By spending too much on shoes and phones, are we setting up children in care to fail?

David Jones argues that spending on children in residential homes does not adequately prepare them for how tough life is afterwards

leaving care
Photo: Design Pics Inc/REX Shuttershock

by David Jones

As we were walking back from the local shops, having stocked up with items for the pantry of the residential home I was working in, Brian, a young person living in the home, suddenly pointed out a friend across the road.

Having not seen his friend Steve in the two years he’d been in care, Brian said he’d like to introduce me to him and have a chat.

Brief formalities concluded, the two were clearly pleased to see each other, and during the course of their conversation Steve commented that he’d never seen Brian so smartly dressed. They both laughed, but when Brian showed him his mobile phone and then told him how much his trainers had cost, Steve’s reaction got me thinking about a sentiment often expressed by staff in the home, particularly when a young person is about to leave care and start living independently – we’re setting them up to fail.

‘Your phone’s better than mine’

“Being in a kids’ home seems ok to me Brian,” Steve said. “I had no idea they got you stuff like that. Your phone’s better than mine, good on you mate!”

“We’re setting them up to fail” is the common refrain and some children in care do quickly become accustomed to initially novel comforts; weekly pocket money, incentive money earned for certain tasks undertaken (keeping their bedroom tidy, washing their dinner plate) and a generous clothes budget.

Of course young people in care are rightly entitled to these things, but for those who leave the home with few or no prospects in terms of education, training or employment, the reality of the outside world proves a stark contrast.

Existing on meagre benefits, they find that shopping trips and days out are suddenly a thing of the past.

I’ve also noticed that some kids in care develop a sense of entitlement, whether it be demanding more new clothes or criticising ‘basic’ meals such as beans on toast. Accordingly, what impact does this have on their expectations and morale when they have to fend for themselves?

Sense of entitlement

I’ve met young people who since leaving the home tell me their lives feel even harder and more deprived as a consequence. They might not have had much before they came into care, but now they feel they have even less.

This is a difficult issue, as many professionals who work with children concede. We give all the emotional support we can, but we do need to prepare the more vulnerable and challenging kids more realistically for life outside the home. Yet we are guilty at times of fostering this sense of entitlement that doesn’t reflect the experience of the outside world.

Encouraging more use of public transport instead of giving in to demands to be driven somewhere by staff is not petty or vindictive, but an important lesson to learn. If we were to provide for these children in less lavish, over-accommodating ways, surely we would be preparing them more constructively for when they leave our care?

It might sound counter-intuitive or even harsh, but just because a child is in care doesn’t mean they can’t be advised to catch a bus into town. I will tell a youngster that when I was a kid my parents didn’t own a car and I’ve found that young people can respond to this and leave the home with a stronger sense of purpose.

Surprise

I’ve known kids who have turned down foster placements because they didn’t like the ‘house rules’, the size of their new bedroom or the reduction in pocket money. Birth parents I’ve spoken to also express surprise when I tell them how much money is spent on children in care.

It can’t be right that staff who can’t be bothered to cook will order takeaway food. Many parents I know certainly don’t buy their children the latest technology – be it mobile phones, Xboxes, computers etc – and will buy less up-to-date or even second-hand items. Unfortunately, life in care doesn’t reflect this reality.

Staff do try to address this, however, and will tell young people that their own children don’t enjoy the latest technology or £150 trainers. And after-care advisers do try to explain this to young people before they leave the home and will help them to budget when they are living independently.

This support generally lasts for between a month and two months and personal advisers do their best in this respect. But as intensive as this help is over that time period, some kids will always struggle to make what is a massive adjustment.

No longer there

One experience in particular brought home to me exactly what some staff mean when they say we’re setting kids up to fail.

Angela was a bright 15-year-old who had left the home four months previously and was enjoying a cookery course at college. One day she suddenly turned up at the home and, after we’d enjoyed a catch-up, she told me she needed a new winter coat. I asked her if she’d seen anything she liked and she said she had but couldn’t afford it. She then added that she’d be asking my manager for the money. I gently explained to Angela that since she was no longer in our care it wasn’t our responsibility to provide her with any financial help.

“So you bought me things when I lived here but you won’t now?” she snapped at me. She couldn’t rationalise that after such a short time we were no longer there for her. I couldn’t help but think that she had a point.

David Jones works in a residential children’s home. His name has been changed.

9 Responses to By spending too much on shoes and phones, are we setting up children in care to fail?

  1. D1 February 2, 2016 at 11:51 am #

    Entitlement attitude will continue….

    I have worked with young people who had been removed from their parents and placed into foster care or residential care who have gone from receiving very little to having regular money and materialistic things purchased for them. However, when some of these young people return to their families, this ‘entitlement’ attitude does cause a lot of friction and upset with their parents. Therefore, instead of being a positive move back to the care of their family, some young people see it as a negative because of the significant reduction in finances and purchased items.

    I have also seen that some of the young people who remain in care and are then leaving to live independently, will demand money from the department and again see this as their entitlement. However, this then deters some of them from seeking employment, training or applying for State Benefits due to the limited amount of money that is given.

