When I became a frontline manager in child protection social work, one of my first problems was in dealing with a client with mental health problems. During supervision with one of my staff, it emerged that this person, a mother of a four year-old boy, had a history of psychotic episodes, punctuated with reasonably long periods of adequate functioning. By that I mean, after losing touch with reality, she was a good, loving mother who provided a decent home for her son. The problem was that she needed medication to keep her on an even keel. The factor which brought her to the attention of my department was in her believing that she no longer needed the medication, and ceasing to take it.
At a case conference, the child’s maternal grandmother said that her daughter (who wasn’t in attendance), after a long period on the medication, believed that she was cured of her problem. After she stopped taking it, she would gradually slide downhill, unaware of the changes this made to her behaviour. The mental health professionals assigned to her would try and reason with her, but she refused to listen, saying that the meds made her feel lacklustre, and that she was perfectly all right.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t. This came to a head one day when the child’s nursery rang the department to say that the boy had told everybody that his mother was seeing giant snakes in the bath. Though only four, he said this wasn’t true. Even so, the concern was that he was young and vulnerable enough to be frightened by his mother’s psychotic episodes.
The mental health authorities admitted the mother to hospital, and we had no choice but to look around for a placement for the child. The maternal grandmother offered to give him a home. The department ran checks on her, and she was deemed suitable. Consequently, she gave up her job and, with the allowance given to her by our department, was able to look after her grandson full-time. On top of this allowance she would receive one-off payments for clothing and presents for the child’s birthdays and Christmas.
The mental health professionals said the child’ mother had gone into a particularly bad state and that that treatment would take a long time. Or, she might not recover sufficiently to be take over the care of her child again. This, of course, meant that the child couldn’t return to his mother and we were glad that at least he was placed within the family.
A long-term placement within the family would usually mean less trauma for the child at being separated from its mother. You would think so – but in this case, maybe not so.
It emerged that the maternal grandmother knew the workings of the social services department quite well. I was astounded and dismayed to learn that, within a week of taking over the care of the child, she came to us asking when we were going to arrange respite care for him. She wanted the child to be out of her home every weekend, with respite foster carers. When I asked her why, she looked at me as though I was crazy and replied, “That’s what all foster carers get, and I’m his foster carer.”
“Em, yes you are technically his foster carer, but you are also his grandmother,” I replied.
The conversation took a turn for the worse from this point on. The social worker on the case, whom I was supervising, shuffled around and looked embarrassed, and the grandmother looked angry. “That’s got nothing to do with it,” the grandmother retorted.
“Is he (the child) misbehaving,” I asked. “I mean is he giving you such a hard time that you feel you need to have a rest from him every weekend?”
“No. But all foster carers get respite care, and I don’t think I should be any different, just because I’m his grandmother.”
“Mrs Bla,bla,bla,” I said. “If you are asking for respite care for your grandson, when he isn’t causing you any problems, I can only deduce that you aren’t attached to him as we first thought. Your grandson is young enough to be put up for adoption. That is, he could be placed with carers who desperately want a child of their own, who want to make a long-term commitment to him.
After the conversation ended, the grandmother reported me to my line management, to whom I eventually gave these concerns: The fact that the grandmother is asking for respite care from her own flesh and blood, for no reason, indicates that she isn’t bonded to the child and isn’t likely to be in the future. Furthermore, it also begs the question as to how much input from the grandmother contributed towards her own daughter’s illness.
There were long discussions with the legal department (who largely agreed with me) and the Family Placement department (who thought I was Medusa incarnate). In the event, the department decided the child should remain with the grandmother. Foster carers were in short supply, and I would do well not to pass judgement on them, they told me. As mentioned, the Family Placement department in particular got very uppity with me, for upsetting their client (the grandmother). They argued that she was doing all she could for her grandson, and that respite care should and would be granted to her.
So, that was that. I was overruled. I didn’t have a problem with that. But every time I thought of that child being hustled out of the home every weekend, just so his grandmother could avail herself of ‘her rights’, I balked. I knew he was a well-behaved child, I had spoken to him and his nursery confirmed that he was no trouble. How, then, was he going to sort through his young mind and find a reason for why he had to leave his new home and his grandmother every weekend?
Perhaps I was being too judgemental. Perhaps I mistakenly put my own take on the situation. I knew that if I had to take over the care of my own grandchild, I would be honoured to do the task. But the situation was decided by those who though they were doing right by the child, and I had to forget my own feelings and just suck it all up.