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The LAC Mentoring Support Programme. Mentoring Looked After Children in Northern Ireland- A New App

Chapter summary

This article reviews and reflects on a new mentoring service, specifically for Looked After Children (LAC) in Northern Ireland. Firstly, it considers the literature and research on outcomes for children in care, and the links between LAC and poorer outcomes. Then it will explore how practitioners can respond to this need, through social work intervention. There appears to be a limited research base for mentoring, and a lack of robust evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of mentoring as an intervention.

Despite this, mentoring is widely used and valued within a multitude of social care settings, which will be explored through examples of current mentoring practice locally and nationally. There are a number of considerations for working with children who are in care, particularly the importance of attachments, relationships and resilience. The research base and considerations identified will support the implementation of this new service, and identify future recommendations for development.

Introduction

At September 2017, there were 2,325 children in care in Northern Ireland, which represents a 57% increase over the last 10 years (Rodgers & Waugh, 2018). Children who are in care will be either under the supervision of, or accommodated by, their local Health and Social Care (HSC) Trust. This can take the form of foster, kinship (with other family) and residential placements, or living at home with a parent under the supervision of statutory social services. There appears to be an increasing interest in addressing the unmet needs of children in care on a government level, with a recent consultation to review issues highlighted in the draft LAC strategy in Northern Ireland. It is crucial that this strategy will indicate the need for continuous funding to deliver LAC support, which will improve the outcomes for children in care.

The LAC Mentoring Support Programme is a new provision of support within the voluntary organisation Extern. It provides a mentoring service specifically for LAC across the region of Northern Ireland. This is a new programme for this organisation, and has received government funding since July 2017 for the implementation and delivery of such service.

Children can be taken into care for a number of reasons. However, the most common reason is to protect the child from abuse or neglect (Rodgers and Waugh, 2018). Nevertheless, there appears to be a link between a young person being in care and poor outcomes. Research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) indicate that children and young people who are exposed to a number of negative experiences (such as abuse and neglect) are at risk for poorer health and social outcomes as adults, and it is recognized that care experienced young people may have been exposed to a number of ACEs (van der Kolk, 2005). In order to combat the longer term risks of exposure to ACEs, increasing strengths and relationship-based social work has been explored as a way of influencing intervention with children and young people, to build resilience and capacity and improve future outcomes.

As previously mentioned, the numbers of children in care in Northern Ireland appear to increase each year, resulting in ongoing funding to both statutory and voluntary service to support this specific service user group. This article will aim to explore mentoring, as a method of direct work with children and young people, and reflect on the early implementation of this service. Mentoring is not an original intervention approach, and in fact has been used internationally, across a diverse range of service user groups, to respond to a variety of needs such as justice (Henihan & Alexander, 2017), and disability (Hillier et al, 2018).

However, there appears to be limited evidence to demonstrate how effective it is, particularly with this specific service user group. This article will review the available literature on mentoring, and some examples of current mentoring practice, to ascertain the rationale for using this intervention in our service provision, and reflect on any critique and implications that can be considered for future implementation of the programme.

Literature review

Improving outcomes for young people in care has long been an aim of local and national policy (Roberts et al, 2016), with research indicating that there is a relationship between being a looked after child and poorer outcomes, such as lower levels of educational attainment (Darmody et al, 2013), and significant social, emotional and behavioural outcomes (Rock et al, 2015).

Children in care can also experience poor mental health outcomes, which may be due to both pre-care experiences (Vincent and Jopling, 2017) and the process of becoming a ‘looked after’ child (Vostanis, 2010). Despite this, the uptake for mental health services remains low for children in care (York and Jones, 2017). This may be due to limited knowledge on the mental health of LAC in Northern Ireland (McCrystal & McAloney, 2010), and low referral rates to relevant services (Philips, 1997).

