I've blogged about people being at the heart of GSL. The importance of people means the importance of relationships, communication and trust. In my years in this sector I have had many client conversations about relationships.
A number of years back, when we were trying to establish 'short stay' as a service, a young woman came to us. Although her diagnosis was intellectual impairment the true disabling trait was impulsivity. She desperately wanted friends and a sense of belonging. The crowd she was connecting with were having fun at her expense. Her parents were unable to stop her from running away from home to 'hang out', and frequently she would be brought home by the police with charges relating to public nuisance. When she came to us, we didn't have enough staff to cover the amount of hours, so I did some of the shifts.
I found that if she was highly entertained she would stay. The only issue was that this was near impossible to achieve, so as her team we asked her to stop running. Instead, we suggested, she should become the near adult that she was, by telling us where she was going and what time she thought she would be back. We went so far as to say we could come and pick her up. This worked for a while. She would say where she was going and then we would text when it was time to be picked up. It worked ... until it didn't.
When she stopped being at the meeting point, more and more frequently, team anxiety came in to play. There were arguments, just as I suspect there had been with her parents. She was comfortable in this friction. As I watched, I realised she had been in this 'fight-and-run' routine with her parents for a long time. She knew this routine - she knew the pleads of not to go, the negotiations when it was obvious she was going to leave and the threats that would fly as she took off. When we had said she could go, she was on uncertain ground, this was not the routine she knew. I wondered that she was acting to re-establish the more familiar learned routine.
It was not only the friends she was needing, I couldn't help but feel there was a need in this routine. Why would a young person want to be in conflict with the parents she loved? I knew she loved because she always returned, cried, and said she wouldn't do it again (until the next time). I knew they loved her or they wouldn't have been so scared and anxious every time she left. Watching 'Home and Away' with her, it occurred to us that it was the high drama. The team and I realised we were in our own version of 'Home and Away'. Our young woman loved this show! She watched transfixed as drama upon drama surprised and delighted her. She sat still and focused in front of the television, something we didn't see at other time.
I am not a 'Home and Away' follower, so as I watched the program I didn't know characters or plot. Our young woman filled me in on every little detail and it occurred to me that the drama came from relationships. Our young woman seemed particularly attuned to tension in love relationships; who had betrayed who, and who had hurt who. It occurred to me that broken trust in a loving relationship was the pattern.
The team and I started focusing on 'trust'. I remember the day I stuck the visual representation of a 'trust thermometer' to the fridge. It was a bad analogy because I wanted to represent a 'trust account' with deposits and withdrawals. I just knew she didn't understand money so the concept of withdrawal and deposit would have been lost on her. I explained we work hard to get trust, but that it is very easily lost. The shared trust thermometer went up and down every day. She hated the thermometer!
We talked about love and trust: the love with her parents and that they needed to trust she would act safely when she left them. As she started to understand the message we saw small changes. Much of the drama from that point forward was in relation to her ripping down the 'trust thermometer' from the fridge when we had conversations about broken trust.
I'd love to end this story with a happy ending but I can't. It's now four years later and although the young woman returned home (I suspect to get away from the trust thermometer), she remains in the same cycle with her parents.
The reason I'm blogging about this story this morning is because last week I learned from a parent that we'd broken her trust. I felt devastated as I learned we hadn't communicated very well during the week of our 'perfect storm' and through this we'd let her and her son down. It shouldn't have happened.
I've spent the weekend thinking about what I was told.
I was told how wonderful her son's support workers are, how they've become a part of the family because they've seen and been a part of it all. She had me in stitches with the stories of exposed private family moments. What happens in the home should stay in the home! The only reason she hasn't decided to walk from GSL is because of these relationships. It's interesting that she's separated her relationship with her son's team from her relationship with the organisation that let her and her son down.
After this conversation, it occurred to me that in one family relationship we share many. GSL is represented by many people. One wonderful person (or in this case a team of wonderful people) isn't enough. Our challenge is to act as one, to communicate as one and to be trustworthy as a whole.
I am grateful this Mum came to me. I suspect it would have been much easier for her to find another provider and just drift off without explanation. I am so immensely grateful that she is willing to invest in us and give us another chance. Now it's up to us to re-build the trust she once had in us.
Over the weekend I have been pondering the thought of posting an open, online 'trust account'. I'm not sure how it would work, or whether people would be interested in using it, but I am conscious that many will not go to the lengths of providing feedback like this mum. Trust is at the foundation of all our relationships and every relationship we share with a family and client is individually important. There needs to be trust.
In many of my conversations with clients about relationships, I talk about the relatively easy stages of making a new relationship and doing fun things together to keep the relationship. The harder bit is repairing a relationship. It would be almost super-human to be perfect so we all damage relationships. It depends on how much is in the 'trust account'. How big was the damage, and how much of a withdrawal did it represent? The most important qualities, in my view, are to recognise responsibility, apologise and then act to repair the damage by not doing it again.
We are in the business of trust. I am so grateful to this mum for the honest feedback she provided (her tears and hugs were an indication of just how hard this was for her to do). My pledge is that we will do our best to repair and rebuild the trust you should have in us.