Miracles Can Happen
Returning to places one has known, where important things have happened, loves won or lost, hopes developed and later materialised, or not, especially places left a significant time before - such returns can evoke strong feelings.
A return to a place is often used to begin stories, which are then told in flashback, such as the one told by Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, with its first line, 'I have been here before’, or Rebecca, whose nameless narrator began, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. We are drawn in, our curiosity awakened - what happened at Brideshead, at Manderley?
Well, last week, I went to Derby again. I had lived and worked there before, through much of the 1990s. I took an early train from St Pancras, one of the seven wonders of London, where I now live, and then hopped into a taxi that took me past lots of familiar places and on to Derby University. I was to run a half day workshop there on solution-focused practice for 1st year social work students, for one of the skills days in their Preparing for Practice module.
The taxi skirted round Chaddesden, or Chad as it was commonly known (still is, I guess), which sprawls over much of the north east of the city of Derby, and is where the Reception Team was based, in the Perth Street office, in the 1990s. The team consisted, I think, of seven social workers and a manager, and we were the first port of call for anything to do with children and families that might require the involvement of Social Services in the northern half of the city.
This is the place where I started to use solution-focused brief therapy - in an informed sense at least, informed by having undertaken a training course that is. I had tried asking about “exceptions” having read about this simple and promising sounding idea in A Brief Guide to Brief Therapy, by Brian Cade and Bill O’Hanlon, shortly before my move to Derby City in 1993, but found it hard to know how to proceed just from reading a book.
What I needed was to learn with other people - for “knowledge is social” (a great idea I gleaned from Danish social worker, Niels Christian Barkholt). I did that first by attending a 4-day training course with Chris Iveson of BRIEF, in September 1995, when I drove from Derby to Birmingham each day, becoming increasingly excited, until the course finished that Friday and I impatiently waited for the weekend to get out of the way so that I could put the solution-focused approach into practice in my work as a social worker.
Then second, I learned by working together with colleagues in the Reception Team, who began to become interested as soon as I put my hand up the Monday morning after the course, to volunteer to visit a family in crisis, whose parents had contacted the office on the Friday afternoon desperate for help. Later that day I was sitting with the family of five, asking each of them in turn about their miracle day the next day, and finding it a miracle myself when I had gone through a whole session and they wanted me to return and see them again later that week. It seemed an even bigger miracle to me when I did return, took a deep breath and asked “What’s better?”, to find that there had been some progress.
I’ve never really looked back from then, as with the help of my manager - take a bow, the wonderful Wendy Purgavie - and the support and later the involvement of my colleagues - take a bow, Phil Lewis and Margaret Hinchcliffe in particular - I gradually learned how to use the solution-focused approach, with families in Derby North. I learned that there were times when we could use the whole approach in planned sessions, and that I could use it more opportunistically too, seizing the moment when a solution-focused question might prove useful. Many of those moments in those days involved the use of coping questions, especially with parents struggling to get by, and I discovered the power of acknowledging huge difficulties while simultaneously edging towards possibility.
For a year or so, I used the solution-focused approach on my own, with families I was working with, but then, sometime in 1996, the most important development of all began. This was the formation of a mini solution-focused team, known as REFIT (short for the Reception Family Intervention Team - the name made up for its catchy acronym), within the Reception Team. My learning, and that of the colleagues who worked with me, really accelerated once we started seeing families together. I’m sure the families received a better service from our team approach, and we could learn too from seeing each other in action and being able to receive immediate feedback on what we did, as well as having the opportunities for discussing what we were doing that were presented.
REFIT continued until August 1998, when I left Derby to work in Leicester, where my solution-focused training career began, which is another story. I regret that I did not write up what we did, which was probably due to a mixture of a lack of writing experience and a focus on a new job and life in Leicester. REFIT had caused quite a stir though, attracting interest not only in Derby Social Services, but much further afield, including in Gateshead. My colleague and friend, Viv Hogg, who had followed my lead in seeking out some solution-focused training, ended up managing a duty team there, and finding some fellow solution-focused aficionados. Inspired by REFIT they implemented their own version (Hogg and Wheeler, 2004), which enabled them to develop the skills they would later put to use in their pioneering Signs of Safety work.
Nothing is ever lost though, and almost 20 years after REFIT began I did write an article about it - co-wrote rather, with my friend Steve Moore. Steve had an ingenious idea about how to structure the article, following the solution-focused process itself in doing so, and playing creatively with time frames. Unfortunately, an article written in 2016 about a service that operated in 1996-8 was not deemed relevant enough for contemporary social work. I respectfully suggest its assessors might have been mistaken! I believe there are lessons here for change-oriented, strengths-based social work, for helping work more generally, and also for implementing systems change.
So I am pleased to be able to “publish” it here on this website. Miracles Can Happen indeed.
It did feel like a miracle. Everything became different for me after I trained in SFBT, and I can hardly recall now how I worked before this. A lot has changed too since I left Derby, moving progressively further south, via Leicester, to London. As I looked back from there last week, some other famous opening lines of a novel would have fitted well:
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
18th January 2020
Hogg, V. and Wheeler, J. (2004). Miracles R them: Solution-focused practice in a social services duty team. Practice, 16, 299-314.
Brideshead Revisited, Rebecca, and The Go-Between.