How rethinking residential care can help safeguard children against sexual exploitation

In light of how vulnerable looked-after children are to abusers, it's time to rethink our approach to residential care, argue Tom Rahilly and David Berridge

Photo: Flickr/Nadia Hatoum
Photo: Flickr/Nadia Hatoum

by Tom Rahilly, head of strategy and development, NSPCC and David Berridge, professor of child and family welfare, University of Bristol

Not that it has ever gone away, but the government’s recent intervention in Rotherham council brought back into the public eye the horrendous events in which a reported 1,400 children were sexually exploited.

The serious case review into sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire shows the problem is not restricted to one area alone.

Alexis Jay’s report into Rotherham showed widespread failures. While there were many individual practitioners trying their best, they came up against a wall of denial.

It’s clear that we urgently need to find a better way of safeguarding our most vulnerable children. Children who were abused included those living at home with their families as well as children in care.

However, there seems to be a pattern in abusers targeting those who are particularly vulnerable such as in residential care.

Challenge

No-one should under-estimate the challenge of tackling this. Children may yearn for adult affection and be less adept at recognising true motives and exploitation. Numerous girls made comments such as, ‘I know he really loves me’, or, ‘I was special to him’. It is harrowing when individuals will settle for so little, or feel that they are entitled to no better.

Residential care is often misunderstood and most homes work hard to provide stability and boundaries for young people who have led unsettled and troublesome lives. Children arrive with established harmful patterns of behaviour and undesirable contacts. Dealing with this in local, open units is a challenge and residential workers have to be very creative in gathering intelligence, fragmenting social groups and offering alternatives.

Under-professionalised

Despite these efforts, it is clear that there are long-term and structural problems with residential care in England. These relate to role and status. We still expect our most troubled children to be looked after by an undervalued workforce that is the least well qualified, lowest paid and not given the support it needs. In other words a workforce that is ‘under-professionalised’. It doesn’t need to be this way. It is different to this in much of continental Europe.

The government has taken action to address some of the shortcomings. Attention has focused on children placed long distances and the problem of residential homes located in unsafe areas.

There has been a debate about responses to children who go missing. A new set of quality standards is planned. And whilst we need to go further, useful steps have been taken to tighten-up qualifications for the residential sector. This is a reasonable start but, alone, none of this will resolve current problems.

Rethink the nature of residential care

We need to develop a more nuanced, and individual approach to safeguarding children in care; a relational approach. Research shows that it is the relationship that children have with the carer and other professionals that is critical to effective safeguarding. Children need someone they trust; someone that they turn to for support. Alongside improving qualifications – which is critical – we must focus on supporting the quality and stability of the relationships that young people in care have with those there to support and protect them.

Achieving this requires us to rethink the nature of residential care. We must ensure the management of residential care build a positive culture in the home where children and young people know that their needs are understood and that their views and experiences are valued and listened to. We must, for example, eliminate inflexible shift patterns and ways of working that mean that children cannot develop meaningful, trusting relationships over the longer term.

Residential children’s homes as anomalies

Though it may never be the same, residential care should resemble family care as closely as possible.

Most human service professions are now graduate entry: children’s residential homes are, therefore, anomalous. Some councils pay and perceive heads of homes at social worker team leader-level, which seems more commensurate with the level of responsibility and expertise required, but practice remains variable. We are now dependent on a large independent residential sector and the economics of care are a problem.

Hopefully the next government will continue to develop the children’s residential sector, building on the work that has started and based on what we know works. How all this squares with a five-year, average, reduction in council budgets of 37% remains to be seen.

But as the messages from Rotherham and elsewhere have shown us, we cannot afford not to act.

This piece is based on chapter three from the NSPCC’s book, ‘Promoting the wellbeing of children in care’, which was launched today.

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2 Responses to How rethinking residential care can help safeguard children against sexual exploitation

  1. Jenni Randall March 9, 2015 at 5:13 pm #

    Interesting that no one has rushed to comment about residential care. Sadly that is part of the problem. There is disinterest from a whole range of people both in and out of the sector. I absolutely agree with the above and have been saying all that for years but there really is no one listening.

  2. DEANSIE PHILLIPS Phillips March 9, 2015 at 11:34 pm #

    I work in residential care and i have found this piece very interesting. I would like to make more comments but would like them to remain confidential!