Children speak out in favour of residential care

As part of the solution to the perceived failure of children’s
homes, the government and some children’s charities have been
pushing adoption and fostering as a solution. However, a new report
suggests that many children prefer residential homes to foster
placements, reports Claire Laurent.

As part of the solution to the perceived failure of children’s
homes, the government and some children’s charities have been
pushing adoption and fostering as a solution. However, a new report
suggests that many children prefer residential homes to foster
placements, reports Claire Laurent

The child welfare establishment could find one of its sacred
cows facing increasing scrutiny following the publication of a
study that suggests that children prefer residential care to foster

According to a report from Save the Children in
Scotland,1 many children prefer the long-term stability
offered by residential care to the sometimes poor replication of
family life within foster care.

Andy MacMillan, now aged 21, lived in both foster care and
residential care and is clear that the latter was right for him. “I
moved from foster place to foster place and didn’t really settle.”
He had one long-term foster placement of two-and-a-half years that
didn’t work out and when he was 13 he was moved to a residential
home. “That’s where I flourished. It was more stable for me and the
young people around me were about my age and going through the same
difficulties so we could help each other. I stated quite clearly
that residential care was what I wanted, and I was allowed to stay

Andy is one of 34 young people who took part in research by Save
the Children in Scotland, into the experiences of young people in
care. The age range of those who took part was between 15 and 25
and on average they have been in care for seven-and-a-half

The conclusion, that many children prefer residential care to
foster placements, runs contrary to established belief and practice
which favours placing children and young people in small family
units. According to Brian Ritchie at the National Foster Care
Association (Scotland), there are around 5,000 looked-after
children in Scotland. About 3,500 of these are in foster care, with
1,000 in residential care and the remainder with families and

Assistant director of Save the Children in Scotland, Elizabeth
Morrison, says: “It was a small qualitative sample. We don’t
pretend it is representative of all young people in care in
Scotland.” Its value, she says, lies in the fact that it records
young people’s views and experiences. “It raises interesting
questions and merits further investigation. Policy makers should be
looking at it.”

Young people in the research described residential placements as
being more likely to offer long-term stability, while foster care
is not always seen as an appropriate alternative to their own
families. Frequent moves between foster homes were seen as the
norm, despite the received wisdom that foster placements should be
long-term arrangements. Many young people and children spoke of
feeling abandoned due to a lack of continuity and communication
when they were frequently moved between placements and schools.

The report also found that young people were rarely consulted
and often received no notice of placement changes – even having
their belongings packed in their absence. Residential care was
viewed as a longer term solution, enabling young people to remain
at the same school, sustain good friendships and follow through
their education with minimum disruption.

Many children said they were unable to relax in foster homes,
partly because it was somebody else’s house, but mainly because
they were wary of carers usurping the role of their own parents.
Alison, now aged 20, was involved in the report. She says: “I never
gained any family life, because I never had any. I was with foster
families but I was just… I felt I was put to the side.”

Young people regarded foster placements as having more rules and
idiosyncrasies, and fewer privileges, than residential care. Foster
carers were also often older people with limited training in child
care and counselling. Residential care was seen as more relaxed,
with other young people sharing common interests. Residents also
had access to a wealth of different adult personalities and

John Bennett is manager of Ashleigh children’s home in Market
Rasen, Lincolnshire. He says that to some extent fashion has
dominated whether residential or foster care is more popular at any
particular time. But, he says, that young people feel a residential
home puts no pressure on them to form emotional ties with the
adults that care for them, as there can be in the family situation
of a foster home.

“They are able to distance themselves emotionally if they want
to. They are also in contact with more adults and so it’s more
likely they will find a role model they can relate to.”

However, despite the overall preference, those involved in the
research did highlight some negative aspects to residential care –
including finding it difficult to be alone, constraints on choosing
activities, a lack of discipline and the sometimes volatile
atmosphere created by vulnerable young people living together.

Andy Macmillan says he is not against foster care – indeed one
of the two charities he now works for is the National Foster Care
Association (Scotland) where he helps campaign for better
recognition, support and status of foster carers. He says that
while residential care worked for him, foster care might work for
others, especially very young children.

Ritchie, of the National Foster Care Association (Scotland),
says: “The children placed in residential care or foster care are
not inherently different. Residential homes don’t necessarily just
get the hard-to-place kids. Twenty years ago they would have been
put in residential care but now they can be in foster care.

“There is no view from our organisation that one type of care is
better than another. It should be needs-led, not service led. And
ideally we need a choice of residential placements and a choice of
foster care placements. A choice of one is not a choice.”

His words are echoed by Rob Hutchinson, chairperson of the
children and families committee of the Association of Directors of
Social Services. “The important issue is that there is sufficient
provision in both residential and foster homes for children to have
a real choice. Having sufficient choice means having sufficient
resources to offer that choice.”

Alison Williams, principal officer for children in public care
at the National Children’s Bureau welcomes the report, particularly
its positive take on residential care. “It sounded from what these
young people were saying that they had made very good relationships
with staff and there was good continuity of those

There is a need for both residential and foster care, Williams
adds, but planning is central to whatever care children are
offered. “It makes you wonder what sort of planning went on for
these young people and children when they were younger when they
received so much change and disruption.”

David Berridge, professor of child and family welfare at the
University of Luton, says: “This finding has come up in other
studies before. Certainly if young people have lived through a
breakdown of their own family or if previous foster homes or
adoptive homes have been unhappy they do sometimes say they prefer
the neutral environment of the residential homes.

“We have to be careful in generalising because it depends on the
quality of the homes but often residential homes do seem more
prepared for the young person to stay in touch with their own
families and there is more scope to get involved in community

However he warns: “There can be a negative side to that, if
young people are getting into trouble or mixing with the wrong
sorts of people, we don’t always want them to stay in touch.”

This raises the vexed question of whether what children and
young people want is necessarily good for them. According to Andy
Macmillan, discussing the issues with young people and listening to
what they say and taking action as a result is what is important.
He suggests no child or young person should feel they are being
told one type of care is better for them.

Billie Ibidun, national co-ordinator of National Voice – an
organisation that supports children in care and afterwards – says:
“These young people were raising serious issues about the quality
of foster care. I didn’t take it from the report, that young people
had given up on the idea of the family, they still had a great deal
of belief in the idea of family. But their experience of foster
care had been of such poor quality that they had lost confidence in

“I think the whole Quality Protects initiative has put listening
further up the agenda but it’s going to be some time before the
messages from children filter down into real changes in the system.
They need to be heard every step of the process. How are we going
to know what’s good and what’s bad if the people in receipt of
these services don’t have a say – and a say that’s accorded some
status in the process?”

David Berridge says: “The Utting report of 1997, People Like Us,
raised the issue of their being a danger of too little choice if
there was insufficient residential care. If we listen to young
people more than we are, we may end up with a better balance of

1 A Sense of Purpose: Care Leavers’ Views
and Experiences of Growing Up
, Save the Children in Scotland,
May 2001.

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