Vanessa Farrell interview: Therapeutic opportunities in the time of COVID-19

May 2020

Written by Kelly Royds

In this video, we talk to Vanessa Farrell Therapeutic Care Manager at Anglicare. I had the opportunity to hear Vanessa speak at a recent Therapeutic Specialist Community of Practice on how COVID-19 had presented enormous therapeutic opportunities in the context of residential care.

In this conversation, Vanessa talks about the impact of COVID-19 on the young people and staff and how they were able to see not just the adversity and vulnerability that the pandemic created but also the incredible opportunity it offered for connection, healing and hope.  Through the conversation, Vanessa highlights the importance of child-led thinking rather than child-focused, the centrality of relationships and connection and the importance of using everyday interactions as opportunities for healing and change.

Video Transcript

Kelly Royds: Hello everyone my name is Kelly Royds and I’m a Senior Advisor here at the Centre for Excellence in Therapeutic Care and today I have the pleasure of speaking with Vanessa Farrell, the Therapeutic Service Manager at Anglicare. I had the opportunity to hear Vanessa speak at a recent Community of Practice on how COVID-19 had presented enormous opportunities in the context of residential care. And, I wanted to learn more. So, I thought I would kick off with, Vanessa, hi! Can you tell us a bit about your journey to the role you are in today?

Vanessa Farrell: I have been in this field for, probably, too long. My main background was, obviously, in Ireland and the UK in terms of social work and child protection.

From there, I began my own journey in terms of therapeutic practice, and I studied and started to work as an intricative and humanistic psychotherapist for the child protection system in about 1990.

I guess that came about because of an understanding that child protection and the safety of children isn’t in conflict with therapeutic repair and recovery. Those things can work extremely harmoniously together. So even when risk increases, therapeutic recovery isn’t negated by that risk. And so, we started to develop a number of programs, predominantly within the child protection system and out-of-home care system, to bring those two spaces together.

From there, I came out to Australia in 2014, and I spent most of my time working with NGOs in community, child and family services, working with the intensive teams in child protection. That was mostly around placement preservation or restoration work.

I hadn’t really considered coming back into any kind of residential environment until I came across this movement and, to me, it is a movement. Looking at how residential care and the stories and the knowledge that we now hold about the outcomes for young people wasn’t very promising and at times was very sad, and certainly, a reform of this space was really required.

When I started to see the thought and reflection that has gone into the architecture of the reform, I became incredibly excited. I thought, yeah, I think I need to be a part of that.

Kelly Royds: So, you were very much tantalised to come across and be part of this reform process?

Vanessa Farrell: I certainly was, and I remain so today. It is an absolutely, incredibly exciting space to be in.

Kelly Royds: When you think about your role as a Therapeutic Care Manager in the past six months, what resonates with you?

Vanessa Farrell: The journey and the change that has been experienced by probably everyone, I think, far surpassed what anyone thought would even happen.

We’re talking about an enormous movement. From, respectfully, holding or containment of a kind for children. You know, residential care was always seen as a last resort for children. I guess, coming into an ITC space, that was one of the first things that I wanted to be a part of changing an I wanted to be part of that change.

Coming into an intensive therapeutic care environment is not the last resort and, at times, it can be the best resort for a child who has experienced multiple breakdowns in placement—at times, giving them a break from trying to fit into that model as opposed to creating a model that fits around them.

This is what ITC represents for me. It is a space that allows a complete surrender of those traditional perceptions into looking at, not only, what are these child’s pain-based behaviours? We usually have some idea of what they are when the child comes to us.

But it is about: How can we create the set and therapeutic care conditions for that child that allows them to be able to safely, and selfishly, concentrate on their own recovery? As opposed to trying to do enough to keep everyone happy so that their placement doesn’t come to an end. In a very symbolic and unconscious way.

One of the greatest challenges and the greatest joys that this role holds for me is that: there is a very big difference between being child-focused and being child-led.

For me, my main focus in working with my teams here has been around that. Being child-focused is an approach; it is like being strength-based; it is an approach we can take to do our work. But it is still adultist; it is still adults doing for, doing to, and potentially talking about, with some input.

Whereas, being child-led is a decision. It means that we truly believe that children are decision-makers in their own right. They have not only the capacity to make informed and valuable decisions around their wellbeing but that we ought to be inviting these children to be in this space not just as participants but as equal members.

That is what we have really focused on trying to do so that the kids we work with are part of every process that touches their lives. So, that nothing is decided without their full knowledge and full participation.

Kelly Royds: Picking up on the last couple of months now, how have things changed? How have you adapted your role to work in the COVID-19 environment in with that therapeutic lens?

Vanessa Farrell: I fully understand the horribleness of suffering that has happened in the world because of this virus. People have lost people; people have been separated from the people that they love. I know this, and I empathise enormously. It impacts all of us. So, what I am about to talk about in no way diminishes that suffering for people.

But what it has also done is created the most unique opportunities to expand our perception, about what it means to be vulnerable? What it means to be in connection?

