Unity through Relationship

By Maurice Fenton

Maurice Fenton entered social care as a volunteer in 1992. over the intervening years he has worked at all levels in residential child care, from trainee to director in the statutory, voluntary and private sectors. He returned to education at the age of forty and has remained there ever since. He founded Empower Ireland in 2009 and to support care leavers in Ireland and in Marrch 2013 left his post as director of services to focus on developing Empower Ireland and to concentrate on his doctoral studies at Queens University.


Unity through Relationship 


The following article is based on the opening address by Maurice Fenton at the recent “Unity through Relationship” conference held in Dublin, on 10th & 11th November 2014. Maurice Fenton is currently working with the presenters from this conference in compiling an edited book of chapters based on the individual presentations. This article is an adaption of what will feature as the introduction to this book. Details of the conference which was hosted by Gateway, Transform Action International and Empower Ireland are available at www.unitythroughrelationship.com



On behalf of the conference hosts, I would like to welcome you to the first “Unity through Relationship” conference here in Dublin. For those attending from overseas, I extend a – Céad Míle Fáilte go dti Baile Átha Cliath – which is Gaelic for 100,000 welcomes to Dublin. We hope you enjoy the conference and that you have a good experience and make new connections and relationships with other like minded people.

We are truly fortunate to have to so many notable figures presenting at this conference and I would like to express my deep appreciation to all of these extremely busy people for making the time to present at this conference. Each is a champion for the place of relationship within their domain. This, for me, represents Unity in action with an implicit recognition on the part of all involved, of the power of knowledge mobilisation and inter-professional collaboration – a concept concisely simplified by George Bernard Shaw:


“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

We have representatives from a wide range of professions and approaches and from countries including Canada, the UK, Europe and Ireland. This affords us presentations from leading figures in academia, social work, social care, youth work, family support, justice and from approaches of Social Pedagogy, CYC, Circle of Courage, from disciplines such as addiction services and education as well as from the fields of residential care, leaving care and aftercare and ethnic minorities and immigrant support services.

Within what is a busy and exciting schedule we will be addressing some of the multiple aspects of relationships. These will include relational and relationship-based practice where the workers’ relationship with themselves is to the fore – given that each worker is themselves their most empowering and protective factor in their work. Here, self-awareness is critical to their understanding of how they are impacting on those they seek to have relationships with and also how they themselves are impacted by these relationships. (Anglin, 2004).

“The capacity to be in touch with the client’s feelings is related to the worker’s ability to acknowledge his or her own. Before a worker can understand the power of emotion in the life of the client, it is necessary to discover its importance in the worker’s own experience.” (Shulman, 1999:156)

Then there is the relationship between the worker and their colleagues – both within their workplace and organisations as well as professionals from other domains and organisations. Here, as we try to engender the value of respect in the children and young people we support, both for themselves and others, we must role model this respect for our colleagues through our actions and challenge the, at times, adversarial and defensive inter-professional communications that can occur. We must do this both so that the children in our care witness us as appropriate role models and not preaching one standard for them but practising another ourselves and also, to develop positive relationships and form collaborative alliances with our colleagues. This must be our ‘Common Way of Being’.

An approach that is grounded in the belief that “I already know” is one that is immobilised and is oblivious to context and perspective, which in turn pigeonholes experiences, behaviours, objects and other people into existing categories. In other words an individual’s way of knowing predisposes a way of being and may obstruct learning.” (Bellefeuille & Ricks, 2010:1237)

It was notable to me in engaging with presenters, whilst constructing this conference, that each professional has distinct networks which oftentimes do not overlap. Steve Jobs talked of the importance of ‘joining the dots’ to his and Apple’s success story and in our case the dots are the various approaches and disciplines represented here today.

I have noticed over the years how I began to recognise other social care practitioners similar in their outlook to me – an outlook which, I suspect, mostly comes from similar values and shared experiences of success and failure in caring for children and young people. I found myself often citing another Gaelic expression – what is called a seanfhocal – a seanfhocal is Gaelic for an old wise expression or proverb. This seanfhocal states – Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile – one hedgehog recognises another hedgehog – and each presenter and delegate here today is a similar hedgehog in their shared recognition of the potential of relationship to unite the professions and as the primary medium for supporting and healing traumatised and vulnerable children.

