Time to bring back children's homes?

By Mark Easton

April 20, 2009 / BBC News

Should England rehabilitate the children's home? In the mid-1970s, 40% of youngsters taken into care were placed in such institutions. But after a series of appalling abuse scandals were uncovered, care homes fell out of favour and the proportion placed in residential care has fallen to just 14% now.

Today's report (Looked-after Children: Third Report of Session 2008-09 [692KB PDF]) from the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee, however, believes that:

"the potential of the residential sector to offer high quality, stable placements for a minority of young people is too often dismissed."

The MPs want a "reconsideration of the theoretical basis for residential care", arguing that, with enforcement of higher standards and a greater investment in skills, "it could make a significant contribution".

Residential care is expensive. The average weekly cost of looking after a child in a care home is £2,428 compared with just £489 for foster care. But how, some might ask, do you put a price on failing these young people? Today's report is clear: "There should be no 'cheap options' in the care system".

The committee goes further:

"From time to time in the evidence we took there surfaced a suspicion that decisions taken by local authorities are motivated in some circumstances by costs, and that children do not get all they are entitled to because of pressure on councils' resources. We do not share this suspicion of local authorities' motives, but we are concerned that it can exist."

Of course it exists. Local authorities must live within their income and, much as the committee might wish it were different, the welfare of problem children is not high on voters' concerns.

The committee travelled to Copenhagen to see how the Danes manage to achieve much better outcomes from their care system. Whereas six out of ten children in care go on to higher education in Denmark, in England it is six in a hundred.

"Comparisons are not straightforward", the committee admits, but notes that in the Danish system, "over half of looked-after children are in residential care":

"In contrast to the typically low status of residential work in England, in Denmark residential care is seen as the "plum job".

The MPs also say:

"The considerably more challenging nature of the residential care population in England and the use of homes as a last resort lead us to expect poorer outcomes and a more difficult experience for these young people."

But they were convinced that it was "the characteristics of staff rather than the characteristics of the residents that in fact account for the greatest differences".

Don't blame the kids. Blame the system.

"Staff in Denmark speak in terms of emotional support", the report points out, "where staff in England will talk about procedures".

This line strikes me as perhaps the most illuminating of the whole report. A risk-averse, process-driven system is at odds with the needs of damaged children. Nurturing the most troubled youngsters through to adulthood requires total commitment and, dare I say it, love.

In England, children's homes were allowed to become joyless, even cruel institutions, warehousing the most problematic kids until they were old enough to be dumped out on the street - and with no interest in what happened next.

Unsurprisingly, the outcomes were pretty miserable. And despite improvements, they remain poor, say the MPs.

"Far from compensating for their often extremely difficult pre-care experiences, certain features of the care system itself in fact make it harder for young people to succeed: they are moved frequently and often suddenly, miss too much schooling, and are left to fend for themselves at too early an age."

Residential care has shrunk to such a small capacity, dealing with only the most troubled and troublesome young people, that it "risks making such care untenable and undesirable even for young people for whom it may be in theory the best option".

"One aspect of practice which particularly struck us during our visit to Copenhagen was the universal expectation of frequent contact between children in residential care and their birth families".

 

This was something that impressed me when I visited a children's home in Denmark a couple of months ago. As I was being shown around, I noticed a large, shaven-headed, heavily-tattooed man cradling a little girl of about five in his arms. It became clear this was her dad on a visit.

Whatever problems had caused the little girl to be taken into the care of the state, it was obvious that the relationship between parent and social worker remained positive. What a contrast with the attitude of a mother I met recently in Essex. A heroin addict, the woman had had four of her five children taken into foster care and told me that, for years, she had regarded social workers as "the enemy".

Parents who desperately need support and help view the arrival of social services as a threat. Even if a family realises that it is incapable of providing the care the children require, the social worker is viewed like the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

"It is imperative that constructive relationships between children's services and the family are established at the outset, maintained while the child is in care, and continued when they return home", today's report concludes.

Demanding a "radical overhaul" of the system, the committee seems to be calling for a philosophical sea-change as much as a structural one. Care should be seen for some children as "the best available option rather than a last resort". For that to happen, social workers must be valued.

"An effective care system can only be achieved by recruiting enough of the right people, giving them access to the right training, paying them enough, backing them up with practical support, and placing them in structures that allow them to build relationships with children and influence things on the child's behalf."

Before we can rehabilitate the children's home, we need to rehabilitate social workers.

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