Benny, resident dog at the front entrance of the Family Resource Centre, Barnet.

The Family Resource Centre run by Barnet Borough Council has recently achieved enhanced accreditation for their contact service. Part of the process of enhanced accreditation involves the scrutiny of the resources provided for parents and children using the centre. Mark McGovern, the Team Manager at the centre has developed a leaflet for children to help them to settle in and feel at home. This tells children about the special worker at the centre – Benny the dog. Mark told us about their centre and how Benny helps to help reassure children attending:We are a centre run by London Borough of Barnet, where children spend time with their birth families and familiar adults important to them in a safe, homely and child friendly environment. Children can understandably feel apprehensive or nervous about coming for the first time. They will have many questions and emotions relating to the situation and need to know who will be with them during contact and why they are coming in the first place. 

Benny’s Story at Family Resource Centre

Benny has been a ‘member of staff’ at the Centre for about 18 months. Benny was re-homed by Sue Tan, one of the supervisors at the Centre when he was 7 years old (Benny will be 9 in June). Historically the contact centre has used a fish tank, a chinchilla and a puppy to foster a welcoming environment to families experiencing emotional trauma. When Benny came along Sue was permitted to bring Benny into work on a trial basis. Families immediately commented on his behaviour and how he helped them feel more relaxed. We have also had similar comments from professionals. He was then successfully Risk Assessed to work with children. Benny is a naturally calm, gentle and friendly dog and these attributes make him a dog that is receptive to the attention of children and parents alike. In fact some of the children even volunteered to contribute their pocket money to buy Benny a collar. Since Benny joined us at the Centre, there have been many occasions when he has been used to affect a positive outcome to contact.

Some examples of Benny’s work

  1. Benny has been used to help develop a relationship between a child and a non-resident father. This relationship posed significant problems as the child had become distanced from the parent. Benny’s presence at the child’s request helped to defuse the tension between adult and child. Benny provided a neutral figure between them which assisted in developing a way of communicating and continues to this day.
  2. In another large competitive sibling group Benny’s presence provided an opportunity for the family to unite and share their time together rather than fight for attention. For a family that is so fragmented (given that the children are in multiple placements and had been separated) we were able to take this opportunity to provide the children’s birth mother with a family canvas.
  3. During a goodbye contact between paternal grandparents and their grandson, Benny’s presence provided them with some physical and emotional comfort at what was a very painful experience for them. They thanked staff for providing this opportunity with Benny because they felt it helped to have something soft to touch.

Benny’s presence enhances the warm, welcoming, relaxed environment of the Centre which has been commented on by visitors and other professionals. Families choose whether they would like/benefit from Benny being part of their contact for short periods of time. Benny has his own bed in the office when he is off duty and is supervised at all times.

Children’s leaflet prepares children for contact

“We have a large garden where you can play” 

“We have lots of different toys and activities which include board games, art and crafts and soft play equipment.”

“We also have a lovely kitchen which you can use to cook and do activities.”

We have developed a new leaflet which will hopefully help to alleviate some of the anxiety that children may have. It has colourful pictures of the centre, explains what will happen, who will be there and why they are coming. It of course introduces Benny, and explains what will happen when they arrive and what will happen at the end. We have tried to include as much information about the centre and the different activities on offer. Children are sent a copy of the leaflet before they visit the centre.

Mark McGovern, Family Resource Centre Team Manager, Family Services, London Borough of Barnet

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