“Whilst the ability to forge good interpersonal relationships is desirable, but often not essential for highly developed professions such as medicine and law, it is an absolute precondition of effective social work practice (Chu and Tsui, 2008; Chu et al., 2009; Proctor, 1982; Ward et al., 2010). Before all others, the core skill required by social work is the capacity to relate to others and their problems.” (O’Leary et al., 2013:137)

We may also hear of the relationships between children within care – an area where there is much misunderstanding and where residential care can be erroneously critiqued.

Then there is the relationship between children, childhood and society as well as intergenerational relationships where our current chronologically-defined conception of childhood is being challenged more and more by evidence from neuroscience and other fields. These findings tell us that a maturational and developmental understanding of childhood is more appropriate in the 21st century (Davis & Vander Stoep, 1997; Bentley, 2005 and Thorne, 2008). Within this form of relationship the worker has responsibility to represent and advocate for and with children and young people – and also to empower them to advocate for themselves – by promoting values of social justice, highlighting and challenging injustices and inequities that afflict children and young people today.

One such social injustice is the plight of many care leavers in Ireland where we have a two-tiered aftercare service. Those who participate in work, education or training (61.1%) receive one form of service wherein the resources available to aftercare services are targeted. The independence model is resourced and the interdependence model – the nurturing of autonomy within the webs of dependence employing specialist services addressing psycho-social needs – is diminished. This is made explicit in Section 2.1 of the National Leaving and Aftercare Policy (2011) which states:

“It is emphasised that the most important requirements for young people leaving care are for secure, suitable accommodation as well as further education, employment or training. These core requirements will be prioritised in the provision of aftercare services.”

The second tier of service caters for those who do not participate in work, education or training (38.9%) who may, or may not, receive another, and lesser, service. Within this group young people from residential care feature prominently.

“In some cases no aftercare at all was provided to young persons who left the care of the HSE. This is a very serious cause for concern. In other cases aftercare was offered but solely at the option of the young person. Such an abdication of duty on the part of the HSE is unacceptable, and fails to properly meet the welfare need of these vulnerable young people.” (Shannon & Gibbons 2012, p. xvii)

The National Policy for Leaving and Aftercare (2011) may be located, as to a large extent can all theories and policies, within the dominant socio-political ideology in place at the time of its derivation (Foucault, 1977; Adams, 1998; Howe, 1997, 1998; Gregory & Holloway, 2005) – in this case neo-liberalism. Considered from this perspective we unveil a policy which perpetuates the social injustice so evident in the 21st century where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is ever widening within the developed (minority) states. This, then, demands that we fulfil our mandate to promote social justice within society by engaging in professional activism. If we are to advance social justice within society we must also be political in our actions. Political in its widest sense, rather than the short-sighted party politics which underpins much that is wrong with our crisis-led (largely due to its politically induced short-term focus) childcare system in Ireland.

With regard to corporate parenting and its implicit requirement for support for care leavers from stake-holding state agencies and departments, there is a near-complete absence of positive discrimination for care leavers here in Ireland where they have no statutory entitlement to support beyond 18. We must remember that care leavers are first and foremost young people and so are afflicted with the same issues facing all youth today (Stein, 1999) – unemployment, social exclusion, ruptured pathways to adulthood, insecurity, uncertain futures but for care leavers these factors are magnified and multiplied (Pinkerton, 2012). Additionally, there is the widespread perception of youth as problems rather than victims of society (Devlin, 2005; Scraton, 2007).

Exacerbating these realities they also have to make the condensed and accelerated transition into instant adulthood (Stein, 1999), at a significantly earlier age than their counterparts in the general population. They must undertake this within an abrupt process that is both final and irreversible (Dixon et al., 2006) often both under-prepared and under-supported and at this most vulnerable time in their young lives. At the same time, they also lose the meaningful relationships they have had with their carers, paradoxically, at the very time they need these most.

