Being a keyworker in residential child care

By Jane Kenny

Date Posted: Sunday, 13 June 2010


Jane Kenny was born in South London. After completing her BTec in Nursery Nurse training, she went on to complete a degree in Childhood and Behavioural Studies at the University of East Anglia. Following graduation Jane travelled in Europe working in child care for a holiday company. While she was in Sardinia she had her first experience of working with teenagers and it was here that she decided she would work with teenagers rather than younger children. Jane Kenny has since worked in residential child care as a practitioner and a manager for over 10 years. She is currently a shift leader in a children’s home.


Being a keyworker in residential child care


By Jane Kenny


As I believe is the case with most people who work in residential child care I started working with the children and young people in the hope and with the belief that I could make a positive difference to the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged young people. This did not prepare me for the tough job ahead and I did not even guess just how hard it was going to be to achieve my goal.

Since the 1960s an important aspect of a residential child care worker’s role has been keyworking. It is also perhaps the most intrinsically rewarding aspect of being a residential child care worker but when you start the job nothing can fully prepare you for the difficulties that lie ahead as you begin to work with young people who have come from emotionally impoverished backgrounds and whose lives have so far, to say the least, been very difficult.

Alex is a fictional name for the young person I discuss and details of his life have been substantially altered. For brevity’s sake I have referred to young people as masculine and workers as feminine.



What does being a keyworker mean ?

A number of models have been developed to describe the keyworker’s role in residential child care and some seem more intriguing than others. Keyworkers are sometimes also known as linkworkers, special workers and indeed I believe that at one time at Peper Harrow they were  called “gurus.” The role should also not be confused with the keyworking role allocated in child protection procedures which is to coordinate the multi-disciplinary team which ensures that child protection plans are carried out.  My experience of working in children’s homes has led me to develop an idea of a child’s keyworker as the specified residential child care worker who is initially responsible for establishing a relationship with a newly arrived child and creating an attachment with the child in order that he or she can begin to feel safe in the home. Experience has also led me to include other more extended functions within my ideas of the role of keyworker. These would include assuring the consistency and continuity of the care the children’s home provides and to do this the keyworker has to involve the child, his family, his school and other community agencies such as the education and health services in order that his long term needs can be met.  To carry out these functions it is essential that the keyworker has the support of her colleagues and her supervisor.  In addition to this I think it is important that the keyworker works in partnership with the young person’s social worker.
First and foremost however I believe the keyworker must establish a positive relationship with the child and over time develop this into a sincere, caring, helpful and healthy relationship between child and adult.
In trying to give the role of the keyworker a framework, what I have written  may seem almost prescriptive and clinical and in practice it is seldom so. My description of my keyworking relationship will demonstrate this and I hope it will also show what a fulfilling role it is for a residential child care worker.



Keyworking Alex

Alex was a young man of 14 years old when he came to the children’s home I was working in. He was placed with us  because of his angry and aggressive behaviour at home and concerns about his vulnerability in the company of the people he was associating with outside of the family home. These matters had arisen following the break up of the relationship between his mother and father which had resulted in his father leaving home. When he was admitted to our children’s  home Alex had not seen his father since his parent’s relationship had ended 5 years previously. There was evidence to suggest that Alex was being emotionally abused at home by his mother’s new partner and that he had many unanswered questions about his father.   I keyworked him from the time he arrived with us until the day he left at the age of 17 years old and moved on to a care leavers’ project.

When I welcomed Alex as he walked through our front door I introduced myself as his keyworker. He seemed very cheerful and open. He spoke about being glad to be out of the difficult family situation he had just left and he appeared relieved to have been admitted into care. The fact that he expressed a desire to be in our care put me at ease not only about him but also about myself. At that time my previous experience had nearly always been with young people who had a suspicious resistance to being admitted to our home. This was different. Alex wanted to be with us. I began to fantasise that I was about to enjoy an easy and pleasant keyworking experience. I was soon to find out that I had lulled myself into a false sense of  security.

During the first few weeks Alex was at our children’s home he acted as one would expect any young man of his age. He was interested in football and was a fan of Manchester United. He was a “trekkie” and could and did describe episodes of Star Trek in the greatest of detail. He knew that his education was important even if he wasn’t very keen to be overly conscientious about getting down to his studies. He was intelligent and at times he seemed wise beyond his years. At this time our relationship was a benign one. It seemed that we had become friends. This was prove to be a “honeymoon” period for both of us.

As the weeks passed Alex and I discussed and explored his childhood experiences. It soon became clear just how emotionally wounded he had been by events in his life with his family and how far this damage had impacted upon his development. These discoveries signalled the beginning of the roller coaster ride that my keyworking relationship with Alex was to become. I found myself increasingly the object of Alex’s anger. He lost his temper with me over what appeared to me to be the smallest of things. Occasionally Alex was violent towards me. He pushed me, threw  things at me and also he spat in my face a couple of times.  His behaviour was hard for me to take. I tried to remain calm, although this was difficult. As a keyworker on the receiving end of such angry outbursts I was left feeling helpless and emotionally, more than physically, hurt. My initial reaction to this aggression was to feel resentful that I was trying my hardest to help Alex and yet all I got back in return was his anger and aggression. There was a part of me which understood that in behaving this way Alex was trying to communicate to me how bad he was feeling within himself. It seemed to me then that I should go beyond my own feelings and help him work through his anger and what I increasingly began to understand as his despair. Containing and holding a young person’s extreme feelings –  taking what seems like a ongoing emotional battering –   at the same time as remaining consistent in your love for the young person is in my view probably the most difficult challenge faced by a keyworker. There are no practice manuals that explain how to deal with these things. There is a need to dig deep within your own personal resources and to supplement this with support from you supervisor and your colleagues. My sessions with my supervisor were very important for me. These sessions made me feel as if I was being held and they allowed me to syphon off the angry feelings I felt I was suppressing in order to stay with Alex when he projected all his bad feelings into me.

