My experience of toxic staffing relationships in children’s homes. By Ben Westwood

Hi folks, it’s taken me a very long time to feel comfortable enough to write this post. The things I’m going to talk about are quite recent experiences in my life, only a few months ago in fact but I’ve had to go through my own processing too.
Also, it’s just really uncomfortable that ‘working with young people’ and ‘being dismissed from my job’ even come into the same sentence. But I guess that’s even more reason why writing this post is so important.
And also because only a year ago I was raising funds to help me move myself and my stuff down to Somerset, where I was then due to start my role working with young people.

I’ll backtrack a little briefly for those that don’t really know me. In a nutshell I was in care and a frequent runaway living on the streets as a child and young teen. Then three or four years ago I wrote a book about it. (Poems From a Runaway)
A children’s home company I’d been working with brought a few copies of my book and offered me an interview to work with them, and then offered me the job. How great was that I thought. Maybe I’ll even find my tribe there in colleagues.
We’re all human, and I did come across a lot of goodness, but still it didn’t work out like that at all. In fact I’m left shocked at how it felt to be on ‘the other side’ as it were. It’s best I now explain.

Perhaps before I go on, it’s worth admitting and questioning was I a ‘really good person for the role?’ Perhaps not even i dunno, but I put that partly down to struggling with getting my driving lessons and tests booked speedily (covid really didn’t help) and partly inexperience. There were other things I needed to brush up on. The methods of TeamTeach and other such resources for helping to work with and understand young people. But I think what was hampering progress even more, was the fact that I’d been coming home complaining almost every day about work, but never really about the young people I’d been working with.

Truth is, for much of my experience at the company (I worked in two homes) I felt more like an agency member of staff than a part of the team. Despite handover meetings etc, I was often outside of the loop with what was going on at the home or young people’s lives. Established staff would often talk about situations and events among each other whilst I had to pretty much tug their sleeves to say “I’m here, a member of the team, can you explain to me what’s going on please?”

I’d already had worrying signs when the company had offered me the job pending the DBS checks but had taken months to respond to the two or three emails I’d written explaining that I was concerned they’d gone off the radar. But once we regained communication I’d soon forgotten about that.

I guess I’d had a niggle in the back of my mind once I moved down here of how close the homes were to a person in my life that had been complicit in allowing some pretty heavy stuff to happen to me after whistleblowing events over the last few years. Still now though, and after what I’m about to tell you, I’m not really confident they are linked. It was just one of those things in the back of my mind that had come to surface once in a while.

We’d been working with young teens of which some were struggling with their hygiene. I got on the staff whatsapp group and said that I thought it would be a great idea if me and the other new member of staff were to get a present for all of the young people there to say that it was a pleasure meeting and working with them.
Because they were all young lads we were working with, I suggested some high quality shower gels I’d once come across as well as shower sponges or those ‘manscrubber’ things, because I remember how much of a hygienic revolution it was for myself as a young adult to discover the benefits of using a sponge instead of seeing half of a shower-gel bottle disappear down a plug hole.

The top managers of the company seemed to think over the whatsapp group that it was a nice idea, although no one else bothered to reply. I just had a sense after that things felt weird.
I’d already brought it up once in the office before that actually, and despite understanding and weighing up the rules on gifts due to safeguarding, I didn’t think there was a problem with it. Was everyone getting an equal gift? Yes. Was it from just one member of staff? No!

However, in both of the homes I’d worked in I was getting tip-offs from the young people of when staff members where acting bitchy behind my back to me.
I’d been asked to help one of the young people I’d often worked with to run a bath when I’d struck up a conversation about how great I thought epsom-salt shower gels were(he was a sporty young person).
“Oh yeah by the way, the staff all think you’re weird” he said to me.
I asked him what he meant when he responded that he’d heard the staff saying that what I’d put over the whatsapp group and mentioned in the office was weird.
I’m actually really grateful for him telling me that, but at the same time it’s uncomfortable to both work and have that in your head.

I think this young person trusted me though. There were things in the home that I was far from happy about. This particular young person was the complete scapegoat of the home and when it came to how staff interacted with him, it was obvious many of the staff had a bee in their bonnet about him. Often referring to incidences that happened before I even arrived, and a sense of non-forgiveness.
I’d began to question why as a staffing team we weren’t intervening enough when the other small number of residents were pushing him against the wall, punching him, and roughing him up every day. It was obvious this lad wasn’t a fighter, and it was horrible to see.

I was often responded with stuff like “Oh it isn’t that bad” , “they are just being kids” etc etc.
I do know that my relationship went sour quite immediately with two of the young people when one day I said “Come on lads, leave it out, you’re kinda bullying him now.”
It was no surprise those lads took a dislike to me after that if I was the only one there saying it.

