Article By Rachel Preibisch
An impassioned child welfare worker, Carmen Rampersad is attentive to children’s needs regarding trauma and nurture. Carmen earned her Bachelor of Social Work in her native Romania and her Master of Social Work with a focus on social care management and community development in Utrecht, Holland. She has devoted her career to child welfare and her expertise is in Safeguarding and Quality Assurance in Children’s Services, where she works as a Service Manager.
Carmen has worked for nearly two decades in the British child welfare system. Her professional expertise lies at the intersection of safeguarding children and attuning to children’s more intangible needs, such as nurture. Carmen leads a team of Independent Reviewing Officers, who are entrusted with holding the local authority accountable to fulfill each individual child’s care plan and ensure that these plans are tailored to the exact needs of each child. Her team is often the most consistent professional in a child’s life, and they remain involved in a supporting capacity until age 21 or 23, if a youth is continuing their education.
Carmen and her team enter a child welfare case at a very late stage, when intervention of the state in the family life has become mandated. “The parents that we work with are often simply surviving,” Carmen says. “They had traumatic childhoods; they lived in households where their needs were not prioritized, and they lived being invisible and/or in fear of what might come next. These parents have mountains to climb in facing and understanding their own experience of being parented and what this means in terms of the parenting they are able to offer their own children. It often appears that all developmental trauma is intergenerational trauma.”
She admits that these scenarios are challenging. “The local authority would go to great lengths to support families staying together, however, not all parents can offer good enough parenting and [we] must intervene to protect. At the same time, the moment you make a decision to remove a child it’s another massive trauma that you are adding to both child and parent. I’m often left wondering when children are removed from their parents’ care, how are these parents able to find the motivation to recover, to address the challenges that lead to their child being removed? I am amazed by parents who find resources within themselves to use the anger, pain, hurt, shame and guilt, and [turn those] into resources to motivate their recovery.”
Carmen looks at every part of her profession through the lens of human connection, and by reflecting on a child’s needs in whatever form of care they are receiving. A link between her personal and professional life is a project called The Spanish Nursery. When her own children were young, Carmen saw the need for a nursery school where her children could be cared for in an emotionally-nurturing environment. At that time, Carmen was teaching the Safeguarding module part of the Early Childhood Studies Degree at London Metropolitan University and was disheartened to notice trends where the concept of safeguarding children was misunderstood and misused. Some nursery schools were implementing so-called ‘no-touch’ policies. If a child was distressed, the adult was only allowed to touch the child if the child initiated contact first. “This goes against every fiber of my being“, says Carmen. “How would an 18-month-old child initiate contact for comfort if adults around them don’t model it?” This system of making young children responsible for their own emotional wellbeing inspired Carmen to create a space where children were not required to be emotionally independent. She embarked on this project of love, creating a setting where children of very young ages can be emotionally vulnerable and safeguarded by adults. Almost 10 years on, the Spanish Nursery continues to strive to be a place where healthy nurturing is modeled, where children learn about their emotions and where they can safely move forward as emotional beings.
In her professional life, Carmen emphasizes the importance of a relational model of practice: a model where social workers recognize the importance of human connection to support people to make changes in their lives. “How will this work, unless we create a relationship that allows for a sense of safety, for individuals to be honest about what is happening in their lives, and give them the agency that they are the masters of their lives and experience? Without relationships the most we get is compliance, but not real change.” She credits the work of Dan Hughes and his principles of playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy – a method in which all her local authority’s social workers are trained. “We noticed a few years after implementing these principles in our work that we were making some impact: our re-referral rates have decreased by 5%, the rate that measures sustainability of change.”
Carmen’s care for children, her curiosity for finding new and effective models and methods, and more recently her introduction to Bessel van der Kolk’s work has motivated her to look at her child welfare work through a more trauma-informed lens. She responded to The Body Keeps the Score with appreciation for Bessel’s explanation of the biology and the brain functions surrounding trauma. “I notice in the most dysregulated children we work with, that they seek risky situations to be in, often at risk of criminal and/or sexual exploitation, and they often don’t seem to have a sense of time. It feels like they live the terror of their trauma every moment.” She also notes, “I liked how hopeful his book was in that there are means and ways to help children regulate, to help calm down the nervous system first, stop the ‘smoke alarm from screaming’, create a connection before any other kind of intervention we may consider.”
