I think it’s probably fair to say that I did not follow the most direct path to becoming an intermediary.
It started off smoothly enough, leaving school at 18 and going on to study accountancy at university. How I ended up with a degree in social sciences is another story.
While I was at university, I started to do some voluntary work and it slowly dawned on me that I would like a job that involved people rather than numbers.
I was a member of a group that would collect patients from the local hospital for the ‘mentally handicapped’, as it was known at the time. We would take people out into the community to go to the pub or the cinema, and away on holiday. They absolutely loved it.
It is shocking to think, and I don’t think the implications struck me as much at the time, for some of these people our outings were the only time they left the hospital. Some of the older patients had been born in the hospital to unmarried mothers and would probably not have met the criteria for an intellectual disability. This was the late 1980’s not the 1890’s!
Changing my path
After leaving university, I felt that I would like to become a social worker and decided to get some work experience before embarking on the professional qualification. I started work in a children’s home, which specialised in placements for children with challenging behaviours. Many of these children had been through numerous previous placements since they were removed from their families, and the resulting trauma should not be underestimated. In spite of the often extreme level of abuse that they had experienced within the family home, many still felt a strong attachment to their birth families.
Sitting in family court now, in my role as an intermediary, I sometimes feel the trauma experienced by a child when they are removed from their families is minimised. Even when that move is clearly in the child’s best interests.
So many of the people I have worked with in family court were themselves “looked after children”. Sometimes they haven’t had enough modelling of parenting skills themselves, it is therefore not surprising that they may not have the skills to be considered “good enough parents” to their own children. For all of us, the circumstances in which we grow up are “normal”. We have to be exposed to other ways of parenting in order to question how we should raise our own children, and many of the people I support in court have limited life experiences and knowledge of the world.
After a couple of years, I was accepted onto a social work course, but before I could start, I found out that I was expecting my first child. I deferred my place for a year and then another year for baby number two and then again for number three! By this time, I wasn’t sure that I would be equipped to make the very difficult decisions that social workers are faced with making every day at work, so I had baby number four instead.
I spent the next years at home with my children. I gained organisational skills that have served me well since I have begun working at Communicourt. All those years of dealing with the logistics of collecting four children from four different clubs or activities in different places, at more or less the same time. Some evenings, it felt akin to a military operation. It certainly makes getting to a court or an assessment on time in an unknown location seem relatively straightforward.
Returning to adult social care
When my children were a little older, I returned to working with people with an intellectual disability as a support worker. I worked with people with varying levels of disability, some with a more moderate or profound learning disability who required round the clock support with all aspects of their daily lives. Others had a mild level of disability but with challenging behaviours or concomitant mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia or Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC). They required intense levels of supervision in order to safely engage with activities in the local community.
It was particularly with these clients that I developed skills in modifying the way I speak to enable meaningful communication to take place. These skills have been so vital in my role as an intermediary, such as using simple language, keeping the pace slow, using visual aids and checking that they have understood by asking them to repeat what has been said in their own words.
As a support worker, you are expected to teach clients new skills in order to maximise their independence. I became aware of just how much ‘overlearning’ is required before these skills become embedded. In family court, I often hear the charge levelled at the people we support that they have not made sufficient change, even when from their point of view, they have complied with everything they have been asked to do. They may lack the cognitive skills required to make and sustain the required changes – certainly, it would be very difficult for them to do this within the child’s timescales. At the same time, I recognise that the local authority try very hard to meet the needs of the parents and use modified parenting assessments, such as the PAMS assessment and adapted parenting programmes.
Some of the parents I have worked with find it very difficult to talk about what is in the child’s best interests, and instead talk about what they would like to happen from their own perspective. A parent with a mild learning disability or low IQ is likely to lack the metacognitive skills to look at the situation objectively, and to put themselves in the child’s position. It is a highly emotive situation and would be difficult for any parent when faced with their child possibly becoming the subject of a placement order. This difficulty is compounded when the parent has only basic functional language skills and lacks the higher level metalinguistic skills required to provide explanations and express their thoughts articulately.
The day our lives changed
I think my route to becoming an intermediary really began one morning, when as a family we experienced a massive shock. My healthy 13-year-old daughter had a major stroke one morning, completely out of the blue and with no warning signs. The next few months passed in a blur of hospitals, first in St Mary’s in London – the nearest paediatric intensive care bed they could find – and then at Birmingham Children’s Hospital for rehabilitation.
When she first came out of a coma, the stroke had left her with severe right-sided weakness and the inability to walk, talk or swallow. She was tube fed for many months before pureed food could be introduced.
My biggest concern soon became her inability to speak. I introduced an alphabet board, which she was able to use successfully. Luckily her language skills had been left intact. However, although we used this with her as a family in order to give her a voice, the nursing staff were very reluctant to use it, possibly due to lack of time – it was very time-consuming – and this led to even her basic physical needs frequently being overlooked.
Once she was discharged from hospital, she was seen by a community multi-disciplinary team, including an excellent speech and language therapist. With her support, my daughter was gradually able to recover some of her speech (and her ability to eat a range of foods).
Her speech is now intelligible to a familiar listener. However, she has dysarthria which affects some speech sounds and a neurogenic stammer, rendering her speech slow and effortful. Although her speech is not the only area to be affected long-term by the stroke – she has difficulties with short-term memory and executive dysfunction, as well as walking with a limp – it is her speech which has the single biggest negative impact on her life. As soon as she speaks, people make judgements about her, she is discriminated against in job interviews and people frequently put the phone down on her, when she attempts to make a phone call.
Moving to speech and language therapy
I was inspired by my daughter’s experiences, and by the positive impact speech and language therapy had for her, to return to university to study for a degree in Speech and Language Therapy.
On graduation, I found a post as a speech and language therapist in a special educational needs school, which was an excellent first role. It allowed me to put into practice what I had learned about assessing an individual’s communicative ability, identifying their difficulties and deciding on a course of therapy.
I quickly realised that I was not going to effect massive change due to the pupils’ complex needs, and I changed my focus to looking at improving their functional language skills and pinpointing what would be most useful to them as they approached school-leaving age and the prospect of college or employment and independent living.
Although I enjoyed this role, I began to miss working with adults and started to look for a new post. Communicourt piqued my interest, as it seemed that I could bring to the intermediary role the skills I had acquired throughout my working life, both as a speech and language therapist and as a support worker with adults with intellectual disabilities.
I really love working as an intermediary. The work is varied and interesting, and whilst I am working with someone, I feel like I am making a positive difference for the short time I am involved in their lives, in helping them to understand the court proceedings and to tell their story in the best possible way. I appreciate the support I get from the organisation and from my colleagues. It’s a lovely environment to work in.