Connection is our greatest driver; we’re hot-wired to be connected to one another.

When something like this happens, it symbolically evens the field for me a little bit. Because with all the young people we are working with are highly vulnerable, that is why they are with us. We have accepted that their connection to the world around them and to their family has been—the very least— disrupted and—at the very worst—demolished.

We accept that, so the power differential within that relationship is very real.

We had been getting onto our lives and coming to work and attending to what we saw—all very good.

Then we had a situation where suddenly the world became very vulnerable, and our world changed substantially.

So, I was fascinated by what that would mean for the children we are working with.

I think it was Dave Murren, who said that: the best therapeutic relationship begins with two vulnerable people sitting in the room. From there, all sorts of magical things can happen.

That came back to me really strongly when this all started. Wow, now we have, and I have the opportunity to invite my team, to really explore what connection means, what adversity and vulnerability means?

Because now they were really walking the talk and living it alongside the children that they were there to work with. That is what I mean by the even playing field. Suddenly you had workers who are experiencing a whole new range of vulnerabilities, children who were experiencing a whole new range of vulnerabilities, alongside existing challenges, who are probably more experts on how to deal with it than we were because they’ve been doing it a lot longer.

What we started to talk about was, rather than us viewing this as a barrier to connection, why don’t we lean into the discomfort and see what happens?

Rather than being adults taking care of these kids in this crisis, we started looking at this as—we are all in this together. Where we choose to be or not, we are in this together. And, imagine this: we are in this together, without all the distractions that normally come along.

A lot of the children we work with are in mid-adolescent. So, their stage of development is all about leaving, starting to go further out and starting to develop their thinking and ideologies through peer groups and external factors. That all stopped, so suddenly we had an opportunity to look at each other.

What are we going to do?

We began to construct a whole new ideology:

  • What does tribe look like?
  • What does home look like?
  • What does being together look like? Building tolerance, building cooperation.

What we learned was—because the children had essentially nowhere else they could go, yes some were in and about and you had to retrieve them, but fundamentally they understood what was happening and their sense of social responsibility was very inspiring to us.

We began to be able to talk at a much deeper, spiritual level about what was happening. The political thinking, the stuff they were reading on the internet, the conspiracy theories, all of these things are very important in terms of that young adolescent beginning to expand their world view and consider other narratives that they may have been carrying for a long time, equally with a group of workers who themselves were able to lean into the discomfort of their own vulnerability and be in a place of not having to know the answers, and not necessarily knowing at all but having a willingness to expand their perception.

We don’t get opportunities like that very often.

Kelly Royds: Can you talk more to those opportunities and what they looked like in practice?

Vanessa Farrell: Everything we know about repair and recovery is about the development of relationship. It is about connection.

So, when you ask us what we are doing, it is about this pandemic, this awful situation has brought us to a place of slowing everything down. Everyone is not busy. Everyone is not running around executing programs of activity, because they can’t.

So, people were really forced to sit in the discomfort of, you know, what am I here to do? What is the purpose of my work with this young person? How can I begin to have a meaningful dialogue with them?

How do we do that? That is not rocket science at all. It is what we have done forever. We sit around the campfire, and we start to talk.

Who are we in this house? How do we know that we’re connected? How do we know that we’re safe?

And what we started to do, and what we can always be doing because it is a journey that is everlasting, is not just during this COVID-19 time but going forward: What are the rules and routines and the rituals that we decide together that determine and define the therapeutic care and recovery journey that we are on?

The young people that we work with are very clear that this is not their home, and it is not their home. It is very homey and beautiful.

But what it is, is a period of space and time where they can explore, fall down, be sad, be angry, and then begin to put the pieces back together again in a way that is highly intentional

It is the routines that we give these young people, so the safety and the predictability and consistency of the world and what an adult, whether that is male or female, represents that is underpinned at all times by safety. So safe voice, safe face, safe body, safe dialogue and safe talking, being safe, creating an environment that is intentionally safe.

I am not talking just about guidelines here, that are very important.

I am talking about safety in action.

Our behaviour during times of crisis.

Our behaviour during times of adversity.

Our during times when we feel vulnerable.

Our behaviour at times when the world doesn’t know what is going to happen next. 

We can create a space in time that really promotes a sense of safety. That is the first thing.

The second thing springing from that is, how do we know that the environment that we’re in is a place where you can begin to do your healing?

That is when our young people are invited in.

For example, when we moved recently, they were fully in charge of the design of the house, they all participated in how our environment would look, but through this expanded healing and therapeutic lens.

So, for example, they created a therapeutic room.

I was mesmerised when I asked them: “So, what are you going to call this space?”

And, they said: “What do you mean? This is a therapeutic room. This is where we are going to sit and talk about our repair and recovery, so we are going to call it a therapeutic room.”

And I said: “Well, great.”

Kelly Royds: What have you been hearing from young people at this time about safety and connection?

Vanessa Farrell: I think for us in this space, there is a number of things that we started to notice, and the children started to teach us.

