It may be an understatement to say that children’s homes do not get a good press.Even within social work they are often seen as a last resort. Expensive to run, understaffed by the untrained and unqualified and a blot on Nimby estates, they seem to have little going for them.
Somehow they survive. Why? Because they are needed. However, if their effectiveness is to match their impressive survival instincts they also need to evolve. And in County Durham, evolution is in the air.
“Five years ago our children’s homes weren’t seen as very successful,” says service manager Selwyn Morgans. “If you pour children into a home with very few staff on duty who were skilled, trained or supported, don’t be surprised when you get disruption after disruption. We needed a rethink. We lost managers and good workers and we went out and interviewed them face-to-face to find out why. They just felt emotionally to be working against the system. We had to change that.”
The thoughtful process didn’t seek to rubbish the past. “It was about turning what might be considered a traditional service into something more up to date, while keeping what was good about it,” Morgans says. “We went back to the basics of what constituted good quality care. We thought about what it requires to run a home – not on a shoestring but properly. We didn’t want children drifting; we wanted our structure to apply pressure to move things through the system. And this meant going back to the department and saying this is what we need and this is what it costs.”
Durham now provides a range of residential options: small homes, preventive respite and task-centred. “We liked the idea of having small, domestic properties,” says Morgans. “We invested in buying three nice houses in nice areas; in areas where we might choose to live. One home has a Jacuzzi bath, most bedrooms are en suite.”
Crucially for Morgans, a preventive role also took shape. “Our community support team works with families at the point of breakdown,” he says. “So we looked at how children’s homes could support this work. One unit provides more intensive work for youngsters who perhaps need a short break out of the family. This is about mobilising everybody involved, moving heaven and earth into trying to get them back home with appropriate supports.”
The children’s homes that the county already owned are now used to provide task-centred work, thus linking in with the type of work carried out in fostering. “We needed to shape our services to support what the rest of the department was doing,” says Morgans. “You don’t just come into a children’s home; you come in because there is a sense of purpose about what you are doing.” And that purpose could well be the “traditional” home, providing warmth, safety and stability.
That the council has backed the developments of recent years is a testament to its positive corporate parent panel. “The members spent a lot of time exploring what it meant to be corporate parents,” says Morgans. “The members take responsibility for their children; so a child of Durham is their child. That is the philosophy behind it. And when you sit with them and watch it work, it’s very effective.”
He adds: “I think we started off trying to be ‘good enough’ parents. But we’re now saying that in residential services we need to move on and become exceptional parents. Despite increased staffing levels, better and more training, better managers, we still have difficulties with some young people. I’d say we’ve been about 80 per cent successful but we now need to fine tune it even more.”
And there seems to be little time for resting on laurels. “We spend £4.3m on residential services each year. It’s a lot of money and I have to justify it each year. That’s why we’re now looking at where residential care is going to go in the next five years. And that work is starting now.”
● Just get on with it, the issues will appear soon enough.
● Always look for a quick-fix – helps keep up appearances.
● Don’t waste time testing the water – you can solve problems later.
● Understand why you are doing something and be clear what the issues are.
● Be honest – it really is the best policy.
● Consult widely – good ideas and thoughts can come from unlikely places.