For many children on entering care, there can be an experience of loss and abandonment as they are separated from their families and homes (Yates, 2001). Now, as they abruptly exit the care system, they must endure the loss of relationship and further broken attachments with carers they are forced to leave behind and for some, predominately though not exclusively, those leaving residential care, an experiencing of a second sense of abandonment.

The loneliness care levers experience can precipitate a range of issues not the least being a decline in mental health and lost accommodation whilst also casting a far-reaching shadow over their lives. We know that care leavers are pre-disposed to mental health issues given that in the UK it is estimated that 70% of children in residential care are diagnosed with mental health issues (Meltzer, 2003).

Meg Lindsay’s line in regard to a care leaver she worked with, Mary, encapsulates much of the suffering and hardship I have witnessed care leavers experiencing on leaving care:

Her loneliness couldn’t close the door on “friends,” who spent her cash for her,

                                   and alienated her new neighbours.”  (2000:59)

This brings us to another form of relationship we shall hear about – that between worker and child. This is where care is given and healing happens. Nel Noddings (1996) has said that if the child does not feel they are being cared for, they are being treated as an object. Children can only feel this care through a relationship with their care workers who, as Stein (2012) has said, are the face of the corporate parent. The effectiveness of any programme or strategy will be determined by the ability of the worker to skilfully implement such programmes or strategies through the medium of meaningful relationship and employing their professional judgement (Li & Julian, 2012). Yet in recent times performance indicators for professional excellence have been redefined as accountancy and managerial skills with a transfer of power from professionals to managers (Smith, 2009; Evetts, 2011). Our profession has been subverted by techno-rational paradigms and a foreign language of commerce – it has been commodified.

It is a cause of grave concern when the focus of the work increasingly shifts from relationships to bureaucratic tasks (Munro, 2011; Furnivall et al., 2012) and we cannot forget it is precisely in the area of relationships with adults that many young people experience difficulties. Consequently, the relationship focus holds the potential for young people to address life-changing issues through the medium of a safe relationship with an appropriate adult thus enabling lost trust to be restored. (Howe, 1998; Trevithick, 2003)

“We are broken

within the context of relationships;

and we are also healed

within the scope of relationships.”

(Nadjiwan, 2010:1)

As a frontline worker in residential care, I was conscious that I undertook this work to meet my own need to care, a need I was surprised to discover I possessed after many years in other work settings. This vocational calling is present in most care workers I encountered over the years albeit the precise need may differ. This affords our profession a bedrock of motivated staff few other occupations possess. I came to recognise this commonality of motivation, despite sometimes difference of opinion with my colleagues, as the glue that held our teams together through often difficult times. This was our common ground.

             “ We do what we do because we care,

             and because we care,

       we do what we do to the best of our ability”

To maximize the potential of this motivation it is imperative to empower workers to work relationally. One of the core challenges of residential care is to put in place the right circumstances for children in care to succeed and similarly the challenge for those of us who no longer operate in frontline roles is to seek to setup the circumstances for workers to succeed. Workers need to be recognised for their commitment, dedication and skill and this requires that they have the time to spend with children and nurturing meaningful relationships which are employed to the child’s developmental benefit rather than managing the children and record keeping. We must reclaim our profession and reinstate the relationship at its beating heart.

“We owe it to children – they need to know they are cared for by someone who is respected…..Good care is not produced by tools – it’s provided by people and investing in carers is investing in the heart and soul of children.” (Anglin cited in Hillan, 2005:51)

We are also very fortunate to have Darren Lennon presenting on his experiences as a child born into a family where both love and extreme dysfunction were present. He had positive experiences of residential care and made enduring friendships with other children in care which directly challenges some of the negative perception I previously referenced. However, he then experienced the hardship and social injustice of leaving care in Ireland. Hardship and social injustice which, unfortunately, is as real today as it was 20 years ago when he left care. He has written of his experiences and I am sure we will be hearing more from him in years to come. Darren is, in my opinion, the epitome of the complex and contested concept of resilience.