Recent research also indicates a strong link between the accumulation of Adverse Childhood Experiences for children and young people, and negative long-term physical and behavioural health outcomes as adults. (Lanier et al, 2017) Many looked after children have been exposed to multiple adverse circumstances (Rock et al, 2015) and have experienced trauma (Morris et al, 2015), in both their pre-care and current environment, so may have experienced an increased number of ACES throughout childhood and adolescence. More specifically, the most common reason for children in Northern Ireland to be taken into care is to mitigate the risk of, or protect from, further abuse and neglect (Rodger and Waugh, 2018). Adolescence is a unique developmental stage, whereby there is significant physical, social and cognitive growth, however young people who have experienced a higher number of ACES may struggle to navigate through this stage due to the damaging effect of trauma on their development (Soleimanpour et al, 2017). With this in mind, it is important for social care intervention to target the needs of the young people in care at the earliest opportunity in order to improve outcomes potentially both short and long term.

There is a lack of robust evidence on the effectiveness of mentoring on producing better outcomes for children and young people (Hall, 2003). Despite this, mentoring has been used as an intervention with young people for over 10 years in the UK, and significantly longer internationally (Eby et al, 2008). This may be as it is easier to conceptualise than other approaches to youth services (Dubois et al, 2011), or because mentoring seldom leads to negative effects (Eby et al, 2008) in young people.

Mentoring is a broad term within the social care context, and much of the literature does not appear to define the intervention specifically. However, some of the research defines it as the support of one individual (or group) by another, within a relationship developed through regular contact over a period of time (Philip and Spratt, 2007), in order to achieve a mutually agreed goal (Sandford et al, 2007).

Theories of resilience, attachment and ecological theory have influenced the development of mentoring (Philip and Spratt, 2007), and the literature demonstrates how such theories should guide the implementation of the intervention with children and young people.

Theories of resilience indicate that the mix of support networks (both peer and professional) can reinforce the development of resilience (Gilligan, 2006). Furthermore, it suggests that the presence of this protective factor (i.e. support network) can reduce the impact of previous adversity (Benard & Marshall, 2001). This suggests that mentoring is not specifically a one-on-one relationship, but an ability to make connections to a number of relationships.

Research indicates that stability and permanence in the lives of children and young people supports the development of secure attachments and can lead to improved life chances (Farmer et al, 2005). Additionally, it has been suggested that recurrent placement moves (for example, changing foster placements, or a move to residential care) have a significant negative effect on a number of outcomes for LAC (Steele, 2006). For example, children and young people with frequent placement moves tend to obtain poorer educational attainment (Connelly & Chakrabarti, 2008). However, children in care may often find it challenging to “form and sustain relationships, due to their pre-care experiences of maltreatment” (Coman & Devaney, 2011, p.49) and potential relationship breakdown (Knight et al, 2006), therefore it is important that the intervention provides a mentor that will be a consistent and trusted figure in the lives of the young people.

The Social Work Strategy in Northern Ireland indicates that some of the key components of improving and safeguarding social well-being are ‘relationships, and belonging’ (DHSSPSNI, 2012, p.14) by promoting individuals’ social inclusion and participation in society. This is particularly important to consider when working with children who are in care, who may find it difficult to perceive a secure base.

“A young person’s sense of a secure base is promoted through a sense of belonging within supportive social networks, by attachment type relationships to reliable and responsive people and by routines and structures in their lives” (Gilligan, 1999: 39).

Therefore, the presence of at least one caring adult who can support the young person to address a number of social factors and personal development, has been identified as a protective factor across a number of risk areas (Fraser, Kirby & Smokowski, 2004).

However, it is not just the presence of a caring adult that promotes this level of support. It is also important for the adult to acquire or develop a number of characteristics or values. Laursen and Birmingham (2003) used semi-structured interviewing to gain understanding on children and young people who are in foster care, and their evaluation of caring adults in helping them face adversity. Participants confirmed that caring relationships, high expectations, and engagement in activities that afford opportunities for success can serve as protective factors (Philip and Spratt, 2007). Furthermore, seven important characteristics of caring adults came to light: “trust, attention, empathy, availability, affirmation, respect, and virtue” (Laursen and Birmingham, 2003: 244).

Research indicates that mentoring can support children and young people with building coping mechanisms (Chesmore, Weiler and Taussig, 2017), and the development of such coping mechanisms can promote resiliency (Stein, 2005). Another area where mentoring has shown to be effective, is with young people who are leaving care. It has been noted, that children who are in care are often entering the world of adulthood whereby they are expected to gain employment, housing and become independent (Greeson & Bowen, 2008). However, many young people who reside in care settings may not have completed formal education (Herd and Legge 2017), or have access to the support required to live independently, which can result in low levels of self-sufficiency and independent behaviour (McDonald et al, 1993).

