At age 11, this deeply troubled boy was on his 27th placement

A young boy in care took his own life after a succession of placement breakdowns. Jack Brookes reflects on the lessons that need to be learned.

Homes
Photo: Jürgen Eis imageBROKER/REX Shutterstock

By Jack Brookes

A young lad I used to look after in a therapeutic community came to us, aged 11, he’d already had 26 placements. All of these placements, except one, had been foster care; number 16 had been another therapeutic community (TC).

He had stayed there for a couple of years and did quite well – so well, in fact, his local authority thought they would give foster care another whirl.

After 10 further attempts to make foster care work he came to the TC I was working in – where he remained for the next five and a half years.  Earlier this year, three days before he was due to leave (and return to foster care), he took his own life.

Now, it would be wrong to blame his death entirely on the number of placements he’d had and certainly it is not the fault of any of the many people who had, presumably, tried their best to look after him before realising they could not. The lad in question was deeply troubled, very unsettling and difficult to be around, and potentially the most dangerous I have worked with.

But it is for these reasons that foster care was never going to work – a conclusion that could surely have been reached after, say, placement five? Maybe 10? Or 15?

Common place

This is a stark case but, in my experience, children having placements numbering in double figures is common place. This is not a criticism of foster care – which obviously works well for thousands of children. Nor is it an advert for residential care – plenty of kids get passed from generic kids home to generic kids home. And, although I am passionate about them, it is not intended to suggest therapeutic communities are best either.

I think it is a mistake to see one type of placement as necessarily better than another type.  At the moment the prevailing idea seems to be: adoption is best, if that is not possible then foster care, and if that really doesn’t work after several tries then a children’s home. But if you have this bias then you cannot possibly be considering the needs or wishes of the individual young person. You cannot be thinking – “What is best for this child?”

It causes other issues too – it is quite common, as with the case above, that when a child starts to settle in a children’s home (which is basically code for his or her behaviour has improved) then they will be moved to a foster placement – because foster care is “better”. Or a child might be thriving in a foster placement but moved because an adoptive family has been found.

Ripped away

At the TC I worked in, we would regularly be fighting this battle. Often children’s placements with us would be on a year-by-year basis. Meaning kids who had been with us for three or four years and, therefore, the kids who were the most stable, were at the greatest risk of being moved. In other words, just at the point they were doing OK they might be ripped away from everything they know, all their attachment figures and known relationships, and placed with strange people in a strange town.

A girl I look after in my current job, who is just starting to develop meaningful relationships with staff, may be moved in September when a bed at the local authority owned home becomes available. No one is even bothering to pretend this is about anything other than cost.

The local authority I work in, like others, has a network of “preferred providers”. Essentially, if you are not on this list you will not get referrals. They send out all the referrals to all the providers on the list. We have the same young people referred to us again and again, including children who used to live with us but whose placements we closed. This hardly seems like a thought-out, needs-based approach.

Diversity

The other problem with this model is it means providers become tailored to meet the needs of local authorities rather than the needs of children, which  are not always the same thing, and as a result they become more generic.

This is a shame, because if there is a benefit to having children’s homes and fostering agencies in the private sector then surely it is diversity of provision.

There is not space here to discuss why some children thrive in one placement but not another.  However, in my own case, I lived in several foster placements and a children’s home but, in the end, I was always going to break these placements down. I was loyal to my father and determined to live with him.

In the end, by accident or design, I spent four years at an Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties boarding school with weekends and holidays at Dad’s. This was the right balance. I got to spend lots of time with my dad while the school gave me structure and met the needs my dad, unfortunately, didn’t have the capacity to.

Different set-ups will work for different children. But the focus should be on finding a place to live that is right for that individual child and, if at all possible, leaving them there.

Jack Brookes is a pseudonym. He blogs anonymously at lostincare.co.uk. You can follow him on twitter @Lostincare.

 

More from Community Care

8 Responses to At age 11, this deeply troubled boy was on his 27th placement

  1. John M April 28, 2016 at 2:12 pm #

    A really well considered article. I work for a provider which has a specialist residential home for younger children with backgrounds of multiple fostering breakdowns/changes. It was opened as a direct result of local authority requests and interest. Sadly, the home carries vacancies as LA’s would rather retain children on the fostering merry-go-round as it’s cheaper or because residential care is seen as a failure or too risky. The children whose authorities have done the right thing and placed them there are thriving and enjoying their childhoods again.

  2. Hilton Dawson April 28, 2016 at 4:28 pm #

    Decisions being taken to disrupt children’s lives in order to save money ….
    Where’s :
    the safeguarding board
    The voice of young people in the authority
    The IRO
    BASW
    Councillors
    MP
    Media
    ADCS

    and why’s this an anonymous piece, tucked away in a corner

    Why isn’t it being shouted about on high ?

    • Vivienne April 29, 2016 at 11:24 am #

      I agree Hilton. This is not an isolated case. There was a time when social workers could say that some children, no fault of their own are just not ready for a family and need intensive therapeutic intervention. Today plans for children are very much resources lead.

      How do we change this? I work as an foster carer IRO, and I will raise these issues but am aware that often I am acknowledged but nothing changes. I get to the place where I wonder if all of us can sleep well at night. It makes you that raw.

  3. Sarah Lund April 28, 2016 at 5:37 pm #

    Play lottery with people’s lives and it’s no surprise that they end up killing themselves. This should end. Enough is enough. Best interests should come first. If you had any kind of hint, that the resident was going to commit suicide, it goes against the gran, because the local councils of anywhere just don’t care. Don’t wonder why some haven’t recovery. So everyone just goes along with what the authorities want, because it’s easier. Even when it means the service user might feel much worse after it happens. Stupid beyond words.

  4. Sarah Lund April 28, 2016 at 5:38 pm #

    I meant the council’s go against the GRAIN.

  5. Emma April 28, 2016 at 6:45 pm #

    Sometimes a residential placements works better than a fostering placement, especially for children & young people with attachment difficulties & challenging behaviour. They don’t need to attach to a single carer & the staff can recharge their batteries whilst the children stays in their own home.

  6. Jack Brookes April 29, 2016 at 9:52 am #

    I feel duty bound to explain that while I believe the extremely high level of placement changes, and the fact that this meant he did not receive appropriate therpeutic intervention early enough, was massively not good enough, this was a very complicated case and his early years experiences also played a part. It would be wrong to blame LA entirely. We cannot know for sure how things may have been different, but I obviously think they might have been. I had left the organisation before this happened but none of the very experienced management or staff looking after him at the time could possibly have predicted what he was about to do.

  7. Pops May 11, 2016 at 6:16 pm #

    This is is such a refreshing article that absolutely hits the nail on the head about resource and financial-led decisions for children in the care system. I have spent 7 years as a social worker and now team manager experiencing children on my caseload being removed from residential care as soon as they start to do well, and children suffering in foster care, moving from placement to placement because their needs are not deemed worthy of consideration for residential placement.
    There is a flipside to this however and that is, in my experience, a lot of private residential homes offer extremely poor value for money and truly appalling levels of care, run by inexperienced and poorly paid staff. I can understand why budget holders are so reluctant to pay such enormous sums of money for so little investment in the child. There seems to be a strangle-hold on the market by very average at best residential homes, and it seems that more needs to be done around regulation and inspection from a Government level.