An early helpful discovery I made was the importance of play in my relationship with Alex. I was able to use play to build up my relationship with him and this showed him another way to deal with his anger. I think also by still being able to play with him despite all the other unbearable feelings that were flying around Alex was able to see that I could survive his onslaught and that I would still be there for him.  Of course the anger Alex directed towards me was his way of venting the anger and frustration of his situation and it was not at its deepest about me. Although I am sure there were times when he did not like the decisions I made and the boundaries I put in place, the extremity of his angry outbursts went far beyond that.

Alex liked to play toy soldiers, detectives and as I’ve said he was an enthusiast everything to do with Star Trek. It was his play that showed the level of impact there had been on his emotional development. When he had first arrived my impression of Alex had been one of what I would have described as a “typical teenager” but it became apparent to me that his play was often not age appropriate play. However it was important for my colleagues and I to allow Alex to play so he could comfortably progress from the place where he seemed to be stuck. So at times I found myself playing  Star Trek characters or a detective. Alex really got into his characters and appeared to become lost in his fantasy role. One of the best times spent with Alex was when I took him to an exhibition of one of his favourite films. It was amazing to see how much it meant for him to be there and for me to be a part of it with him. During our conversations it became more and more clear that he had played and done these things with his father.

As Alex approached the age of 16 we began to talk about how it would feel for him to move on from the children’s home and we began the long preparation for the day he would leave us. We dealt with practical issues by making sure he gained skills like managing money and cooking meals. This was not easy. Although Alex was attracted to the idea of taking on more responsibility for himself, and he was successful in gaining many of these skills,  he was still operating on a level younger than his physical age. He was, like other young people of his age, attracted to the idea of moving on and looking after himself and getting his own accommodation but there were other parts of moving on that he was terrified about and at times he would talk about his concerns. What lay behind these anxieties was his fear of leaving the children’s home and his fear of being abandoned again but this time all on his own with no one to help him. I saw his willingness to talk about his worries like this as a sign of him growing up.

This period of helping Alex to prepare to move on was also a difficult time for me as his keyworker.  I knew the outreach support staff at his next placement would be attentive to his needs but they would allow him – and it was right that they should do so –  much more time to be responsible for the decisions he would need to make. I felt Alex could really do with a few more years of our care before moving on but external pressures would not allow this. The local authority which had placed Alex with us became more reluctant to fund his placement and increasingly insisted that he was of an age where he should be able to cope with less intensive care. My view is that it would be difficult for the vast majority of young people aged 16 or 17 to cope on their own. I grudgingly accepted the need to be pragmatic and decided Alex and I would have to do as much as we could to make sure he was as ready as he could be when he moved on. At times this was an uphill struggle. Alex was resistant to dealing with these matters.  Although he said that he wanted to move on, he gave the unspoken impression he really hoped that if he didn’t achieve the tasks we had set out to do then he could put off being moved on. Alex was able to show he could do some of the tasks that were necessary but he could not do so consistently as he still had more important things to do such as playing !

Working together with Alex’ social worker we managed to hold off the pressures from the local authority until Alex was 17 and this allowed us further time to help Alex work through the fears that were holding him back from moving on. On many occasions he made my colleagues and me aware of his feelings of still needing to belong to us. Once after returning from an overnight stay with his family, where he had been sleeping on the couch in the living room because his new stepsister now had his bedroom, he ran into our children’s home like an 9 or 10 years old shouting out happily, “I’m home ! I’m home!”
My colleagues also made me aware that Alex had become attached to me. While I was on duty, Alex was often quite critical of me and would frequently tell me that in one way or another I was not caring for him as I should or that I had let him down but when I was not on duty he would vehemently defend me if any of the other young people criticised me. In a sense I think that after a few months I was aware of this attachment and certainly it was discussed during my supervision, but this awareness could be quite fragile on those occasions when I was under verbal assault from him. I would also say that I too was also increasingly attached to Alex. I had to use my supervision to work through this because there was a period when during shift handover meetings or in staff meetings any of my colleagues described some negative attribute of Alex’ behaviour I would experience it as a personal assault. I had to separate what was healthy interpersonal attachment from over-identification.

Eventually at the age of 17 Alex did move on to his accommodation where he had the support of an outreach worker who offered him a very creative programme. For the first few weeks in his new place he would ‘phone me regularly. I visited him on several occasions after his move and although he did feel lonely at times and found it hard at first to get a job he was very proud of what he was achieving and I was very proud of the young man he had become. He soon got a job which caused him to move out of the area and rented a house which he shared with two other men he worked with. His telephone calls became less regular and the last I heard from him he was complaining that his housemates were messy and untidy and he was thinking of moving on.


Post script

I recently heard from a former colleague who had bumped into him. that Alex has become a father.  I was amazed at the emotion this aroused in me and made me realise how attached, although we often don’t realise it or acknowledge it, we residential child care workers become to our young people.