Mentoring in any context relies on developing a relationship between two people, and fundamentally, is maintaining this relationship for a sustained period of time, despite any challenging or complex experiences within the relationship (Ruch, 2005).

Relationship-based practice is not a novel trend in social work, with a wealth of literature indicating the importance of it when supporting change in a variety of social care settings. This approach to practice is important to children and young people feeling valued and supported, and perceiving a partnership in their journey of change (Wilson et al, 2011).

McMullin (2017) postulates a four-stage relationship model for social work practice whereby practitioners will “engage, negotiate, enable and consider endings (p. 15)”. This model identifies the importance of spending time on building rapport and a trusting relationship between the two parties, in order to actively engage the service user in the process of change. Spending time with the young person with the purpose of building a positive relationship should be viewed as an intervention in itself (McMullin, 2017). Engagement should be voluntary but empowering, enabling young people to make decisions about their own lives (Henihan & Alexander, 2017). Finally, it has been acknowledged that is important to signal endings at the beginning of a relationship, and withdraw gradually to minimize damage to the young person (Wylie & MacDermott, 2017).

Model of mentoring

Clayden and Stein (2005), in a study on mentoring programmes for young people in the United Kingdom who were leaving care, found that mentoring was mostly volunteer-led and based on one-to-one mentoring. They indicated that there are two main mentoring approaches: mentoring to support young people that had no appropriate adult to guide them, and peer mentoring (Philip and Spratt, 2007).

Rhodes (2005) describes a model of mentoring which focuses on the importance of a reciprocal meaningful relationship of trust between an adult and unrelated person. This model of youth mentoring advises that this relationship can influence change with the young person in three areas; ‘social-emotional, cognitive and identity-related paths’ (Dubois et al, 2011: p. 62). For example, social-emotional experiences with a mentor can be generalised (Rhodes and Dubois, 2006), which promotes positive interactions between the young person and their family, peer group or other professionals involved in their life.

Finally, Keller (2005) offers a ‘holistic model of mentoring’ (p. 169), which draws upon ecological and systems theories. This model portrays the network of relationships surrounding a child or young person, and the importance of the mentoring relationship existing alongside these systemic networks. This is also important when considering the aims and goals of mentoring, as the desired outcomes of a mentoring relationship will have impact on a number of systems involved in the lives of the participant.

Whilst most of the models described above use an approach of trained volunteers or paid workers, there is also an increasing trend of ‘peer mentoring’ programmes (Karcher, 2007). Peer mentoring considers the impact of mentors supporting young people who are a similar age, or who have a comparable shared life experience of care (Middleton, 2012). Whilst there is limited research into the impact of this approach, it has been suggested that a mentor whose life post-care has been positive may provide the young person with hope and aspirations (Knight et al, 2006). What is clear to see with both approaches to mentoring, is that the relationship is the fundamental core of practice, and without a process to build a trusting relationship, it appears unlikely for any progression to be made in the service.

Mentoring scheme for LAC in Scotland

The West Dunbartonshire Council Youth Mentoring Scheme provides support to LAC young people with a focus on youth justice (Elsley, 2013). The service currently employs 40 paid sessional mentors, working with 50 young people a year (Life Changes Trust, 2015). The scheme provides both befriending support with longer-term, goal-orientated mentoring to reduce the risk of offending in the community.

The main objective of this scheme appears to be for sessional mentors to assist young people to identify areas that could be supported through focused interventions, and using the trusting relationship to address such areas through targeting specific goals. It has been viewed as a highly effective mentoring programme, as it promotes early intervention with antisocial behaviour (Elsley, 2013).

