A true story: the power to transform lives

Alison Todd

A recent event at the Scottish Parliament was an opportunity for Children 1st to demonstrate how practice and policy based on strong relationships can transform children’s lives. Alison Todd reflects on this theme and what this means for Children 1st’s priorities for the year ahead.

As we begin 2017, it seems to me that rooting our practice and policy in strong human relationships has never been more important. In a world that feels increasingly fractured and divided and where many people no longer trust or want to hear from experts, we need to give priority to listening, seeking to understand each other’s stories.

We believe that everyone has a story. We believe that listening when applied with care and authenticity, is a simple yet highly effective tool that has the ability to help people make sense of and transform their lives.

We know this because the children and families we support tell us.

Most of the distress that we see in our work with families throughout Scotland today is based around two main themes:

  • the impact of material and relational poverty, and
  • unresolved trauma.

Under these pressures, relationships can become fraught and broken in the midst of internal and external factors which seem overwhelming.

Families tell us that the simple act of having their story heard – within a relationship that feels warm, authentic and real - can be enough for them to accept the need to transform their lives.

Where our staff have built a strong and trusting relationship with a family, it becomes possible to support them to positively change their lives and their relationships, even in the most complex and risky situations.

Understand first

While we see and hear from the families we work with that supportive relationships can be transformational, families also tell us that where processes, systems and services focus on their problems, and the risks they pose to themselves or their children, they can be made to feel helpless, dependent, shamed and blamed.

That’s why one of the skills we value most in our staff and that proves to be most effective in our relational approach to supporting families is the capacity to seek to understand first.

In essence, our practice reflects the Christie Commission principle of working with individuals to understand their needs, support their self-reliance and build resilience. To work with and alongside families cultivates trust and helps them change their own lives, rather than ‘fixing’ things for them.

With this in mind, Children 1st’s priorities centre on our long held belief in strengths-based, relational and restorative approaches.

We know that we are all different and that human relationships are the building blocks of healthy development for all of us. This is never truer than when we are in crisis or distress.

In the last 15 years we gained increasing scientific knowledge to support the wisdom we have gathered in more than 130 years as Scotland’s National Children’s Charity. At the common heart of theories of attachment and neuroscience is an understanding that real change can only be delivered within relationships where trust leads to honest, challenging conversations. This helps parents and children identify the issues that affect them, creates a vision of where they want to get to and ensures their stories and their voice are at the heart of every plan to support them.

Problems tend to be relational. So it should be no surprise that solutions lie within relationships that harness the inherent strengths in the children and families we seek to support.

That’s why we have been working for the past 20 years to deliver Family Group Conferencing in Scotland.

Powerful evidence from our own practice and from Edinburgh, Leeds and in other parts of the world shows that Family Group Conferencing can deliver for children. When the wider family is helped to develop its own support plans, the outcomes for children are much better. It’s why we continue to lead best practice in Scotland and why we continue to develop family group conferencing services in local authorities.

And it’s why we believe that following its review of the care system, Scotland should make a commitment that no child should be taken into care without first having a Family Group Conference.

It’s also why we believe that the development of a Scottish model of the Barnahus for child victims and witnesses must be a joint priority for the Scottish Government’s Justice and Child Protection teams.

By ensuring justice goes hand in hand with the care and support a child needs, we can enable child victims and witnesses to recover and to move on with their lives. By providing support to the wider family, as well as the child, the Barnehus model ensures that relationships – which are so essential to a child’s healing – strengthen rather than weaken, following the experience of a crime.

And it’s why we believe that emotional wellbeing should be considered just as crucial a part of Scotland’s drive for excellence and equity in education as academic performance.

People can transform their lives, heal divisions and enable their children to thrive happily and safely, through the power of relationships. By placing relationships at the heart of Scottish practice and policy, let’s give them the power to do so.