to relate.
Process is important in the human services, but surely, people more so. We need to move away from paradigmatic thinking to an approach that encompasses the entire living system, every facet of society, every constituent and every story, within which every decision, action and interaction is understood to have a life cycle and is related to all of these components. To reclaim hope, we must mobilise our latent agency as philosophers, prophets, poets and politicians challenging the authority of bureaucracy, the lazy assumptions and tyranny of common sense and the silos of power that compound and accelerate the erosion of a civil society, to create a new pedagogy that consolidates an identity of social care as a creator of worth, not a consumer of wealth.
The coroner found that Emily died of natural causes; the truth is much less convenient;
Ego sum crimen, vos es crimen, nos es totus crimen.