Another part of Carmen and her team’s work is with unaccompanied and separated children, children who have been separated from their primary caregiver through an asylum-seeking process. “For these young people, the trauma of their journey through Africa and Europe is immense; they would have lived through life threatening situations, been subjected to torture, famine, and lived in fear for their lives. Most of them would have seen their parents or loved ones killed, imprisoned, kidnapped and would have been separated from them and their siblings. If they were alive, they would have lost contact. They are alone, in a country they don’t know. My observations are that these young people had parents that were usually attuned to their needs and able to provide good enough parenting despite the circumstances in which they lived. Their trauma is of a different sort than the other children we work with.”
Currently, Carmen is trying to assist agencies in her home city of Iasi, Romania, who are responding to the refugee crisis from neighboring Ukraine and hopes to work with Linda Thai and refugees specialists at the Tavistock Centre in London to provide assistance to professionals in the front line of response. Iasi is a border city with Republic of Moldova and just over 150km from the border with Ukraine, and is receiving refugees to support. “I am so immensely proud of my people who have opened their homes and arms and hearts to people in need, but Romania does not have a history of working with refugees and therefore the expertise is lacking; the burnout is looming.” Carmen sees this as an area where there is great need, as well as potential for professional collaboration.
All of this comes back to Carmen’s vision for the next step in her work: Expanding therapy possibilities for children beyond talk therapy. Carmen recognizes talk therapy as a very good intervention “for the right person at the right time in their healing journey.” Yet she admits, “Very often our children and young people don’t want to engage in talk therapy. In a way, rightly so. Doing so requires forming a relationship, but the capacity to do this has been severely impacted by developmental trauma. It also requires you to be able to talk about your trauma, but trauma impacts your capacity to speak about what has happened to you. It’s unspeakable.”
Carmen is sensitive to the fact that talk therapy does not fit everybody culturally, especially in the context of unaccompanied minors. “The idea of, come with an interpreter next to me, and let’s talk about your journey. I wonder what they would make of such a suggestion. Not only because of the language barrier and the potential for re-traumatising but also because culturally, different communities have different views on the concept of emotional and mental health, and because they deal with trauma in different ways. I think psychotherapy is a very Western type of approach, which has its place, but cannot reach widely enough.”
Starting from the work of Bessel van der Kolk, Carmen has become interested in the benefits of different interventions such as neurofeedback, EMDR and body-mind modalities of healing like somatic experiencing (through the work of Peter Levine). “There are other ways to connect and create safety: we connect by synchronizing our rhythms and breathing, by getting in tune with each other’s moods and ways,” says Carmen. “Donald Winnicott was a British psychoanalyst who wrote extensively about the concept of the good-enough parent and the synchronicity between child and primary caregiver, and in a way, I feel we need to go back to those basics.”
Out of a desire to improve the experience of the children she works with, Carmen has been advocating for additional services for the children at her local authority. She started cross-professional networking to explore different avenues of bringing bodily-focused trauma therapy to the children her team works with. Carmen explains that while, to her knowledge, neurofeedback applied in a statutory setting is not practiced in the UK, there has been a pilot program done by a provider in another local authority that showed some really good results. “A diverse way of helping people in their healing process, including access to embodied modalities needs to become more widely known in statutory work with children and adults.”
Carmen is hopeful that statutory work with children in the UK will see changes in the services made available to children and families. ”I am fortunate to work in a local authority that is deeply committed to the children that we work with, is ambitious for them, has passionate social workers and an inspiring leadership team. We’ve come a long way in our practice in the last years but there is still far to go. I think that there is enough support for us to expand our offer to our children from relying heavily on talk therapy to other embodied modalities of healing.”