Cristina Odone looks at the Catholic Children Society's homes
THREE SKULLS of dark clay stare down from the shelf in the makeshift artist's studio. Snakelike hair spouts from the heads. Holes gape where eyes should be, and each skull grins with huge black teeth. The ominous trio scowls at its seven year-old creator, Johnny. According to his art therapist, the heads represent the father, mother and brother he hasn't seen for more than four years.
Johnny is one of the 18 children living in the Catholic Children Society's homefinding units in Gravesend. The two units house children who range in age from three to 18.
What these children share is an unhappy track record with foster homes and adoptive families: many have gone through as many as five different homes by the time they reach Gravesend.
Increasingly, local authorities send these "hard to place" children to the Catholic Children Society, where, for up to two or three years, a special staff prepares the youngsters for successful adoption.
"These children have gone through so much by the time we take them in" explains Project Leader David Dunbar — "a number have been sexually abused (many by their own family members), some have witnessed terrifying parental quarrels, one had watched his mother's murder."
The children manifest their anxiety and unhappiness in a variety of different ways from total silence to violent outbursts — and this renders them often unsuitable for adoption.
Hence the role of the Catholic Children Society as a halfway stage between the home from which they've had to be taken, and the future home where hopefully they will find understanding and love.
Working with these children is a team of social workers who, round-the-clock, watch, prepare and aid their 18 charges. The staff includes nurses, psychiatrists, an art therapist, a GP and an army of other helpers from cooks to clerks.
The CCS believes in "total immersion" of these children in an atmosphere that combines a "home" with professional special care.
A key feature of the Gravesend home finding units is the identifying of and catering for each individual's specific needs. Some need constant attention because their outbursts may endanger themselves or others; a few suffer from handicaps which require physical aid for most activities.
What happens to a child who is admitted to the Units?
School-age children continue to attend day school — where possible, the same school they attended before. In particularly difficult cases, the school is advised of the child's past — or some of it.
During the first month at the Unit, the child is placed under observation: his behaviour, his statements are all studied and assessed.
Then the keyworker in charge of the child plans a special schedule, tailor-made for his needs.
A key part of every child's "preparation plan" is the exploration of his past, which allows the child to understand why he is upset, why he lives in his present situation, and how the past is not of his own doing.
In order to aid the child through this process, the CCS relies on a series of "games" and other activities.
The games vary according to each child's needs: blocks, puppets, toys for the younger children; informal discussions and more sophisticated question and answer games for the older ones.
A part-time art therapist works on an individual basis with the children, as well: for one hour, the child is allowed to "create" in the studio room, with the therapist watching but limiting herself to almost no participation.
She never asks any questions, nor does she attempt to explain a drawing, or clay figure, in terms of the child's past. The young artist is allowed, instead, to explore on his own the different media, and to express himself freely.
As part of this process of "remembrance of things past", each child at the Unit compiles his own "Life Story Book" under the supervision of his Key worker. The Book includes all the relevant data, photographs and any mementoes from the child's earlier period including records of the more difficult times he has lived through.
While the child is being thus prepared to face his future in a new setting, behind-the-wings work is taking place to find him a suitable adoptive family.
Four home finding workers, liaising with the key workers who are preparing the child, search for a possible family who will be able to offer him a home.
The homefinding worker meets with the interested family, studies their exisitng situation, and prepares them for the needs of the child. If the family seems suitable, it is invited to stay in a flat adjacent to the Unit, and to meet the child.
But even once a child is placed, Mr Dunbar emphasises, the CCS's work is not over: "We always assure the prospective family that at any time of crisis or difficulties, they can call on us to help the child through. Sometimes this is not necessary, but often we'll be called on throughout the first year . . . and even later."
It's now three years since Gravesend opened its homefinding units, and to date, 25 children have been successfully placed.
"We still have to wait and see long-term results" says Mr Dunbar. "But as long as the children find new homes I regard the project as successful."