Residential care has an image problem. “The homes are
stigmatised as full of bad kids from bad families, who bring their
troubles upon themselves,” explains Steve Walker, acting youth
offending team manager in North Yorkshire. “Society persists in
viewing these kids as criminals and outcasts.”
Walker’s concerns are shared by many in the sector. “There’s this
misconception of residential care being like eastern European
orphanages,” explains Barbara Hutchinson, deputy chief executive of
Baaf Adoption and Fostering.
Michael Jameson*, a 20-year-old youth worker,
blames the negative images on the media. “The public assumes all
residential homes are secure units crammed with hooligans because
journalists only focus on the bad news stories,” he says.
TV soaps are cited as the main offenders when it comes to clinging
to stereotypes. David Woods, policy manager for a housing charity
and a care leaver himself, asks: “Why is it that soaps’ troubled
characters invariably have a care background, when one guy from the
home I was at is now a university lecturer and another is a
clinical psychologist?” Such programmes help perpetuate myths about
life in a children’s home and result in the public patronising
children in care by pitying them, he warns.
But there is one exception of note to these lazy assumptions: the
BBC’s highly successful programme, The Story of Tracy Beaker. The
show, now in its fourth series, follows the life of a girl who
lives in a children’s home. “I love it because it’s great to see a
character fighting stereotypes,” says Walker. “Tracy is neither
victim nor thug – she is actually realistically drawn.”
Nowadays, the vast majority of children being looked after by local
authorities are with foster families; the latest statistics show
41,600 in foster placement in England. The shift away from
institutionalised care towards foster care, and efforts to keep
families together in the first place, means only 7,000 looked after
children now live in residential homes in England.
The remaining homes housing these 7,000 children are smaller, and
more supportive and nurturing than the institutions of the past.
However, according to Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care
director Jennifer Davidson, public understanding of this has been
hindered by recent disclosures of historic abuse in homes.
“And while these clich‚s persist, children will not tell
their school friends they live in a home because they fear they’ll
be thought of as bad, as people who’ve done something wrong,”
“All young people in care want is to be seen as normal,” Hutchinson
adds. “A good residential home can play its part in building up
their confidence, self-esteem and solid sense of identity”.
Jane Dauncey, the producer of Tracy Beaker, wanted to reflect this
side of the picture in her show. “We aimed to de-stigmatise being
in care to show that children find themselves in it because their
carers cannot cope with their circumstances, and not because the
kids themselves are disruptive,” she explains.
Woods agrees that the show depicts children’s home staff today as
much more child-centred than before – even if some of the
storylines are more reminiscent of the adventures of the Famous
Five than real life. And even the character’s creator, author
Jacqueline Wilson, welcomes the success of the TV series in making
it “kind of cool to be a looked after child”.
So, image problem resolved? Hardly. But at least children’s homes
get a weekly makeover – even if it is only for half an hour every
Thursday afternoon. (Unless, of course, you also count the website,
the movie, and the daily offerings on CBBC….)
*not his real name