Le Chéile Mentoring and Youth Justice Support Services (Le Chéile)

Le Chéile delivers a community-based mentoring model, using volunteers from the local community to mentor young people who are involved with the Probation Service in Ireland (Henihan & Alexander, 2017). Mentors support the young people to improve their self-esteem and work on communication skills, and build trusting relationships, which can reduce antisocial behaviour and lower risk of offending in the community (O’Dwyer, 2017). The model utilises relationship-based practice to promote and model positive communication and interactions between the young person and their wider systems such as community, education etc. Furthermore, it is anticipated that this relationship will encourage the young person’s participation when working with social work practitioners and other professionals in their lives (Henihan & Alexander, 2017). Unlike the LAC mentoring scheme in Scotland, Le Chéile solely utilizes volunteers from the community, who freely give their own time to supporting the young people involved in the programme. A recent evaluation of the service found the model of practice to be robust and effective in reducing recidivism and promoting positive outcomes for young people (O’Dwyer, 2017).

The current model of service delivery

The LAC Mentoring Support Programme aims to work with children and young people for six months, with the potential of extending the relationship if required or where appropriate. Since the service commenced in July 2017, the programme has worked with over 150 young people across Northern Ireland.

Based on both theoretical considerations, and the wealth of literature and research, the main objective of the LAC Mentoring Support Programme is to improve outcomes for LAC through a combination of goal-orientated and social aspects of mentoring. Furthermore, it aims to provide high quality mentoring that will focus specifically on the needs of the young person. The intervention is available regionally in Northern Ireland, and from primary school age to leaving care.

The first two months of service focuses on developing a positive, trusting relationship that builds empathy and promotes collaboration. This will be achieved through activity-based sessions, and information gathering which will later inform the assessment.

After this initial stage of engagement, the young person and mentor will discuss the summary of their professional relationship to date, and utilize the evidence-based outcomes measurement tool (Outcomes Star) to identify key areas of their lives that the young person would like to change, and set achievable goals to target these. Outcomes Star can support the young person to develop a goal-orientated support plan, to address their needs and track a journey of change (Keen, 2010).

Over the course of the next three months of service, the mentoring sessions focus on achieving the aforementioned goals, whilst maintaining the mutual relationship. The goals focus on change across a multitude of areas (health, education, safety etc.), and on identifying longer-term, sustainable support systems within family, peer and community relationships. It is important to identify and address the many complex issues that face children and young people in care, by acknowledging that these are often multifaceted, and require practitioners to reflect systemically, and consider an ecological perspective (Coman & Devaney, 2011) to assessment and intervention.

Although the relationship is constantly reviewed between Project Manager, mentor and the young person, there is an official review by month five, whereby the measurement tool scores are reviewed, and there is a discussion as to whether the service needs extended (to achieve pertinent goals), or if the mentor should consider endings. Mentors in this service are trained ‘keyworking’ staff, who have a wealth of experience and relevant training which will enable them to address the complex issues, and develop a plan to support the young person. Volunteers are also utilised for young people who have less complex issues, but require befriending support.

An exciting aspect of this service will be the development of a ‘peer mentoring’ programme, whereby keyworkers will recruit and train young people from care-experienced backgrounds to become mentors for the LAC Mentoring Support Programme. The purpose of this is to provide an extra layer to the service, by offering the opportunity for a young person to be mentored by someone with an explicit shared experience of living in care, but also to provide several young people with training and paid experience for future career development.

It has been indicated that the empathic nature of the relationship between two parties is more important to treatment effectiveness than the therapeutic approach itself (Spencer, 2012). This would suggest that peer mentors who can truly empathise with the young people referred to the service, could achieve positive outcomes on the basis of understanding a shared experience. However, it is important to consider the implications of secondary trauma on the peer mentors involved in this process. Mentors may have their own unresolved trauma which could impact on relationships (Creaney, 2018). Furthermore, exposure to the complex environment of the LAC that they are mentoring could trigger re-traumatisation. Therefore, it is important that the peer mentor process involves a high level of support, monitoring and regular supervision.

Implications for social work practice/ service provision and link to Social Work Strategy

Despite the significant increase of children in care, there continues to be limited budgets and resource restraints. This is further impacted by the current context in Northern Ireland, whereby there is no Government, impacting on decision-making regarding a health and social care budget.

As previously mentioned, one of the core themes within the Social Work Strategy in Northern Ireland, and a key component for social well-being is ‘relationships and belonging’ (DoH (NI), 2017). When children and young people are moved into a care placement, they often not only leave their home, but their community, school and peer network (Clark et al, 2017). By recognising the multiple changes that these young people have experienced, practitioners can understand the difficulties and challenges faced when endeavouring to promote social inclusion and participation in society. However, this is where a mentoring service can have potential impact on supporting positive change.

