How our Mpower project is changing lives in East Anglia
It would be easy to imagine they don’t love their children in the way most parents do.
It would be easy. But it would be wrong.
Alison Gillies knows this all too well. She is manager of Ormiston Families’ Mpower project, an early intervention service which works with women who have complex and challenging needs and have subsequently had children taken into the care system under child protection proceedings.
Mpower operates in Ipswich, north Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, Norwich and King’s Lynn, supporting women to address issues that led to the removal of their children with the aim of breaking the cycle of repeat pregnancies and preventing further children going into care.
And while it can’t help the women get their lost children back, it can help them to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and deal with their often significant trauma and confusion about what has happened to them.
“All these women love their children,” says Alison. “I don’t think we can begin to understand their loss.”
To illustrate her point, Alison reaches under her desk and retrieves a cardboard box. On the lid are the names of two boys and a girl; one mother’s lost children.
“We do memory boxes like this if the women want to,” she says. “Some find it too painful but for others it can help. They can put in things that remind them of their children. They might want to mark occasions like birthdays and Christmases by putting cards in the box, pictures of something significant or mementoes like the hospital bands put on a baby’s leg after birth. Often, it’s in the hope that their children will come looking for them when they are old enough. It is painful, but therapeutic as well.”
The poignancy of the boxes is heartbreaking but all part of Mpower’s goal of helping the women heal and move forward.
Their stories are all different but universally involve chaotic backgrounds. Often, they have been in care themselves or have little family support. There may be debt issues, learning disabilities, substance misuse, mental health problems and very often, domestic abuse, as in the case of both Danielle and Stacy.
All Danielle ever wanted was to fall in love and have a family of her own. But she ended up in an abusive relationship, eventually having two children removed from her care, and being left with nowhere to call home.
But Mpower is helping her to get her life back on track. She now lives in supported housing, has addressed substance misuse issues and is getting treatment for depression and anxiety. She’s hopeful of resuming contact with her eldest son and other family members.
“Without Mpower I don’t know where I’d be - probably still sofa-surfing and smoking weed,” says Danielle, 24.
“I can see now that my life went wrong through getting into the wrong relationships. Back in the day all I ever wanted was kids and being happy with some guy but it didn’t work out like that.”
Stacy, 38, also got caught up in an abusive relationship, which ultimately led to the loss of her three children, aged between five and 17.
“Because of the situation I was in I ended up doing a lot of drugs as well,” she says. “I have bad times when I think about the kids but with the help of Mpower I’m in a much better place than I was. I can tell them anything and ring my support worker at any time. I’ve done yoga and groups and courses to help me move forward and am doing maths and English GCSEs. I am a totally different person and because of that I’ve got a relationship back with my eldest child now.”
Stacy and Danielle are just two of 135 women Mpower has worked with in Ipswich and Lowestoft in the last five years.
“We help them to understand why they are where they are and support them to access the services they need to address the issues they have,” says Alison.
Mpower’s commitment to the women, who range in age from teenagers to those in their 40s, is open ended. It can take a while to build trust and unravel complex problems so no time limits are set. But what the project’s eight support workers never do is judge.
“We approach everyone as an individual, looking at their background and setting some basic, achievable goals,” says Alison. “That might be as simple as overcoming a fear of getting on a bus or taking them to doctors’ appointments. If we can get them to the point of being able to work that’s great, but we might need to look at other things first. We are really pleased, for instance, when someone accepts long-term contraception to avoid repeat pregnancies. The goal is that they don’t have any more children removed.”