Why children’s homes are anything but ‘homes’

Care leaver Hayley Prew draws on personal experience to explain why children’s homes are more akin to institutions for the unwanted

What is a home? In my understanding, it is a place where one lives, sleeps, eats and is comfortable. I think of comfort and warmth as being synonymous with my expectations of what a home should be. Images of fireplaces and children in pyjamas eating late-night snacks spring to mind, all laced with foggy fairytale sheen. But then perhaps imagination is best left unfed. I have often likened myself to the little match girl: out in the cold, always looking in on the warmth and longing to be part of it.

So, to children’s homes. Excuse me while I choke. They should be called institutes for the unwanted. I just cannot understand how the word “home” can be used to describe these places. Is this an attempt to use language to subvert attention from reality, rather like Hitler telling the Jews that they were being taken to parties when in fact they were destined for the gas chambers? This may seem like exaggeration on my part, but in principle the offence carries the same weight. Just to clarify: a children’s home is the least homely place I have ever had the misfortune to experience.

Children’s homes are like prisons, or waiting rooms. The entrance is nondescript, empty and foreboding. There are locks on doors, fire extinguishers and cheap Monet wannabe copies on the walls. The carpet is the same throughout the building: a cheap office variety, in muted tones. The whole building evinces a cold feeling the walls are peach, white or blue. Any attempt to make the place homely has been tainted by some drab infusion of oppressiveness. Staff carry big wads of keys.

The landing doors where I lived were alarmed on all floors to notify staff if children left their rooms at night. This caused resentment and provoked the young residents. This is a classic example of negative interaction between staff and residents.

Food seemed to be used as a form of control. By this, I mean meals being denied if you were late home, or all food being locked away and rationed according to what the staff felt you needed to eat. I always absconded from the unit because I was happier in a squat or on the street. Due to this, I missed meals and subsequently would survive for weeks on snatched slices of toast. I would go out and steal food from the local supermarket when I got really desperate anything rather than give in to them.

I want to take you back into the past with me, to make you feel the desperation, and loneliness I felt. I want you to see my childhood through my eyes to feel the way I felt. And this is not for the sake of recrimination, but to spark some understanding and empathy on your part.

Imagine if you will: you have been at school all day and you come home and walk in the door and there is screaming, shouting, swearing, broken furniture strewn across the floor, members of staff milling around blocking doors, nonchalantly swinging their keys while holding meaningless conversations with each other. Another resident in the home is “kicking off”. This is just another normal day.

At the time, it seemed the staff took delight in these moments. I have my reasons for saying this and do not say it lightly. Instead of diffusing the situation with tact and skill as a person in this job ought to do, they would simply reprimand and goad the child, thus incensing them further.

It is considered illegal to bate animals in cages or watch dogs fight. And yet the art of goading, I felt, was considered an acceptable form of communication in children’s homes. There appeared to be pleasure taken in going one better than the young mutineer. There was no love, no nurturing environment. Instead, it was us against them perpetual war.

The staff, at times, appeared to be more interested in control than supervised parenting. They seemed cold, callous, indifferent to the nuances of the personalities in the house, and more concerned with health and safety or getting signatures on papers than anything else. Very unlikely parental substitutes, wouldn’t you agree?

If children or young persons are to be institutionalised, then it is essential to employ staff who have had the right training to deal with their specialist needs. To achieve this, all social workers and staff employed in children’s homes should be required to prove an extensive knowledge of various cognitive and behavioural psychologies. How else can they really help disadvantaged young people? It is not right to leave emotionally scarred children to be raised by a flawed and ineffective model that fails to cater to individuals’ needs and instead tries to regulate and automate behaviours according to administrative needs.

Young people are not yet emotionally mature and cannot show their feelings in a coherent way. They need someone to confide in. You may say that that is the job of the social worker or key worker. But where are they at 11pm when you have the bully of the home banging on your bedroom door threatening to kill you and laughing?

All these feelings are either internalised or turned into anger a need to destroy that which threatens to destroy you. It is the classic law of survival. This can result in poor peer interactions as well as problems with authority figures. Is it any wonder that institutionalised children struggle to form emotionally fulfilling relationships when they are older?

There are many things that impede the normalisation of life in a home. It seems that the system is more concerned with health and safety than with the job in hand. Health and safety appear to take precedence at the expense of young people’s real needs.

Why is it not acceptable to smack children but it is acceptable to place a child into a loveless institution after they have already experienced abuse, neglect or violence? How does that work?

You expect these children to take an interest in themselves when no one else around them does. But this is unrealistic. Ask yourself if you would be happy to leave your child in a such a place, satisfied that they would be loved, cared for and encouraged as all children should be. I’m guessing the answer is probably “no”.

Petty house rules

● Spray deodorant banned..
● Tampax rationed.
● Landing doors alarmed.
● Food cupboards locked.
● Not allowed sleepovers without police checks, which discourage the parents of other children.
● Denied food if home late.
● Seek permission for everything.

This article appeared in the 13 September issue under the headline “A home? Excuse me while i choke”

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