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

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

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

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

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.


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.


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

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

Further information 

  • Caring for Children Away from Home: Messages from
    , 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 
  • Taking Stock: What Do We Know About Interpersonal
    Economic and Social Research Council Violence
    Research Programme, 2002, available from ESRC external relations
    01793 413000 or

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

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.