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If we don’t invest in troubled kids now we’ll pay a very high price later

20th October 2009

By Fergus Finlay in the Irish Examiner

It hurts if there’s a pay cut in the house or if the pension levy eliminates any bit of slack in the monthly salary. It hurts more if a job is lost, and especially if there’s no chance of another one.

Unemployment that drags on for months can be devastating for any feeling of self-worth because we’re all so readily identified by "what we do".

If all we can do when we’re asked that question – "what do you do?" – is reply that we’re looking for work, it makes for an awkward pause in the conversation, especially if we’re at the age where a new career isn’t likely to pop out of the bushes.

And it hurts worrying about things like negative equity, doesn’t it? Or mortgage payments that we could manage a year ago, but are keeping us awake at night now. Or telling the kids there’ll be no holiday this year and we’re going to have to have a quiet Christmas.

It hurts most of all if you’re hungry or cold, if you’re being beaten or if you’re frightened of being beaten. And if you’re three or four. That really hurts.

Debbie, a little girl we work with, was expelled from three crèches before she was three. She couldn’t control her temper and she regularly bit the other kids. It was her granny who came looking for help because Debbie was living with them.

She had been abandoned by her young parents whose own lives had been overtaken by drug addiction and mental health problems.

For a long time after Debbie came to the early years centre, she had to be constantly shadowed by a full-time worker to protect her and the other kids in the centre.

Little by little, she has begun to learn how to talk about the things that make her angry, all of them experiences and memories that no child (Debbie is nearly five now) should have.

As time has gone by, her granny and she have developed a better understanding and her mum has begun to come back into her life. It will take a long time before her mum is stable enough to be able to deal with being a full-time mother, but painstaking work is helping. The Vincent de Paul Society is helping the family to ensure hunger is kept from the door, and it has also helped to furnish Debbie’s own room. Debbie can still become violent when she’s frightened or frustrated, but she is beginning to learn how to ask for support herself.

We’ve been working with Tom for a while too. Tom was three, and homeless for a while. His mother was abandoned and for a time in her life was addicted to heroin (she’s on a prescribed methadone programme now). It was Focus Ireland who helped them to move into an apartment, a nice one with two bedrooms on the ground floor. Up until then Tom and his mum had moved between various types of accommodations within Dublin – mostly hostels, B&Bs and a few very temporary bedsits.

When he started in preschool, Tom’s concentration and focus were quite poor and he found it difficult to express his emotions without lashing out at other children.

He found it really hard to initiate interactions with other children and to sustain those interactions for any amount of time. So he struggled – and mostly failed – to make friends with the other children.

He’s been working pretty well fulltime with a therapist to develop better skill in his dealing with the other kids. She’s also been working with Tom’s mum who would tell you herself that the stuff going on in her life was just too much to cope with. She had come to resent Tom’s dependence on her at a time when she wasn’t coping well herself, and Tom had come to believe that the most important person in his world couldn’t care less about him.

It’s going to take a while to fix, that one, but we’re seeing Tom make huge strides. He has friends in the group now and he and his mum have learned how to focus much more on the positive things in their relationship.

I wish I could be so sure about Kirsti. When she was 11, Kirsti told us she was pregnant. She wasn’t, but it took more than a year to help her to talk about what was really wrong. The story that eventually came out was one of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of a stepdad.

Kirsti was deeply ashamed because she had come to believe the abuse was her fault, but also because whenever she could, she hurt her younger half-siblings, sometimes in pretty terrible ways. Once, she tried to set fire to the place they lived in. They were his children and they deserved it because he hurt her. That’s what Kirsti believed, and that’s why she has been really suffering.

She’s safe from the violence now and appropriate child protection measures have been put in place around all the children. But the pain that kid is suffering is deep. She’s a teenager who likes to take risks and who believes she deserves whatever happens to her.

We’re still doing everything we can to help her believe none of that is true and she has had all the professional help available. But some pain takes an awful lot longer to heal than others. Some breakages are very hard to put back together.

I guess I’m telling you these stories (the names have all been changed, but otherwise they are true stories) for a particular reason. Work like this – the support offered to families by organisations like Focus Ireland, the Vincent de Paul Society, Barnardos and many others – is vital work. Sometimes it’s about preventing damage in kids’ lives, sometimes about repairing the damage before it goes too deep.

AS OFTEN as possible the work is aimed at giving kids some new skills – the kind of skills that effective parenting, or parenting that’s not under stress, can deliver naturally. Skills like the ability to make friends or to ask for help or advice.

Work like that doesn’t just help kids themselves. It can keep families together and when it’s done right – time-consuming and all as that is – it helps to rebuild them.

And the investment made in kids in trouble right now, when they need the help, saves heartache and even taxpayers’ money later. What would happen to Debbie, Tom and Kirsti without early intervention and help?

The only answer to that is a lifetime of trouble – the care system maybe, early school-leaving, joining a teenage gang, anti-social behaviour, brushes with the law – and who knows after that?

Kids in trouble are kids on a slippery slope and the harsh truth is that if we don’t help now – you, me, all of us – we’ll pay many times over to pick up the pieces after irreparable damage has been done.

Every bit of that work is under pressure now because of the recession and public spending cutbacks. It may not be possible to keep it all going. And that hurts.

This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Tuesday, October 20, 2009