‘For better or worse, we all carry our childhood with us’
Barnardos chief Suzanne Connolly on the the impact of what happens behind closed doors
Barnardos chief executive Suzanne Connolly at the organisation’s Finglas centre. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Step through the front door of the Barnardos Finglas Family Support Project in north Dublin and the feeling of warmth is instant, not just in terms of temperature on a cold winter’s day, but also radiating from the furnishings and staff.
A large dolls’ house and toy multi-storey car park in the reception area catch the eye, along with a bright orange sofa adorned with floral-print cushions, opposite a “feature wall” painted in the trademark Barnardos green.
The centre moved here, in the grounds of St Joseph’s Girls’ National School on Barry Avenue, after drug-dealing in the vicinity of its previous base – in an ordinary house in the surrounding estate – made it unsafe to continue working there about two years ago.
It’s all quiet at the centre on a Tuesday morning, as some of the nine staff are out on house visits.
But their boss from HQ, new Barnardos chief executive Suzanne Connolly (55), is making herself at home on a green sofa inside a cosy consultation room. It’s an authentic setting for the organisation’s former director of children’s services who was appointed to the top job after the retirement of Fergus Finlay last October after 14 years.
“I don’t like corporate spaces – that’s not what I am about,” she remarks, as she outlines the direction in which she aims to lead the children’s charity. A lot has been achieved in the last 10-12 years, she says, with the insertion of children’s rights in the Constitution, equality legislation and prevention and early intervention becoming part of Government policy.
The real gap that she sees is in services for families who really need them. She wants Barnardos to focus on family support and on what happens behind closed doors.
“Ultimately what happens in a family environment that really impacts on children is behind the closed doors. That’s where the children learn most – they learn about relationships, about sharing, about dealing with difference and doing things you don’t want to do.”
It’s why the work Barnardos does with parents is so crucial for children’s well-being. Although the charity may be associated in the public’s mind with socio-economically disadvantaged children, any family can need help at any time.
One of Connolly’s immediate priorities is to develop a new family support response to substance abuse, to domestic violence and to parental separation. These are issues that affect children from all backgrounds.
“That reality is not just for families who may not have a lot of money, that is across society,” says Connolly, who stresses that there should be “no shame or blame” for those seeking help.
When the charity was first founded across the water in London by a Dublin-born doctor, Thomas Barnardo, in 1866, poverty and disease were so widespread, one in five children died before the age of five. More than 150 years later, in his native country, almost one in five children lives below the poverty line, according to the Central Statistics Office.
It’s 30 years since Barnardos Ireland became an independent organisation but, coincidentally, its head office in Christchurch Square is less than 500 metres from where the young Barnardo attended St Patrick’s Cathedral Grammar School back in the 19th century. Today, the charity works with more than 15,300 children and parents a year and Connolly is keen that increased understanding in recent decades of human development and how the brain functions underpins their services.
“What I want Barnardos to be talking about is what really helps people? I think some of the time we in the helping professions work with families and expect them to engage in logical problem solving but if you have had a traumatic childhood and your present circumstances are pretty difficult, your capacity to do that is actually quite limited.”
We know from scientific research that trauma raises the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, putting us into flight, fight or freeze mode. This affects the ability to learn, while cumulative effects can include being quick to react with violence and anger or, conversely, emotionally withdrawing when overwhelmed.
The Growing Up in Ireland study found that just over three-quarters of nine-year-olds had already experienced some form of stressful life event. The most common were death of a close family member (43 per cent), moving house (42 per cent) and divorce/separation of parents (15 per cent).
Adverse childhood events are more prevalent among families living in disadvantaged areas but a good relationship with at least one adult will help a child cope. And Connolly says it’s important to stress that many families who don’t have a lot of money do really well with their children.
For better or worse, we all carry our childhood with us, she points out. Her own was far from easy.
You can’t expect the grieving parent to do everything for their children
The second eldest of five children, Connolly was born in Limerick when her father, an air traffic controller, was working in Shannon. After he switched to Dublin airport, the family moved to Blackrock, then, temporarily, to Ballymun; from there to Raheny and on to Malahide.
She was just 15 when her father, to whom she was very close, died of cancer at the age of 47. There wasn’t enough understanding then in how to deal with children’s bereavement, she says. The wisdom of the time was that her younger siblings were better off not going to the funeral.
Her mother’s way of dealing with the grief was to close off. If there had been something such as the Barnardos national children’s bereavement service then, it would have been hugely beneficial, says Connolly, for her and her siblings. “You can’t expect the grieving parent to do everything for their children – my Mum had five children.”
It was a very early lesson in the transience of life and gave her a strong sense of priorities. “I don’t think that money is important – once you have the basics.” She is not dismissing the importance of having a place to live, enough food and warmth but “once you have those, other things don’t really matter that much and they don’t make you happy”.
She believes the Government must build more social housing to alleviate the crisis of more than 3,500 children without a family home. Meanwhile, schools and charities are trying to keep the lives of these children as normal as possible.
