If you ask experienced child care practitioners whether they would rather work with adolescent boys or girls, I am willing to bet that most would choose boys every time. When asked why most would just smile wryly.
That is why, in the past, we at Hillcrest avoided setting up homes exclusively for adolescent girls, instead we had six boys and four mixed homes. This is despite the fact that girls make up just under half of all looked-after children.
Girls can exhibit behaviour patterns that are regarded as being more difficult to deal with – self harm, eating disorders and inappropriate sexual behaviour. The consensus among practitioners is that they are more stressful to deal with than boys. This is one of the reasons why we found that mixed homes were not always best for some of the young women.
Last year, we opened Oathill Lodge in Oxfordshire, our first specialist girl’s home. The reasons behind this are that some looked-after children under-perform educationally. This is often because their early experiences mean they have chosen not to attend or they have moved placement so often they have not enjoyed regular school attendance. They have less developed social skills (often through neglect or abuse as younger children) and have a higher chance of coming into contact with the criminal justice system at an early age. If these young people are accommodated away from the settings that they are familiar with, there is a far better chance of changing and improving these behaviours.
Our new girls unit is located in a rural setting that affords a high measure of safety and protection from their usual neighbourhood influences. It is however only a half hour drive to nearby towns to ensure that the girls can still experience social activities to prevent them feeling a sense of social isolation.
The home offers a variety of therapeutic interventions including art therapy as well as on-site health and beauty facilities. It’s most effective therapeutic provision is outdoors including camping, kayaking, rafting, archery and horse-riding. The programme is designed to foster a high level of independence, rebuild low self-esteem and restore positive self-image.
The girls’ behaviour is managed through strong boundaries and strict routine, while staff work seven days on seven days off that encourages continuity and consistency that is paramount to the girls’ development.
Girls from the new home can attend our own registered school nearby, although the aim will always be to integrate them into mainstream school where possible. We have already received several referrals into the new home, and if successful we shall seek to open similar homes in the future.
Richard Greenwell is managing director of Hillcrest Care http://www.hillcrestcare.co.uk