Ben’s Story

Jan 28, 2021 | Follow My Journey

Nether Johnstone House, a practitioner’s journey… By Ben O’Farrell

I remember the first time I came to Nether Johnstone House, or NJH as I came to frequently write in various forms. I remember the difficulty I had in finding the place! Tucked away on the edge of a small town lies NJH; a long road easily missed from the main road winds its way towards the house. The first thing I noticed as I drove along this deserted, almost country road, was the amount of lush vegetation that lines the route. Large trees to your left as you drive up, and flatter grasslands to the right with a small rise of the land. And then you are there, a large carpark and a big, grey stone house with long garden stretching away out of view. I remember being nervous before my interview, it had been a long time since I had one and no matter how prepared I was, I still felt that little bit of nerves about going into the unknown.

After the interview I felt much better. The young people were part of the process which was nice, and I remember fondly making Helen laugh when she asked me the standard question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I thought for a second then answered, “Hopefully still alive!” That kind of broke the ice, and it’s always a good sign I feel if the kids are out and about curious about the people that may be working with them in the near future. Although I’d done some residential work before as a relief worker, this was to be my first full time residential child care post and I knew instinctively it was going to be tough. I was delighted to be offered the job, but in my heart of hearts I knew I would enjoy year two much more than year one!

And so it proved…

The house was full when I started, seven young people all jostling for attention and full of beans. I’ll be honest, the first six months was tough as I got used to the demands of the role, but quickly I could see that there were certain staff that the kids tended to look to when they were upset or going into crisis. I wondered what that would be like, would they ever need me that much? I drove countless miles and helped kids get to school, appointments, and fun activities after school. I think after a year I started to feel more comfortable, and I was happy to play a supporting role as I slowly built relationships with the kids. Then some of them left, and some staff left. Then we had a much bigger set of changes to deal with, the service manager announced they were going to leave. I think that was probably the end of one era at NJH, and although I didn’t understand it at the time, the start of a new one. I wasn’t sure how I felt, but as time moved on I realised that change is simply a constant factor in residential work, whether it’s the kids moving on to hopefully a life where they can achieve their potential, or new kids coming in to start a different kind of journey at the house. And sometimes staff leave, new faces arrive and everyone adapts to a new dynamic, a new group of people that are all interacting and influencing each other’s practice.

After a year and a half, things really began to change. I met my first key kid!

This was the first time I developed a meaningful relationship with a young person in a residential child care setting. I had been used to building relationships before in a community context, but this was different. Here I was seeing my key kid and the others almost every day, and now in some ways having a young person in my charge that was actively looking out for me, was a new experience that challenged me in so many different ways. I don’t know how many times my heart rose and fell as they put me through my paces; I learned so much from working with Mick. I spent countless hours listening to him, getting to know his stories and doing my best to deal with his ever changing, and increasingly complex demands! I learned how to say no when it matters, when to be quiet, when to be authoritative, when to just be. I learned about pain and how to develop a trauma informed approach. The more time I spent with Mick, the more I realised just how complicated and difficult some of his early life experiences had been. By the time a young person moves to a children’s care home, unfortunately they have already had many placements that have not worked out. Their trust in adults is shaken to the point of no return and it takes a considered philosophy throughout the house if they are to feel safe enough to start making some sense of their past, and to rebuild some of that trust that should exist between children and adults.

I would think about these things as I drove to and from my work, I would notice the changing of the seasons and how beautiful the land looked leading up to the house. One of the more amazing things you need to get used to working at NJH is the deer! You need to slow down a little as you drive down the road, because sometimes they can spring unexpectedly out in front of your car! I would watch them fascinated as they paused for a moment to stare at me, before bounding through the fields in the early morning with the mist still clinging to the rise of land.

If deer feel safe here, then hopefully so do the kids, I used to think…

The culture of NJH continued to change, and I now began to hear more talk about social pedagogy. This appealed to me on a number of levels, because I was beginning to see the work I was involved in not as a job, but as a way of life, a way of being. The years I have spent working here have changed me and continue to change me. As Gerry Fewster said in his wonderful book, “Being in Child Care: A Journey Into Self”, vulnerability is the most ‘potent state of learning’. Working with young people who have been through traumatic experiences forces us to confront our own experiences of being loved, nurtured, hurt by others. As I developed as a practitioner, I realised that the young people were triggering feelings within me, and I began to think more about what this could mean. If I was starting to feel anxious or uneasy in their company, maybe that was simply a transference of how they were feeling towards me?

Through time the wonder and complexity of the residential child care home became more apparent; we are working in the lifespace of the children and that means we are characters in the stories of their lives. What kind of character am I to them? Going to work, the shift change is what Adrian Ward calls a ‘disjuncture’ in their lives, we are interrupting them and their routines, and I think that is something to be mindful of as we approach the care homes where we work.

I have learned so much at NJH, and I will never stop learning. This year’s dreadful pandemic has shown me that in sharp relief; the pandemic has also highlighted the importance of a relational practice, without strong working relationships with the kids you have little chance of promoting and influencing positive change. The strength of my relationships with the kids was always most striking during situations of crisis or potential crisis, and there were many times that something worse was averted because of the strength of relationship I had and the feelings of safety they felt with me in those moments.

I will always be grateful that I was given a chance to work with some of the most amazing young people I have met in my time working in social care, they will forever be etched into my memories, my heart. My last journey leaving the house will be but one moment of sadness, because there will be happiness and joy too as I will return, to keep alive the connections and relationships without which we achieve nothing.