Also having staff offices in immediate hearing shot of young people’s bedrooms is perhaps a bad idea. Especially when staff are mocking other young people in the home with their everyday language, labelling them mockingly as ‘special’. Like say the young lads name was John, they’d use it as everyday reference, things such as “Oh Max didn’t enjoy it there, he walked into a room full of John’s and looked at me strange like he didn’t want to be there.”

I questioned with my manager why this sort of language was being used within the home towards the young people living there and was told what I presume is bantered around other sectors – “Oh but people have to let off steam, you can’t take everything at work too seriously.”

Things started to feel a bit weird though when I was left out of IRF incidences and then told I wasn’t pulling my weight when I blatantly was. I remember one night a young lad had been in a heightened state and during a sleep in I’d woken up having heard the commotion.
I then came out of the room I was in and was asked by the two staff members on shift with me to not worry about it and go back to bed. I didn’t really feel comfortable doing that, so I got dressed and went downstairs to the event because I felt it was the right thing to do.

The young lad had been throwing bricks, and no round of applause needed but I’m still quite proud of the brick i caught that was heading for the back windscreen of the homes car. The young lad was sat down in the office and loosely restrained until he’d calmed down.
The two staff members were adamant they didn’t need me around, and so when it seemed like I had no longer been needed and knowing I’d be doing the cleaning in an hour or so (because I was literally always still cleaning until last minute) I returned to bed for an hour.

A couple of days later I was pulled aside by my manager and asked why I hadn’t left my room to help with the incident and had been told the two other staff members had complained about it. “But I was out of my room, I was there with them outside” I replied.
I was shocked to learn that there was no mention of me whatsoever on the IRF’s either. Apparently I was fast asleep during it all!

It was obvious that I wasn’t fitting in. Then I got a phone call from someone that had worked for the company briefly before having to leave for personal reasons. I’d really enjoyed working with them actually and thought they seemed good at the role. They had used the company for a reference and although their other references were up to scratch, the company seeking the reference had been told by the company I was with that this person shouldn’t be allowed to work with young people. They still got the job they were going for though thankfully.
I’ve since spoken with this person that has gone on to say it was a horrid experience working at the homes we were at.

The relationships and dynamics had got a bit weird. Like it might sound a bit weird the way I put this, but it felt to some degree like me and the young lad were the scapegoats, dodging the crap of everyone else. Even that young lad told me that the staff didn’t respect me. And he wasn’t wrong.
Standing up for him had made me a bit of a target to some degree. The two lads that had been bullying the other one were now frequently attempting to ‘rush’ me. Sure I got a few surprise body punches, and drenched in anti-bac a few times. They weren’t fully grown blokes though, so it didn’t actually bother me half as much as the issues with staff relationships and the workings of the home.

When incidences had happened like this, I’d often get sent home. Things were looking up once I attended my first TeamTeach training, i thought it would be useful. Still I wasn’t a part of the team though, some of the team including deputy managers had previously worked together in the same prison so I guess there was always going to be a click. Let alone the feeling that being a care leaver myself I was more likely to them sort of more in common with the prisoners they’d worked with than the guards!

I remember one staff member no longer working there telling me to be careful of watching for those lying, explaining that one staff member would simply lie through their teeth and accuse other staff members about stuff every now and then.

For sure the driving thing hadn’t helped. And in raw honestly it was party due to covid but partly due to me struggling to keep on it. I do have to take some blame for that as its an essential part of the job. Still I was able to go out on walks etc with young people. I was soon transferred from that home to another one which i had high hopes for when I got there, and really enjoyed working with the young people there too.

I’d already bonded with some of the team before my transfer there when I was attending training days. There were some tasks where we had to work as a team, and I think others could see that when I was asking my work team questions they were blatantly pretending not to hear me, claiming they had been a little tired. I’m not stupid though, I know psychological abuse when I see it.

Luckily at the training day I moved over to train with some of the people working at the other homes, and felt the energies between us communicated a lot better. I felt accepted among them I guess.

The peace was soon about to end though when one of my shift partners had just got a bit too much up her own backside. I was constantly mocked and undermined for my lack of experience, and being asked not to make gut instinct decisions that managers had no problem with.
Who was doing all the dirty jobs like cleaning toilets, ovens, feeding the chickens and clearing up spilled-over bins on all my shifts? Muggy old me. (The manager would sometimes feed the chickens on her way in to be fair).

