Almost 90 years ago Sister Marie Hilda, a nun of the Order of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Glasgow, founded a pioneering service for children in the city. The service, known then as the Notre Dame Child Guidance Clinic, offered psychological support and play therapy, almost unheard of in the 1930s in Scotland, with Sister Marie Hilda believing firmly that, through play, children would open up about their problems, talk about their feelings and come to make sense of their world. She remained closely involved in the work of the clinic until her death in 1951.
Today, there are no formal links with the Order of Notre Dame but the ethos of the original Notre Dame Child Guidance Clinic still informs the service – now known as the Notre Dame Centre – to this day. The centre may now be based on an industrial estate in Possilpark, rather than within the leafy environs of the west end of Glasgow, and the head may now be a former NHS manager with a background in nursing and health visiting, but the model of working still endures – using play therapy, art therapy and other psychological interventions, as well as making sure that parents and carers are also an integral part of the work.
The need for the services of the Notre Dame Centre has never diminished. If anything it has grown, with many more children today experiencing life-changing trauma, abuse and neglect for which the centre offers extended periods of therapeutic intervention and support. Each child or young person has their own worker – a play therapist or art therapist for younger children and an educational psychologist or family therapist for adolescents.
Margaret Brown, who has been at the helm of the Notre Dame Centre for more than five years, explains: 'At the same time as a therapist is working with the child, an adult worker will work closely with their carer, be that parent, grandparent, older sibling, foster carer or adoptive parent'.
The two workers function, in effect, as a team, with regular discussion between them, and liaison with the relevant agencies also involved with the child taking place between weekly appointments. Over time, the child or young person builds a trusting relationship with the therapist, enabling them to share their thoughts and feelings and to explore further their own particular circumstances.
Today the centre is a registered charity, funded largely by statutory agencies in Glasgow – local authority education, social work and the NHS, who are able to refer directly to the service. There is also additional National Lottery funding for a particular project supporting children who are living in kinship care.
Last year, the centre was awarded a second tranche of funding from the National Lottery Community Fund to support its kinship care project, something which is fairly unusual, with the initial five-year project now extended for a further three years. There are some 4,500 children across Scotland, registered with social services, who are living in kinship situations, being looked after by a family member other than a parent. Glasgow accounts for around a third of this number, compared with some 300 children in Edinburgh. This is indicative of the problems of unemployment, drug and alcohol misuse and mental health issues endemic across Scotland's largest city. Many kinship children have lost parents because of these problems or have parents deemed unsuitable to continue to care for the child. Most often it is the grandparent who steps in to help.
Glasgow City Council has taken the issue of kinship care fully on board and offers kinship carers the same allowance that foster carers would receive. There is also a kinship care support team within social services and each family will have an allocated social worker. In addition there are seven kinship support groups established across Glasgow, funded by the authority but run by the carers themselves, who are supported by Notre Dame.
'The council does everything in its power to place a child with a blood relative,' Margaret points out. And although grandmothers are still most likely to be the relative with whom the child lives, older siblings, aunts, uncles and more remote relatives are also now becoming involved in kinship care. The evidence is clear that a child is much better off living with a blood relative than in foster care and will have better outcomes.
For all other children referrals come via statutory services – from headteachers, social workers or mental health workers, usually within the child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS). Triage processes are in place within each agency to make sure the neediest cases receive input from the specialist service at Notre Dame.
'We are now seeing much younger children being referred which is really positive,' says Margaret. 'The earlier the intervention, the more effective the outcome for the child. There is no quick fix and we will work with a child and carer for up to a year, on average. The therapy is non-directive in nature and everything is done reflectively and at the child's pace.
The centre has 17 staff, each of whom plays a vital role in contributing to the running of the centre. There are play therapists, art therapists, educational psychologists, family therapist, social workers, a finance manager, small admin team and a cleaner, who is extremely important when working with children who enjoy messy play.
There is also a small team for a further project which is run by the centre – Seasons for Growth
, which helps children and young people to understand and cope with the impact of bereavement and loss and which was introduced to Scotland some 15 years ago from Australia. It is coordinated by Moira Sugden, a former Notre Dame Centre psychologist.
'Seasons for Growth
aims to normalise death, to help children to understand that everyone eventually dies. The programme provides a way for the children to accept this and come to terms with loss. It also reinforces the fact that everyone deals with loss, bereavement and grief in their own way,' Margaret explains. 'The Notre Dame Centre holds the Scottish license to enable us to deliver and manage the project across the country, providing two-day training workshops for teachers, social workers, community development workers and others who will then go on to deliver the programme in schools or community settings with children and young people.'
When the Notre Dame Centre relocated from Dowanhill to Possilpark in January 2017 the move wasn't relished by staff at the time, many of whom were enormously fond of the original building. It has, however, proved to be a great success. The former Scottish Water building lent itself to easy conversion and now provides disabled access, a reception office, five bright sound-proofed and child-friendly play rooms, five consulting rooms and a waiting area, all on the ground floor. Upstairs there is a large training facility, additional offices and a large, open-plan office for clinical staff which allows the workers, who each carry an ongoing load of some 20 cases, to discuss and share learning with each other through the course of the day.
While the centre continues to use the early working model of play therapy pioneered in the 1930s by Sister Marie Hilda, additional and more modern techniques of working with carer and child are also utilised – 'Theraplay' and Video Interactive Guidance (VIG) are methods of intervention which allows parents and carers to observe and learn from their own interaction with the child, while Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is used by psychology staff working with children and young people who have experienced extreme trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder.
The work of the Notre Dame Centre remains in great demand and is highly valued by professionals and organisations across Glasgow – and beyond. It will undoubtedly be supporting vulnerable children and families for another 90 years.
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