Thanks to money from the Ireland Fund, Barnardos can give practical help to homeless families such as food vouchers and taxis to get children to and from school if they have been moved into accommodation some distance away. For example, its Mulhuddart centre is supporting children attending school locally who have been moved to Swords, Ashbourne or Dun Laoghaire.
However, a significant factor in homelessness is family break-up, Connolly points out, which goes back to the need for more family support to try to avert that, or to at least help parents separate in a planned way. In the case of domestic violence, there are calls for more shelters for women and children but why, she wonders, isn’t there a system whereby the alleged perpetrators could be removed from the family home and accommodated elsewhere instead?
Support programmes have to address the cyclical nature of troubled families. Adults who have had a tough childhood, without acceptance and affirmation from their own parents, come to parenting with all their own needs for love and attention, she explains.
“Our capacity to be creative, engage in life and relate to other people is really dependent on how in touch we are with ourselves. If you are frozen, withdrawn, constantly thinking the world is out to get you, it is very hard for you to change or even to benefit from what people are offering you.”
It’s why putting parents at ease when they attend centres is something she sees as a vital first step for everything that follows.
Connolly is passionate in talking about why she went for this job, to put years of experience and accumulated wisdom to good use. The public affairs aspect is not her natural bent, as it was with Finlay, a senior Labour Party adviser and newspaper columnist – “a very political animal”, she agrees. Confident of her ability to relate to those within the organisation, she is working on finding her most effective approach for external audiences.
Her forays into the public arena will all be connected to the work of Barnardos “and things that the Government and society in general need to be aware of in relation to that work. I will talk about children in general where that is relevant – any child can have an adverse event in their lives.
“I do feel very strongly about the pressure on young people to look good all the time, to be happy all the time, to have all these friends all the time.”
A big challenge for the upcoming generation is the consumerist nature of society and a belief that happiness is “things”. We’re doing a disservice to children, she argues, if we don’t try to help them realise the fallacy of this.
She had no interest in being chief executive for the sake of being a chief executive, or any desire to be a “personality”. Anyway “I don’t think I have that type of personality to be a ‘personality’,” she says with a laugh.
However, she knows she is the figurehead for an organisation that has the burden of needing to raise €8 million of its €25 million budget every year. But she regards it as a necessary burden, to retain the charity’s independence.
Connolly’s first job as a social worker in the UK, after graduating from Trinity College Dublin in 1986, was in residential care. It was the “saddest thing”, she remarks, and what she saw convinced her that everything possible should be done to keep children with parents or place them with foster parents.
Although, when she moved into child protection services, she also saw some tragic cases of children suffering at the hands of their parents.
You have to be able to hear what people are saying to you, in the interests of what’s right for a child
The importance of practical family support can be underestimated, she suggests. “Sometimes people don’t need to talk about their feelings, they need practical help.”
It’s why organisations need to “ask what people need. Don’t assume they need the service you want to give them. That is what we want to do in Barnardos. That is why it’s also important to be in communities – having a service you can access easily is really important.”
She recalls a case where Tusla had taken a newborn infant into care because of concern, for good reasons, about the mother’s ability to look after the baby. She was a first-time mother on her own, without a partner or family around.
Barnardos said it would work with the woman to help her care for the baby, giving her both practical and psychological advice.
“She thrived on that input and the social workers were delighted with the support. That baby’s name was taken off the [at risk] register and the baby is now thriving at home with her mother.
“Without the right support that child might have stayed in care,” she says. But a good intervention at the right time will, it is hoped, now have set both of them up for life.
In contrast, she remembers another case where they were trying to help a professional mother be reunited with her gorgeous son, who was with a foster family and doing well in school. Yet nothing seemed to be working in the process of trying to get them back together.
“You know what I realised? She didn’t actually want the child back,” says Connolly. “You have to be able to hear what people are saying to you, in the interests of what’s right for a child.”
Not a parent herself, and having been through a marriage and divorce, she says “it would have been nice to have children”. Yet her whole professional career has been devoted to children and “there’s a poignancy to that”. But she has eight nieces and nephews, she adds, and “being an aunt is a very nice job”.
Barnardos doesn’t advertise its services as there is a high demand for them through referrals – by social workers, schools and parents themselves.
Availability of family programmes through its 40 centres vary but they include Partnership with Parents, one-on-one training in parenting skills to address issues the parents would like to improve with their children; parent and toddler groups, and teen parenting support, with a particular emphasis on keeping young mothers in education.
It also provides a range of specialist services, including children’s bereavement counselling, post-adoption advice and its school-based “Roots of Empathy” programme, in which a parent and baby visits a class every three weeks over nine months.
A helpful resource for all is the Barnardos range of Parenting Positively booklets, covering topics such as bullying, separation, death and substance abuse, and written both for parents and for use with children, that can be downloaded free at barnardos.ie.
1866 The year Dublin-born Dr Thomas Barnardo founded the charity in London
1962 The charity put down its first roots in Ireland
1989 Barnardos Ireland became a wholly independent organisation
40 centres now operate around the country
440 staff and volunteers
15,300 children and parents benefit each year from its services
€8 million of its €25m budget needs to be fund-raised every year