Nowhere to hide

    David Berridge is professor of child and family welfare
    at Luton University and has been a child care researcher for 25
    years. He worked previously at the National Children’s Bureau and
    the Dartington Social Research Unit, and has had a long research
    collaboration with the NSPCC.
       

    “I was scared,” recalls one 12-year-old resident of a children’s
    home. “Like, there’s so many boys and they’re just big, puffed up,
    all hard, and I was very worried.”

    Violence is troubling wherever it occurs but it can be particularly
    menacing in children’s residential homes because of children’s
    experiences, vulnerability and the fact that they live there around
    the clock.

    Yet before our study, no one had specifically researched violence
    in residential care to include young people’s views.1 We
    set out to remedy this, looking at 14 residential units in England
    – local authority, private and voluntary – and interviewing 71
    young people and 71 staff.

    Both groups were of mixed gender and ethnicity. Most residents were
    teenagers, but ages ranged from six to 17. We considered our
    ethical responsibilities in raising such a sensitive topic and
    built in safeguards to protect children should they reveal serious
    risk to themselves or other children in their placements.

    We imposed no prior definition of what constituted violence,
    starting instead with what it meant to young people themselves.
    From their definitions we arrived at the following four categories
    of violence: physical contact, physical non-contact, sexual and
    verbal.

    Physical contact violence involved all forms of direct physical
    attack. Physical non-contact violence included acts that harmed
    emotionally rather than physically, such as intimidating looks,
    invasion of personal space and damaging bedrooms or property.
    Sexual violence was defined as unwelcome or abusive sexual
    behaviour. Name-calling and other intentional insults were deemed
    verbal attacks.

    Most young people had experienced physical violence in residential
    homes, whether as recipients, perpetrators or witnesses. Just under
    half were exposed to physical non-contact violence. Reports of
    sexual violence between peers were low, but nearly all had
    experienced verbal attacks.

    Girls tended to use sexuality as a form of verbal insult, mainly
    orientation (“lezzie”) or reputation (“slag”, “slapper”). Boys were
    more likely to target family background, especially through “mother
    cussing”.

    The homes in the research showed marked differences in the level
    and nature of violent behaviour. However, all homes had a resident
    hierarchy or pecking order, which was often linked with abuses of
    power. Young people viewed the hierarchy as inevitable but not
    necessarily natural, while staff often saw it as benign, even
    helpful. But young people wanted staff to challenge this pecking
    order – and the negative effect it had on their lives – more often.
    New arrivals to units could upset the hierarchy and trigger
    violence, which explains the particular problems of short-term
    homes and emergency admissions.

    Young people and many staff felt physical violence was normal for
    boys and a natural part of growing up. Similarly, girls saw sexual
    aggression from boys as a common if unwelcome part of male
    sexuality. Residents and staff often regarded sexually provocative
    behaviour from girls as a trigger for sexual assault by boys. Staff
    usually acted promptly to deal with physical violence, although
    they were mostly unsuccessful at preventing it recurring. Young
    people had mixed views on whether they welcomed their
    intervention.

    There was less racist behaviour in homes than might have been
    expected, given the likely attitudes of many communities and
    families from which children originated. Racism was the one area in
    which homes and agencies had clear policies: young people and staff
    knew that racism was unacceptable, and staff acted consistently. As
    one resident put it: “Racist stuff, that’s different.”

    Most homes in the research had taken positive steps to set out
    policies and procedures on residents’ behaviour, including
    non-violence, and incorporated them in moving-in packs given to new
    arrivals. Some staff felt violent behaviour was exacerbated by the
    lack of information they received about new arrivals, which left
    them unable to challenge what they saw as inappropriate referrals,
    poorly planned admissions and emergency admissions.

    Staff were also still concerned and confused about their ability to
    physically restrain young people when necessary.2 By
    contrast, young people felt that restraint was used appropriately
    and was at times necessary.

    The large size and layout of some homes made supervision difficult.
    Where staffing numbers were low, residents found it difficult to
    talk with staff. Some of the worst violence occurred late at night
    in bedrooms and the low numbers of night staff heightened
    vulnerability. Larger homes (those with more than six residents)
    and single-gender homes had more violence. Monitoring the frequency
    of violence was not our aim, but we found some evidence that, the
    greater the presence of such negative organisational factors, the
    more peer violence there was likely to be.

    Most young people turned to peers for support in responding to
    violence rather than staff. Staff could usefully build on this
    through more peer group work. Girls used friends for emotional
    support while boys preferred to concentrate on the response. Young
    people felt that the staff who were most successful in preventing
    or de-escalating violent incidents made effective use of humour,
    could empathise with young people and were effective listeners.
    They also took their problems seriously, were impartial, and
    expressed interest in young people’s lives and culture.

    Young people wanted staff to take verbal attacks, which they often
    found more hurtful than physical violence, more seriously.

    Residential workers lacked confidence and skills in dealing with
    sexual violence and even serious instances did not always receive a
    proper child protection response, as the law requires.3

    Homes mainly used reactive strategies to deal with violence. The
    main response was sanctions (for example, earlier bedtimes and
    restricted leisure), but young people and staff thought these were
    applied inconsistently, making them less effective. Staff attempted
    to supervise residents’ behaviour closely. There was little use of
    specialist, external professional help to deal with violent
    behaviour.

    Children’s homes have lagged behind other services in having clear
    policies to respond to violence. For example, whole-school
    anti-bullying policies have achieved positive results.4
    Given the frequent early experiences of family violence and
    vulnerability of children in the looked-after system, together with
    its 24-hour nature, we owe it to young people to guarantee them
    greater security. Listening to their experiences and perspectives
    on violence, together with their proposed remedies, is a good place
    to start. 

    – David Berridge’s book, Peer Violence in Children’s
    Residential Care
    , is available half price at £25.
    Telephone 01256 302866 and quote discount code WPEER04a.

    Abstract

    This article looks at new research findings on the subject of
    violence between children in children’s homes. It concentrates on
    children’s own definitions and experiences of violence.
    Organisational factors in residential homes associated with
    violence are highlighted. The article considers children’s
    suggestions for how they can be better protected.

    References

    1 C Barter, E Renold, D
    Berridge and P Cawson, Peer Violence in Children’s Residential
    Care
    , 2004 

    2 D Berridge and I Brodie,
    Children’s Homes Revisited, 1998 

    3 E Farmer and S Pollock,
    Sexually Abused and Abusing Children in Substitute Care,
    1998 

    4
    Bullying: Don’t Suffer
    in Silence
    , DfES, 2002, available via

    www.dfes.gov.uk/bullying

    Further information 

    • Caring for Children Away from Home: Messages from
      Research
      , Department of Health, 1998 
    • Sir William Utting, People Like Us: The Report of the
      Safeguards for Children Living Away from Home
      , Department of
      Health/Welsh Office, 1997 
    • NSPCC website at www.nspcc.org.uk/inform 
    • Taking Stock: What Do We Know About Interpersonal
      Violence?
      Economic and Social Research Council Violence
      Research Programme, 2002, available from ESRC external relations
      01793 413000 or exrel@esrc.ac.uk

    The co-authors   

    Christine Barter is senior NSPCC research fellow, Luton
    University.  Pat Cawson is head of child protection research,
    NSPCC.  Emma Renold is lecturer in childhood studies, Cardiff
    University.

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