Class of ′78: Gabrielle Jerome

By Gabrielle Jerome

| 22 March 2019

Key learnings for me at Bradford were the unique blend of person-centred practice, and analysis and understanding organisations, reflecting on trends shaping the development of services - social policy, race, disability, gender issues and systemic thinking, and crucially the ability to use one's self as a tool for change.

Practice placements in generic field work, mental health and community work settlement placements, and hours of debates and discussions in uni, local pubs and curry houses complemented the learning.

There were no computers, no mobile phones, no internet available to us, very few procedures, and everything was handwritten - hard to imagine these days!

The combination of individual vs community perspectives, set in the context of experience and culture, have enabled life-long skills development throughout my career as social worker/senior manager in three local authorities, the voluntary and independent sectors.

Local authority practice in the 1980s was generic and blended these two approaches - individual work and risk management combined with scope for developing community resources. 
In the mid-1990s I joined the newly emerging independent fostering sector, viewed by many at the time with scepticism, echoed by my manager, who said: "It won't last you know." Our agency became the largest provider of foster care in the UK. I particularly valued the total focus on doing the best for a child, creatively, along with the ability to improve practice locally as well as influence fostering standards more broadly.  
Our company expanded as "Key Assets Group" into Ireland, Sweden, Finland, US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan, with CSR projects in Bulgaria and India, presenting a new set of challenges: how to set international standards for foster care, how to raise the profile of carers from "volunteers", how to act as a catalyst for change in environments and systems where children's basic right to family life was overlooked.

Our approaches varied from country to country - 95 per cent of looked-after children in Japan and all but 200 in Bulgaria were in institutions, both countries operated "baby homes" run by paediatricians.

In Japan I was asked "how do you look after babies in foster care?" I responded: "How do you look after babies in your family?"

We ran a series of UK foster care study tours for Japanese professionals and politicians, complemented by in-country advocacy, awareness raising and political engagement, and several years later were given the go-ahead to start foster care.
In Bulgaria, babies were abandoned at birth by many Roma families for reasons of poverty, or on the advice of the medics if the child had any form of disability. Working in partnership with a local NGO we developed quality foster care through training, mentoring and joint management of a fostering project, supporting the government to close down huge Soviet-style institutions which had been the only option for children for many years.

Each country faced its own challenges with looked-after children - in some states in Canada and Australia children had lived in motels/hotels for years, children in the US commonly prescribed psychotropic medication to address behavioural issues, or children with autism growing up in adult psychiatric hospitals, migrant children arriving in Europe in unprecedented numbers, children in aboriginal communities in Canada and Australia, affected by intergenerational traumas as a result of historic assimilation policies, the escalation of child trafficking globally. 

India regulated foster care in 2015, and we worked in partnership with an NGO and government to produce a practice manual for foster care. 

The skills developed at Bradford have stood me in good stead, and continuous learning and new challenges has been energising. Working with local practitioners has been key to progress - they understand their own country and systems, and finding people with passion to make a difference has been key.

I am often minded of a quote from Lao Tse - "To lead the people, walk behind them".

I am indebted to the academics and colleagues in Bradford with whom I started out on this journey and to all the colleagues I have worked with along the way, after 40 years of practice I still feel excited about the potential to make a difference.

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