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
    care.

    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
    there.”

    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
    years.

    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
    friends.

    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
    perspectives.

    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
    relationships.”

    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
    activities.”

    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
    it.

    “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
    provision.”

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

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