Then it was obvious that I was starting to experience gaslighting and being undermined on pretty much every shift. Other staff members that I’d got along with had noticed it and mentioned it to the manager. I pulled up my colleague one morning about what she’d said to me, some ignorant generalisation about kids in care. I told her it wasn’t fair to label everyone like that.
Later that day she had the front to say to me “I need to talk to you about earlier when you shouted at me and told me to shut the eff up?”
I know i didn’t, or wouldn’t, say that and whilst writing this I’m starting to wonder if that particular conversation was being covertly recorded in an attempt to stitch me up.

Even though I got on better with much of the team at this place, working with that shift partner was just doing my head in and I felt my mental health start going downhill rapidly. Everything about working there was starting to frustrate me.
I’d already given warnings to my new manager about certain decisions she was taking, such as not buying another charger lead for the house tablets because the one the young people were using was broken and they had to apparently ‘learn how to start looking after them’ (it’s just a lead for goodness sake!)
Indeed the car window did go through that day. I knew something like that would happen, nobody likes to be treated like that. Not that I’m condoning it but I knew immediately that I was likely to react just the same back in the day. I think power just goes to a lot of people’s heads. A lot of young people in care won’t tolerate it though!
Can’t help but wonder that the young person was being a bit stitched up there. Hopefully was just a bad decision though.

I knew my time was coming to an end though when I was pulled into the staff office and told I was being put on a ‘performance improvement plan’. I’d already heard of this briefly beforehand whilst researching on toxicity in the workplace and was given the heads up that if this was to happen then they likely wanted me out of the company.
The atmosphere in the office was a sudden shock for me, I wasn’t actually expecting it and it put me on edge a little bit. I was offered to take up the rest of my leave, which I really wish I’d taken as I was completely shafted by the company afterwards which left me struggling to pay the rent.

I wasn’t totally convinced they wanted me out though at that point, like maybe they just wanted or needed me to improve. I could accept that I think, I know there’s a lot I need to brush up on still. Who doesn’t after only 6 months or so in the job.

I was still doing the jobs others were offloading onto me, covering for other people’s weekly reports, up into early hours of the morning catching up on paperwork etc, guess we all do that though maybe, i dunno.

Anyhow, my time at the company was about to come to an abrupt end one day when my shift partner, and new deputy manager (who i actually really liked) had helped a young person purchase a sim card. One day the young person asked me to get it for him so that he could register his phone.
I’d felt a bit iffy about it so decided to ask my deputy manager what he thought, which he said it was ok. The young persons safety plan was in the process of being ‘liberated’ to some degree anyway and many of his safeguarding restrictions in the process of being eased.
However, although he had been with the deputy manager sorting his sim card out that night, the young person had not handed the sim card back in and had managed to somehow call a girl he had become interested in.
Hands up to my error there, I should have checked in on it and had presumed my shift partner and deputy was on the ball with it.

The next morning it was made apparent that our young person had been making phone calls and I was asked to help find the sim card before being asked by another member of staff to return to the office.

I was instantly told that I was being dismissed for this having already been on a performance plan. No questions, no basic suspended pay, no investigation, nothing.

I was then told that if I was seeking a job in the safeguarding profession and would require a reference then the company would have to explain that I’d been dismissed.
Fair enough, but at the same time the company are now completely stonewalling me and totally ignoring my requests for a letter explaining my dismissal. This has hammered my confidence in regards to looking for work, like where do you start explaining all that and being confident that people have faith in what you say?

Oddly enough, I’ve been on twitter this morning explaining that I’m about to write this post. I’ve just had a weird fake message from HMRC saying they are launching a fraud case against me. Let’s hope this isn’t connected. I really hope not. (There’s my overthinking mind for ya!) But with such strange behaviours already experienced, u never know.

But it’s all been a bit strange you know.

After my 3rd request asking for a letter explaining my dismissal being ignored, I’m kinda done with this company now. A complete joke, and it is likely obvious I’m sort of suspicious about them now.

Even more former staff members have been in touch and had givin me the heads up not to hold my breath waiting for a response.
With staff constantly complaining about being refused annual leave and with myself experiencing being told to ‘see a doctor’ when I asked about resources relating to ‘mental health in working with young people’ this company totally needs a shake up.
I know they’ll read this no doubt, and are likely to be offended. But that’s just not my problem anymore.

Perhaps I was too weak in not speaking out when I should, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned is that I can totally understand how new team members can find it awkward rocking the boat. Like I rocked it a little, but perhaps not enough.
The whole thing stinks for sure though.
Onwards and upwards mind. New paths ahead.
I’ll be launching my bead shop, check it out 🙂

Ben Westwood.

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