Our kids that we work with carry severe loss. We know this. Loss of family. Loss of community. Loss of safety. Loss of joy. Loss of happiness. All of those things. When the children heard that they couldn’t go to see their parents, or their brothers and sisters, or the people that they love, there were two things we could do.

One is, we could talk about COVID-19, and of course, we did that.

But we also saw it as an enormous opportunity to begin to explore, just what loss is?

One of our young people was absolutely beside himself because his Grandma is very elderly. She is just a beautiful woman who is very, very significant in his life and, he was terribly worried about her. So the way that we could show tenderness to him was by making sure and reaching out in the area that she lived in that she was safe, and that she had the services that she needed around her, that she was getting enough food. So that he could feel assured that she was OK while he couldn’t see her.

And because he experienced this tenderness from his team in a way that he may not have observed in everyday busy, busy, busy, running around… It was the tenderness of connection and care that he experienced from the team and the interest in his Grandmother that allowed him to begin to really open up and talk to us about other things that were part of his greater loss picture.

So, if you like: Adversity brought vulnerability, brought opportunity, brought connection. In turn, it was his experience not of having a response to his Grandmother’s care that changed it; it wasn’t; it was his experience of tenderness that changed it for him

After a short period of time, he actually called me up and said: “I need to talk to you” and I said: “OK”.

He said: “I really feel that I want to be part of this house, V. I think I can do my healing here”, and I said: “OK, so when this is done, and we can move around again, I guess we need to go get your Grandma’s blessing.”

He came out as a leader of the interventions, as opposed to being a child being who is being led through that intervention. He is now the architect. He is planning it, he’s taken on board everything that needs to happen, and he will then let me know what the plan is. My job is to purely accompany him on that journey.

They were seeing that their team were willing to put themselves at risk. We said as a team when all this started; we talked about, we may have a situation where we have to go into lockdown completely. You know, children that become infected, what will we do? How will we manage that? All of these questions. These are issues we talked with the children.

They started to expand their perception of relationships, in terms of, a team that they had taken a lot for granted. You know, they’d come on shift and off shift.  Suddenly, there was beginning to be an understanding of, first of all, “well, I know you’ve got children at home, and you’ve come in to look after us. Thank you for doing that.”

That then began to go a lot deeper. What is it that makes you want to be here with us? When alls we do is cause you grief? When you can stay home, you don’t want to stay with your family?

And there was the invitation from that young person to ask: What is our connection about? What is the authenticity that interweaves our connection? And, there is a risk taken there. There is a risk you might not like the answer. But what transpired was these very meaningful and very honest conversations that are absolutely and fundamentally driven by relationship.

Kelly Royds: One of the things that is staying with me now is the concepts we started with, of both being vulnerable and of levelling the playing field. What is sitting with you now, Vanessa, reflecting back on this period of time?

Vanessa Farrell: I think for me, and this is purely mine, what I have been thinking about for a young time is how spiritually devoid therapeutic care and recovery work has become. I’m not talking about religion, but I am talking about the ability to understand something greater than ourselves and whatever that looks like.

I guess the old age question of: why are we here? What is our purpose? What is our meaning?

I have been doing this work for over 30 years and I, in very simple terms, know that the most distressed that people feel is due to having no purpose or meaning in their lives. People can tolerate just about anything once they have purpose and meaning.

Viktor Frankl talks a lot about that in his work when he talks about – you know, you can put a person in the most adverse conditions, but once they have a reason for being there and purpose to guide them in that space, they will pretty much overcome anything. That is something I have been thinking about well before COVID-19.

What COVID-19 did for me, and my team is that it crystallised that kind of thinking – that nothing is certain. The social constructs that we form to make us feel comfortable and safe can be taken away from us at any given moment.

When we think about the young people we work with, that is the story of their lives. That, at any given moment, anything that they have, that they grasp onto with their fingernails to hold their heads above water, can be taken away from them at any time.

So, what I would like my team, and myself, to be taking away in a really intentional way is that what we need is to be much more comfortable with the discomfort of being uncomfortable in the work that we do. And to begin to transcend some of those ideologies or social constructs that we have put in place to give us a reason not to do that.

When I talk about these things, I am always talking about a couple of things. One is about; we are hot-wired to be in connection and in relationship to others around us. When we don’t have that, we become extremely destructive, disoriented and, ultimately, will die. We will emotionally die; it is as simple as that.

We have had an opportunity through all this to slow down, and take a look at ourselves, as a social species and, ask: What are we doing? Why are we continuing to create more, and more, and more disconnection when we know that connection is the thing that drives us? How do we bring this thinking and this experience—as something that is real and tangible—into the children that we live with every day? How do we turn that into, well yeah that’s a reasonable thought, we all need to be connected into what is a physical and real program of safety and activities? How can I increase my connection to these four young people by how I put the cups in the cupboard? Everything thing is a connection activity or a safe activity.

How we talk about vulnerability in a way that is normal.

I want to take all the fear and the vulnerability and the uncertainty that this insidious virus brought into our lives and allow it to grow a willingness to be brave – even when we’re really scared because we live in a very uncertain world.

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