Insisting on foster care ignores the fear and pain felt by children

Residential care is usually the best option for children whose family lives have been blighted by pain and fear, writes Adrian Zakrzewski

Picture posed by model; Image Source/Rex Features

Over the last 20 years the idea and practice of residential care for children and young people whose lives are in crisis has been much maligned by the media, government and social work professionals alike.

Many residential homes have closed in the last two decades and the numbers receiving this care have reduced considerably.

The dominant ideology now is that care is best provided by a family, and not just any old family, but the ideologically loaded ‘nuclear family’. Fortunately, there is now a little more enlightenment with regard to gay couples, but the format remains the same – two parents plus children. Even the word ‘care’ has fallen into disapproval, with ‘looked-after children’ having become de rigueur.

Case study: Claire’s story

Claire, then 14, was being sexually abused by an older brother. She suffered in silence. Her school, and all who knew her, recognised her withdrawal and increasing isolation.

She was introduced to a special project I was running and was eventually able to disclose what was happening to her. As a result, she was given a place in a nearby local authority home, where links with her family were able to be maintained. Over time, with counselling, Claire thrived.

Years later I saw her while out shopping. She was a changed person – happy, well adjusted, happily married and with her own two children. She had not forgotten the work I and my colleagues had done to rebuild her life. She was most grateful.

She explained that, even without her brother there, if she had been returned to her family home she would not have progressed so well due to the memories associated with living in that family home.

During my 30 years in probation and social work, I have often found myself on the losing side of debates about the best or most appropriate course of action to take when a child or young person may be suffering abuse in one form or another.

It has always struck me as ironic that for children who have suffered at the hands of their own family – and let’s face it the vast majority of abuse does take place within that venerable institution, the nuclear family – we propose that the solution is a move to another family.

Moving to a similar institution to the one that caused the pain is surely to disregard a few basic instinctual emotions, which are likely to plague the child. For example, lack of trust and confidence, and fear.

If those claiming to love the child are the source of his or her pain, how is that child likely to be able to trust foster parents who don’t even know them?

I acknowledge that some atrocious practices have been uncovered in residential establishments, but the same is true for nuclear families. In principle, there’s no reason why such accommodation, whether public or private, should not provide a high standard of care that fulfills young people’s needs and requirements. With adequate funding and fully trained staff, quality provision can be maintained.

Foster placement with a family is appropriate for some. However, with the focus on assessing individual needs, professionals should not rule anything out.

Part of the problem for social workers is that for too long the profession has been burdened with political ideology and ever changing theoretical ‘flavours of the month’. This means that sometimes, as I’ve found through experience, one is constrained to offer what one thinks is the most appropriate way forward for any given youngster.

To offer an alternative view is often to bring disapprobation from management, accusations of disloyalty to the agency and a failure to understand the needs of young people.

It’s time for residential child care to be taken back into the fold as a primary care resource for children and young people, rather than as a last resort.

This means it must be funded and resourced adequately so that young people in need are offered first rate standards of care.

Adrian Zakrzewski is a social worker and trainer

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9 Responses to Insisting on foster care ignores the fear and pain felt by children

  1. Emma Hirst August 14, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

    I agree that residential care should be better ( though the poor provision that exists is cripplingly expensive already), but I disagree with your reasoning. Giving a child who has been abused within the family an opportunity to live in a positive family environment is usually the best way as most children will become adults with families of their own, and they need some positive experience of how this happens.

    I have fostered older children who had horrendous lives with their birth families, but even though they struggled in our family environment, as they have become adults they have been able to reflect on their experience and, more importantly, turn to us, long after their SW has closed their case. Having that family backup helps their stability but also models stability for when try to develop and maintain relationships.

    I would argue that rather than moving more children into residential rather than foster care, there should be more flexibility between the two – with fostering ‘Aunties/ uncles type roles, for the young people who can’t manage family life full time, but who would benefit from some aspects of it.

    • Tim McArdle August 14, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

      That’s interesting Emma. Those aunties and uncles could be the demographic that due to work are unable to foster. I am already looking at this group for a mentoring plan for care leavers for a charity I am setting up. This could well be a very good idea too :o)

  2. Tim McArdle August 14, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

    I am so glad this is being discussed. Working at the forefront of the fostering sector I have been dismayed to see children ‘bouncing’ from one foster placement to the next because their presenting needs cannot, at this stage of their life, be met in foster care. With each passing rejection, the emotional trauma of the child increases. Sometimes (note the word sometimes, meaning upon assessment) a child needs a residential establishment that can meet their needs and provide a place of security and safety where they can live without rejection and in time work through their issues, perhaps to return to foster care when the time is right. The reality is that children are placed in foster care sometimes under the pretext that a family is better. Whilst in many cases this is perfectly true, there is an underlying financial reason why it is so hard for local authority placement officers to get authorisation to place a child in residential accommodation. Sadly it is not all about their needs.