Resilience has been reified in recent years as it apparently holds the potential to turn vulnerable young people into healthy active citizens (Gordon & Song, 1994). However, given the timing of its rise to prominence, in social policy and the social professions, coinciding with the ascent of neo-liberalism in the UK and Ireland, could it be that it represents a magic elixir to remedy  disaggregating and shadow-making social policies? Such policies, spawned by the neo-liberal hegemony, may ostensibly be counterbalanced by the dispensation of this magic elixir with those who refuse to imbibe said elixir being deemed responsible for their own fate? What is, however, fact is that resilience remains a concept with inherent ambiguity (Kaplan, 1999) and with “no clear consensus of what resilience is, if it can be defined objectively at all.” (Liebenberg & Ungar, 2009:6)

Masten’s (2001) description of resilience as ‘ordinary magic’ outlines a normalised approach to an ordinary process. Ordinary as we cannot predict which people will develop it and thus there is nothing to identify those who go on to become extraordinary until they exhibit the phenomenon. Until we can solve the how and the why of the process, for example, what if any role does temperament or identity play in resilience (Fraser, 2004), it retains elements of magic in as much as we cannot fully explain it.

For me, if conceived of as an intrinsic manifestation, such as a personal characteristic or trait, then it is akin to the electricity of social care. I know it exists and is very powerful and I know of people who apparently know how it works. However, the effect of electricity on the human body remains misunderstood with conditions such as epilepsy still challenging the medical profession, where electro-shock therapy is still carried out today despite the absence of a full understanding of how it effects the changes it apparently achieves. So it would appear that within the natural sciences, for example, physics and engineering, electricity is quantifiable and predictable yet not so within human and social sciences. We humans are complex beings not readily given to quantification, standardisation and predictability, “shaped by early infant experiences, cognitive and affective capabilities and conscious and unconscious forces.” (Ruch, 2009: 351)

“It is not surprising then, that relying upon the tools and methodologies of the natural sciences for use in the social sciences has been rejected by many postmodern thinkers and scholars (Flyvbjerg, Landman, & Schram, 2012).” (Fusco, 2013:200)

I do not truly understand how electricity is created or works, although I can both see its effects as well as feel it so I know it exists, and, as in the aforementioned medical scenarios, I wonder if some of the self-declared experts truly do either? Within the human and social sciences I see most potential for understanding resilience within the social-ecology model which conceives of resilience as a synthesis between an individual’s intrinsic and extrinsic interaction with resources within their ecology.

“This social ecological understanding of resilience implicates those who control the resources that facilitate psychological wellbeing in the proximal processes (e.g., making education accessible; promoting a sense of belonging in one’s community; facilitating attachment to a caregiver; affirmation of self-worth) associated with positive development in contexts of adversity.” (Ungar, 2013: 255)

However, this poses the question originally posed by Luther et al., (2000) as to whether resilience is a rose by another name – attachment? but in this case rather than attachment, either social networks or the enactment of interdependence?

These politically defined purposes of social work also influences the psychological and sociological theories chosen by practitioners to help them “make sense” and practice.” (Howe, cited in Davis, 2002:86)

Within this construct of resilience and interdependence, the need to prepare care leavers to access these supports within the community, the different supports that each individual care leaver will need to access, according to their needs and abilities, may be seen to be paramount to the task of preparing children to leave care. Equally and importantly the state has responsibility to ensure these supports are available and accessible.


As I previously said I know resilience exists as, for me, I simply see resilience as Darren and other people like him. He has overcome adversity and hardship throughout his life, including the experiencing of profound loneliness whilst leaving care and within aftercare. He returned to education at age 28 to complete his secondary education and he has gone on to achieve an honours degree in social care and an MA in social work. He has written of how a relationship with a carer made a major difference in his life and aided him in his struggle to overcome such adversity and trauma.

Darren’s story and his life today evidences how an ordinary thing, a thing which most human beings are born with, the ability to have a meaningful relationship with another human being, aided him in achieving the extraordinary. Such is the power of relationship.



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