An important role of a practitioner within this programme will be to build a relationship of trust, support the young person to identify areas of their life which may increase instability, and develop a plan to address these areas. It is also important that this role involves participation in the multiple systems that impact the life of a child or young person, such as home, school and community.

When considering the development of a programme for mentoring, it is important that the strength of the relationship is a focus of the intervention. It is important for the young people to feel safe, and the needs of the child to be paramount to the service (Benard and Marshall, 2001). It should include both goal-orientated and the social-emotional aspects of mentoring, based on an inherent value of relationships (Gilligan, 2006), and the informed consent and partnership of the child or young person.

One of the challenges for the current model is the time-limited nature of the mentoring relationship. In order to create a sustainable and confident relationship, it is important for practitioners to allow time and space for mutual trust to develop. However, in the current climate of voluntary sector funding, it is important for programmes to achieve the targets which are set by commissioner/funders, in order to decrease any risk of service closure. Furthermore, there is an increasing demand for direct work with young people, resulting in ongoing lengthy waiting lists. Therefore, it is important for project management to closely monitor all mentoring relationships, only extending the service on a needs-led basis, and be aware of potential relationship dependency or drift. This article acknowledges the difficulty of this, particularly given the research on the strength of long-term relationships for children and young people who are care experienced.

It can also be challenging for staff, who may feel pressure to achieve goals and support a process of change within time boundaries. ‘Burnout’ can be attributed to poor support with large and/or complex caseloads (McMullin, 2017). It is worth noting the importance of critically reflective practice within this service, as this can promote resilience for practitioners (Wylie & MacDermott, 2017), and how quality supervision is crucial, as it is essential to recognise that supportive relationships between practitioners and their managers enhance relationships between the mentor and the young person, and, as previously mentioned, these relationships in turn have the power to impact positively on relationships between children/young people and their families, and wider networks.

The LAC Mentoring Support Programme is in the early stages of implementation, and has only been delivering a mentoring service since August 2017. Therefore, it is expected to evolve and develop as mentor relationships come to an end, and scores from the Outcomes Star measurement tool can be evaluated. Ongoing feedback will also be sought from service users and stakeholders, which can be used to influence any changes moving forward. Therefore, it would be beneficial to revisit this chapter after a longer period of implementation, with the view to review and evaluate the service, and reflect on the effectiveness of the model with the service user group.

Conclusion

This article has set out to reflect on the development of a mentoring service within the voluntary sector. This service is funded by government departments following local policy on improving services for Looked After Children. There are increasing number of children being taken into care in Northern Ireland, and there is an ever-growing body of research which indicates the relationship between children who are in a care setting, and poorer social, educational and health outcomes. Furthermore, recent research suggests that there is a significant relationship between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and poor health and social outcomes in adults. Children in care will likely have experienced a number of ACEs, and therefore are more at risk for long-term poorer outcomes.

Although there is a limited knowledge on the effect of mentoring on outcomes for children, it appears to be a popular intervention which has been used nationally and internationally for over 10 years. Mentoring focuses on the power of relationship-based practice in social work and social care, and the ability that a strong relationship can have on influencing the change process for service users. Relationships and belonging are one of the core themes suggested by the social work strategy in Northern Ireland for improving well-being. Although this article recognises that the intervention may be ideal as there is no evidence of negative effects, and further research would be advisable to ascertain the impact of mentoring on producing better outcomes for children and young people in care.

One of the barriers identified in this chapter is the time limited nature of the service, principally as the importance of a consistent relationship is recognised throughout the research literature. This is something that requires evaluation, particularly as this service develops and evolves, and could be reviewed in a follow-up chapter.

Finally, this article has considered the implications for practice. Based on the literature review, it is not only important that the mentors develop a strong relationship, but that they recognise the child as part of a network of systems, and that the relationship could and should work alongside a number of other systems. The approach to mentoring that this service will take is to combine goal-orientated work with social development to address the specific needs of the young person, and that this intervention will take a holistic approach, recognising the multitude of systems that need to be assessed.

As this is the first year within this new service, it is important to continually assess and review these implications for practice, and it will be particularly interesting to reflect upon them after the end of year.

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