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Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Engage: A sense of self-worth is more powerful than handcuffing children & young people

Written by Emily Aklan

Children and young people in the care system can spend many hours with an escort service, being taken to school, healthcare appointments, contact sessions with family members or being relocated to a new area.

That experience can have a huge impact on their sense of self-worth and wellbeing, and being faced with barred windows or staff with handcuffs does little for either says Emily Aklan (pictured), founder of Serenity Welfare.

Escort services have the potential to make a considerable impact on the children and young people they transport. Secure escorts can involve regular journeys within a small radius or several hours over hundreds of miles to relocate a young person in a new area.

Traditionally, secure transport has involved vehicles with barred windows, or grilles to secure the back seats. Staff may have carried handcuffs and these restraining features are arguably as much about the protection of the staff as for the wellbeing of the young people. But this is now an outdated approach and one that is entirely unnecessary.

Nurture not restraint

Children who need a secure escort service are vulnerable and are often in an uncertain and unstable place. There is an obvious need for highly trained staff to accompany them who are able to respond to their needs. That response should not need to involve restraint if the approach taken from the outset is genuinely nurturing.

No matter the distance, in order to provide the best service it is essential in each case to establish the needs of the child and tailor the service to them. A key first step is to establish channels of communication. Fear is so often the driver of aggressive behaviour or the desire to run. So being open and honest about the situation goes a long way to making the young person feel calmer and more comfortable.

It also demonstrates respect for that young person which is crucial in order for them to start respecting themselves.

Respect, for Serenity Welfare, also comes in the form of the vehicles we use. Grilles and bars, vans or cars that are in poor repair, speak volumes about the way that young person is regarded. This is why I chose to use a fleet of luxury Mercedes.

When one of our cars arrives to escort a young person, they often do not believe it is for them. They have never been shown that they matter enough to be recognised in this way. This is the first step in letting them know that they do matter.

Each car carries blankets plus a bag of food and drink, magazines, toiletries and a stress ballfor children who may otherwise feel too anxious to ask for what they need.

The case for luxury in a time of austerity

Children’s services are now the top immediate pressure for councils and are vulnerable to the effects of the ongoing budget cuts. So it seems counter-intuitive to offer a luxury, bespoke service and even more so, to subscribe to one, in this current climate.

We can, however, provide our services within local authority budgets. And demand is high because of the impact a nurturing approach such as ours has.

Paige (not her real name) was one of the first young people we escorted when Serenity Welfare was established in early 2017. She was 15 and lacked any kind of stability at home.

She was aggressive and defensive and was being escorted to court appearances to decide her future away from her family.

We made sure she saw no more than two different members of staff each time to give her continuity of care and a feeling of security. She responded almost immediately to the respect staff showed her. Her self-confidence grew and she began to feel a sense of self-worth.

This kind of approach is crucial in order to develop a sense of value and self-confidence as these young people grow. While she is still in the care system, her future prospects are a world away from where they could have been without the influence of our trained staff and mentors.

There is clear value here to the young people involved but also for local authorities. In the short term, young people arrive at their destinations calm and reassured. In the longer term, outcomes for the young people are much improved because of these caring foundations and the need for future interventions is reduced.

It is well-established that looked-after children and young people are at greater risk of being excluded from school, their attainment levels are lower and there is an association between children who are in care and offending. This is why escort services have a role to play in their care at such a vulnerable stage in their lives and its why investment in bespoke services is money well-spent.

Research into what helps looked-after children succeed cited five critical factors - having people in their lives who cared about them, experiencing stability, being given high expectations, receiving encouragement and support and being able to participate and achieve.

One of the key elements is pairing each young person with the right member of staff. Modern life creates a number of challenges for children and young people – deprivation, gang culture, social media – so alongside training that includes safeguarding, first aid, restraint and more, it is important that staff understand these issues.

Many of our team come from backgrounds similar to those the young people come from so they can relate to many of the issues they face. They are also trained mentors so the time spent together in the car can be well-used to offer emotional support, boost children’s confidence, self-belief and motivation.

The results we have seen are testament to this approach. A number of local authorities report a noticeable difference in the young people we transport. They have seen improvements in behaviour and self-confidence.

Travelling in the right direction

There is still some way to go for welfare and secure escort services for children and young people to recognise the benefits of a nurturing approach.

Serenity Welfare is a good example of how behaviour can be managed and even changed with the right approach that treats each young person as an individual with their own unique needs.

Children and young people need to feel they have value and to feel self-worth in order to inspire them to better their lives.

Emily Aklan is the founder and CEO of Serenity Welfare. http://www.serenitywelfare.org/