Fifteen-year-old, Shantel was told she would end up in a council estate with ten baby daddies.
Thirty years later, she is a successful leader in social work, senior academic and an active anti-racist campaigner.
Shantel is clear that St Michael’s laid the crucial foundations for her rise, and she wishes more young mothers could have the support she had in those early days.
Back in 1993, young mothers would come with their babies and stay for a year to get training and support in how to raise their children. Not unlike St Michael’s set up when we were first established in 1903.
Shantel’s mother was single, had two other children and worked part-time, so she sent Shantel to St Michael’s, mainly for financial support. Something her mother later talked about regretting, but feeling like she had little choice.
The need for supported housing for young mums
The local authority paid for this placement, and Shantel would get financial help to buy things for the baby. Reflecting on the support she got as a 15-year-old in 1993 compared to what young mothers get now from the social care system:
“There needs to be more places like that. But I know, being in the social work profession, that unless you are killing your baby, you are not going to get that type of support. It just doesn’t exist anymore. I think that is one of the biggest failings of our social work system. They have turned it on its head and really made the thresholds too high. You know, there were no safeguarding concerns for me; the risk I posed was just due to my age, my immaturity, and that’s what St Michal’s did. It taught us how to be parents.”
Arriving at St Michael’s
But at the time, Shantel had very different feelings.
“I wanted to be at home. So I was kind of resentful. I was really resentful of my mom and to my family.”
However, when she had her baby, something switched, “I remember thinking that I need to be the best mum. Because everybody thought I wasn’t going to be.”
Shantel remembers her time at St Michael’s fondly. She laughs and talks about the friendships she made – describing how the mums would all sit on the landings and talk while their babies played.
We often talk about how new mums can feel lonely, but Shantel said there wasn’t a chance to feel lonely; it was so busy there, and since all the young mums were going through similar things; they would learn from each other.
It was a different time which is underlined when she tells us about the queuing system for the one house phone.
“If it wasn’t for St Michael’s, I don’t think I would be here now. I say that in terms of the confidence. The staff at St. Michael’s listened, and they heard, and they saw me, not just as a young mum but as a person. There was one member of staff who would sit down with me a lot because she could see the anger in me. It was because of her I could go back to college.”
The same staff member would tell Shantel about her work – planting a seed that would begin to grow.
After a year, she moved out and got her own flat. Although she loved her time at St Michael’s, she was ready for the next step.
“It was a chance for me to prove myself. I remember when I left; I said, ‘I want to come back and run this place.’”
In a wonderful twist to the tale, she did return in 2015/16 as a qualified social worker and worked at 52 as a deputy manager for 6 months before realising she hadn’t come to terms with her experiences as a young mum and decided to move on.
Supporting other young mums
Shantel’s first degree was in Criminology and Criminal Justice. She worked in the youth justice system setting up groups for young offenders. Her experiences mean she gravitates towards the young mums in the groups. Sharing her own stories of the care system and as a young mum which helped to guide and encourage them.
Cuts to social care funding mean that places like St Michael’s could only now offer residential spaces for families needing assessments for the courts.
Reflecting on the young mums she met during this time:
“They were really going through it. Social workers are on their backs, and their families aren’t supportive. I used to think if you could have a year of nurturing, a real kind of containment, things could be so different.”
“St Michael’s set me up with a positive view of parenting and what it could be.
But also instilled in me a lot of that self-esteem that was missing. I just felt like I could just take on the world.”
Becoming a social worker
A colleague she worked with in the Youth Justice Service encouraged her to get a social work qualification. So, she started her second degree. She qualified and worked across London for 12 years before finally burning out.
“It was really hard emotionally. I could really relate to a lot of the families and their struggles. We tried to help, but the system was just constrained. It just felt like a noose around your neck. I was noticing the different disparities in how much harder I would fight for black children and the difficulties I was finding in terms of my own career progression. And I’m like, what is going on here? Why am I supporting all these people, and they’re climbing higher than me?”
Moving into academia and anti-racist campaigning
Shantel made the move from social work to full time academia in 2019, before becoming the course lead for the social work masters at Tavistock Mental Health Trust in 2022. In the year following George Floyd’s murder, she was employed by the British Association of Social Workers.
“I always had a voice, but I think that’s where I really used it.”
“BASW definitely gave me a platform; I was the first UK anti-racism lead in social work. I was covering the whole of the country.”
Shantel has just been promoted to clinical professional lead for social work at the Tavistock & Portman – across the whole trust. It’s an incredible rise, and Shantel laughs as if she can’t quite believe it either. She talks about being written off at 15:
“People said all you can do is have more babies and be living on a council estate.” She pauses.
“They would say this directly to my face. “You’re gonna have 10 baby daddies; I think subconsciously I used that to motivate me.”
Advice for her younger self
What would Shantel say to the young 15-year-old just about to move into St Michael’s in 1993? Without missing a beat, she says,
“Stay calm and trust the process. I always wanted to be in control. I want to know what was going to happen. I came [to St Michael’s] with a lot of baggage, excess baggage, not just physical but emotional baggage, big, old suitcases of stuff. But just stay calm. Stay calm.”
My ‘St Michael’s baby’ turned 30 this July, she writes:
Although I wasn’t in the same spaces with my mum 24/7, I would absorb the different energies she had engaged with throughout her journey. This affected me and my views on how and why the world works. My mum is superwoman to ME, but if others could treat her this way, imagine what they could/would do to me? “A wondering mind is an unhappy one”, I must remain focussed.