    Our staff are subjected to verbal abuse and threats because financial support is no longer provided to these young people. Surely as an organisation, realistic financial goals should be set and managing finances should be something that is included within the school curriculum and within care placements from the beginning. Otherwise we are going to continuously set these young people up to fail.

  2. Caroline Carroll February 2, 2016 at 6:47 pm #

    I worked in residential care for many years and have seen a lot of practices that does not prepare children for “real life”. I saw a boy of 14 years being bough 5 mobile phones in 2 weeks. Each time he’d have an angry outburst he would throw his phone and smash it and another would be bought. I have also seen these children leaving care at age 18 and lasting at most a month in rented accomodation before their independent living conditions breaking down even with a lot of support. I don’t believe residential care prepares children for the realities they will face once out of the care system.

    • Hilary Stanton February 8, 2016 at 12:46 am #

      quite clearly the problem is with the person repeatedly replacing the phones.

  3. Albert Hall February 2, 2016 at 7:16 pm #

    I agree with some of this – particularly paying kids to tidy their rooms etc. But where do you draw the line? It is an unfortunate fact that most kids in care will not go on to have the lives we would want for them. That makes it more important they lead comfortable lives and have positive experiences now….not less important.

    For years I had a foreign holiday each year. I have not been able to afford to the last couple of years. Perhaps I feel the loss of them because I have had them previously but would my life really be better if I had never had one? Was I just setting up my own disappointment for future years?

  4. Chris February 5, 2016 at 10:29 am #

    People don’t want to be given money, they want to be given power. Happiness is more correlated with autonomy and a sense of purpose and mastery than it is with gifts. The most valuable (and sadly rare) work I’ve seen in residential care is around getting young people jobs. I’ve seen young people far happier with the meagre items they’ve bought with their wages than with expensive items that were given to them by an authority figure.
    The desire to be free from authority is not just about rules, it’s about the craving for independence. Eventually, young people tend to give up any hope of independence because the gap between what they can provide for themselves and what the state can provide for nothing becomes too great. I used to blow the LAC grants I received on rubbish, whereas the pitiful income I earned in shop and building work was valuable to me, and I saved and managed it well.
    When you’ve worked a long shift for a low wage, the items you buy with that money take on far more value, and the sense of self-worth increases. It’s about more than the earning power: it’s the notion that your own actions mean something, that what you do has value, and that you can manage on your own without forever needing an authority figure providing handouts.
    So this isn’t a choice between ‘being tough on kids’ and ‘giving them what they want’, it’s a choice between where the locus of power for older children is located.

  5. Michelle February 7, 2016 at 8:47 pm #

    It’s not just residential care, it is also foster care. Children in foster care are given huge personal allowances. I have had children/ teenagers break down their home environment to come into care for their festival allowance, informing me how much he was entitled to. It also makes rehabilitation back home more difficult as children don’t undersatnd why they can’t have from their parent all that they got in foster care.

    I work in the leaving care service and watch so many young people have. The shock. Of moving from huge benefits from foster care, to managing on. Benefits.

    We need to get a smoother transition for these young people.

    • Kath February 11, 2016 at 10:20 am #

      Huge benefits in foster care? Wow. Tell me which LA this is. Our starting pay is £125 a week! Allowances for the children with us are £100 at Xmas and birthday. Hardly worth orchestrating coming back into care for.

  6. jane. February 8, 2016 at 9:05 am #

    Thank you for all this information. I have a YP 17 who has started work .He doesn’t seem to understand that whilst he earns £150 a week, I will not ( with his s/w’s blessing) be giving him pocket money or clothing allowance. It goes into his savings. I feel he has no reality about money His first wage he spent with in 3 hours on lottery tickets he didnt win and had no money for the week. As he was with us his food etc was here but had he been in self accomodation he would have had a melt down. So Thanks for this .I will try hard to get him to see the value of his earning exactly as i have my own children. It is hard when you have had a child for so long 8 years and he came into care so traumatised not to ‘give’ in and do the easy nice thing.I dont however want him retraumatised by leaving care!

  7. TJH February 8, 2016 at 11:43 am #

    I can’t say I really agree with this article.
    Someof the young people I work with come from backgrounds where their parent(s) aren’t able to provide them with the emotional support they need and so show their love through material goods.
    With these young people we use material goods and financial rewards as incentives to develop positive behaviours and self esteem. In this sense, they are ‘earning’ the money whilst adhering to boundaries and settling into a routine where hard work and adherence bring rewards, which is an important lesson for future life.
    A side benefit of this is that, whilst the young person is in this period of settlement, we are able to give them emotional support and enable them to experience what being cared for feels like. This helps develop relationships with the staff members and accept that their view of the world is different to that of a responsible adult and that, as they believe the adult staff have their best interests at heart, trust adults again and do things they may find uninteresting such as attend school etc.
    Of course, not all young people come from such backgrounds but material and financial rewards are tools that can be used across the board.
    As long as we communicate with the young people and act in their best interests by maintaining firm boundaries with appropriate explanations and clear communication, I believe we can largely avoid the situations described in the article.