    • Helen Jones August 15, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

      I am with Tim. For me, I see the other side, I work for The Caldecott Foundation, a Charity providing residential care and education. I see the children who come into residential care after experiencing numerous family breakdowns. It reduces the likelihood of them successfully returning to a family. We have seen the benefits for young people of placing in residential care early on. This supports young people to begin to address the issues surrounding birth families without the same intense emotional pressure of living and surviving in a family.

      I am sure this debate will rage on with arguments on both sides. The fact is that each child is an individual, their experiences and levels of resilience are unique. Thus the need for a range of provision to meet those needs. It is essential that the sector is supported to continue to grow and develop, rather than be squeezed out as the poor relative.

      • Tricia Taylor August 15, 2014 at 3:13 pm #

        I agree wholeheartedly Adrian. Having worked in a range of roles within social work and education, with links both to the public and voluntrary sectors, I have long held the view that the loss of residential provision has been a disservice to many of our children and young people. After the trauma of leaving a chaotic and often abusive environment I believe that many need the chance to be cared for in a warm, caring, but neutral, situation before moving on to what may sometimes seem the hotbed of emotional pressure that is a family. We need a range of provision so the needs of each child can be met, pretending that they are when budget constraints dictate otherwise is dishonest and will only result in much greater financial demands later on when the children we fail become adults who cannot cope.

  3. Kaitlin August 17, 2014 at 6:27 pm #

    There is a place for residential care . I worked in residential care homes for Looked After Children and we took the children who had as many as 17 broken foster placements and needed some stability and structure. Making them bounce through the foster care system just because there is a stigma about residential care is emotionally unfair on them and leads them with o sense of belnging. There are atrocious practices in the foster care system too . There is a need for better monitoring of residential and foster care . Its not fair to tar every establishment with the same brush ,there is some fantastic work going on too in some homes.

  4. Robert Whiston FRSA August 18, 2014 at 11:55 pm #

    Having read the article the subtext is nothing more than a revamp of Edmund Leache’s infamous “tawdry curtain” jibe and is as about as inaccurate and irrelevant as Leach has been proven to be in 1967.
    The reason why the media and policitians are giving ‘residential care’ a hard time might – I suggest – be because it fails to work; it fails to deliver the expected results; and is actually the engine of juvenile delinquency and bad conduct because it fails to control it charges inside or outside the care facility.

    ‘Community Care’, please bear in mind, claims to be the nation’s leading authority on ‘care’ issues yet nonetheless it turned down an article a decade ago on child homicides (based on government stats) as being ‘too unbelievable’.
    Had they accepted the article the follow-up one would have dealt with where those homicides took place most often – and guess where that would have pointed ? No, not to ‘the family’ but to the ‘non-family’ unit.

  5. Helen August 19, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

    I agree with both perspectives but unfortunately we don’t inhabit a social care climate which enables social workers to analyse and meet an individual child/young person’s needs. Replacing the family of children who have been separated from theirs is often traumatic for some children placed in foster care or for adoption, others need to have those roles modelled for them and can absorb having a family to grow up with, resilience and attachment factors are key as we all know. I will never understand the way that short term budgetary goals, as well as the political ideology of the times, dictate terms. Long term outcomes are known, in terms of MH provisions, the CJS, homelessness and addiction. Which costs the taxpayer less is a fairly simple equation.

  6. Adrian Zakrzewski August 22, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

    I am gratified that my ‘opinion piece’ has provoked some exceptionally wise responses. Whatever ones leaning, I’m sure everyone agrees that the debate has to be had. I was particularly intrigued by Robert Whiston’s comments: he may be interested to know that I have never heard of Edmund Leache. I am intrigued – maybe I will look him up. As for politicians, sorry I don’t consider that there is much evidence of them making decisions on the basis of evidence. Evidence is frequently completely overlooked in their pursuance of either ideological or financial goals. Just look at what is happening in our prisons at the moment: evidence is provided from various quarters of increasing violence and drug abuse, and reducing levels of association due to a 30% reduction in staffing levels, but the Minister of course sees things differently – no problem!
    I suppose the point I was trying to make was that residential care could be outstandingly positive if it was resourced optimally. Do bear in mind that staff have often been unqualified (or differently qualified), and rates of pay lower than for ‘qualified’ field social workers, so perhaps that might impact on the quality of staff reqruitment. Residential care should not be seen as the poor relative of social work, but should be resourced with staff of the highest calibre. If such was the case I am absolutely certain that outcomes would improve immeasurably.