As Promise Work Lead at the Winch, each month I set up a Promise Worker working group to address key topics that come up in practice. This learning is also ‘manualized’ in a Promise Work manual. One recent topic was that of endings.
Promise Work is the Winch’s targeted, bespoke, long-term support for 4-25 year olds. Promise Workers build trusting relationships with children and young people as well as (especially for the younger ones) their families. Promise Workers aim to be a secure and dependable adult in a child, young person or family’s sometimes chaotic life. This support often lasts a number of years. Through this relationship, young person and Promise Worker work together to achieve goals and develop character strengths. The Promise Worker helps the young person to feel listened to and understood and role models positive behaviours, with the aim of supporting the young person to succeed in the broadest sense.
This is a voluntary relationship, no one is forced to see their Promise Worker. There are often ebbs and flows. But arguably, the bond between them is more special because it is freely given and must be constantly worked at. Through this journey the worker maintains professional boundaries and also often feels genuine care, dare I say love, for a fellow human being. Therefore, the notion of endings can be particularly difficult.
Is this the end?
When you want to be a secure and dependable adult for a young person, ending the work together is not taken lightly. Many of us hear children and young people complain about yet another social worker who has come and gone, a new school, a new housing officer, a different care home every month, moving house or having no home and leaving established networks behind. This can feel like no control, a lot of rejection, starting from scratch and being let down. That is why the Promise Model works long-term and tries not to emulate the disruptions experienced by children and young people elsewhere. We follow the young person rather than the institution, recognising that life changes may actually be the times when we are needed even more. Therefore, within reason, yes, within reason, we do not let things like prison sentences, changes in address or a new school mean our work has ended. This freedom to continue our work comes with challenges and decisions.
When and how
Endings in Promise Work take multiple forms. Some Promise Workers have encountered young people moving abroad, or those who have long prison sentences that mean they will be well over 25 when released. Some young people are just plain difficult to get hold of, changing phones every week sometimes meaning months without contact and unanswered letters, texts and emails. Maybe they don’t want to see you now but they demand it next month. Sometimes they may not be in the ‘perfect’ place but they are already over 25. Others may have been doing ‘well’ for a long time, but because they are under 25 does this mean we should just keep working? Some children move on from the After School Club they attended for years meaning the worker no longer sees them every week. There is also the reality of limited resources and just a handful of Promise Workers to bear in mind. What do we do in these situations? When is the ‘right’ time to end?
Personally, in my practice, there were endings when I went on maternity leave. Yes, even Promise Workers are allowed to have babies. We do not pretend we will be around ‘forever’. Some of the young people I worked with transitioned to new workers, so one ending was also a new Promise Work beginning. Hopefully these new relationships were consistent in approach but also fresh with new possibilities and dynamics. Other young people decided it was time to move on from Promise Work support, still part of the Winch family they perhaps did not require or want a new worker.
But while endings are an inevitable part of life, how they are approached and thought about is important. I hope, in my case, it was an opportunity to increase young peoples’ resilience and to celebrate the achievements and journey we shared. Young people were given time to prepare and to acknowledge that while I may not be physically present, I still value and appreciate them hugely. I also hope they felt proud of how hard they had worked. Of course, it is easier for some young people, indeed for many people, to slip away without acknowledging an end. Not bothered, right! But I hope I at least attempted to mark the end in some way rather than hide.
What I learned
I won’t be able to go into the full details of the working group in this blog post. But some of the key insights that struck me were that we do not personally ‘own’ any child, young person or family nor should we seek to hold on to them at all costs. The key to us doing a good job is that they can flourish without us, not be dependent on us. How we bridge a young person out and support them to have multiple positive relationships and agency is key. But we acknowledge this is difficult work and has sometimes been patchy. This bridging should not just begin at times of impending endings but is key to how we plan our work long-term.
Promise Workers draw on the AMBIT approach to help us reflect and stay balanced and for the team to support the worker in making decisions. Seeking support allows the worker to discuss their own feelings with someone who is not in the middle of it all. It also promotes transparency in our work and role-models help-seeking to those we work with.
Rather than strict rules for all endings, we acknowledged that each young person and family is unique and some room for the individual’s needs were given space within general guidelines. Endings can also be openly discussed and negotiated with a young person. We also recognised that Promise Work is only one programme in an array of support the Winch offers. The young person will still be a part of the Winch (sometimes actively, sometimes symbolically), even when Promise Work with an individual worker ends.