We constantly hear that young people should be with families and not in residential care. So why is one Scottish authority building new children’s homes? Sarah Wellard reports
Name: Allan Beattie.
Job: Manager, children & families services, North Ayrshire council.
Qualifications: Certificate in residential care; Open University management qualification.
Last job: Principal officer, community care (older people).
First job: Recreational assistant at a children’s unit.
Sometimes you have to invest money to save money. This, according to Allan Beattie, children and families services manager in North Ayrshire, is the best way to improve services for looked-after children in the authority.
A few years ago the county was proposing to cut its residential service and to focus instead on developing foster care. But growing poverty and related problems like drug and alcohol abuse on both the Ayrshire mainland and the island of Arran has meant that more older children are coming into care, often with complex needs. Beattie explains: “We found ourselves in the position of having to buy in services from independent providers. It was expensive and far from ideal for children – private places can be anywhere and children often had to leave their community.”
In response, a council strategic review sought to improve outcomes for young people, increase cost-effectiveness and ensure that services are fit for purpose in terms of numbers and models of care.
The first step was to set-up a steering group including councillors and key personnel from finance, personnel, housing and education as well as social care. Beattie says: “Getting senior people from across the authority involved at the outset was important. Their expertise is invaluable and it also means they have a good understanding of the issues we are looking at.”
The next step was to commission an independent study into demographic and referral trends, and to consult young people in care about the changes they would like to see. Beattie also
carried out a benchmarking exercise to find out what neighbouring authorities were doing to respond to similar pressures.
“We realised that as well as developing our fostering capacity we would need to improve residential provision,” he says. “Residential care often suits teenagers better. At the moment we have several largish units for up to 12 young people, and a couple of small ones. The young people prefer smaller units. They said they feel more settled with fewer people coming and going and feel their individual needs are better met.”
In response to the strategic group’s first recommendations, the council decided to invest £4m in upgrading accommodation. An option to buy large family houses and convert them into residential units was dropped in preference for new buildings. “It’s better to have purpose-built, single-storey accommodation,” says Beattie. “Supervising young people can be tricky in
converted houses with all the bedrooms upstairs, and plasterboard walls are very easily damaged. We’ve had young people knocking their way through to other children’s bedrooms.”
There’s also the problem of neighbours. Although no one wants to return to the bad old days of children’s homes being built in the middle of nowhere, it makes for better community relations if they are beyond shouting distance of neighbouring houses.
Another strand of the strategy – improving training for residential staff – is already in hand. “There’s a danger of focusing on producing a glossy document when you could be getting on with the work,” says Beattie. “We’ve begun the training for staff on dealing with young people involved in offending or under the influence of drugs and alcohol.”
A third strand has yet to be confirmed but if approved will mean recruiting and training professional carers and investing more in crisis support to help keep older children with their families.
“We want to develop a professional service to take more troubled and troubling young people. The plan is to have local self-employed foster carers so that children don’t have to leave their community,” says Beattie.
A proposal has been submitted to the council which would cost an extra £1.7m this year but is projected to save several million pounds over six years. Beattie hopes they will decide to back the plan. “You can never be sure that the estimates you build into projections will be correct,” he says.
“But in the long run it should mean financial savings for the council and better services for young people.”