Linda Ayre, a former children’s home manager, explains why residential care for vulnerable children can promote good outcomes

Since the first children’s home was opened in London in 1863 there appears to have been concerted attempts to rid us of these turbulent places. But they survive.

Linda Ayre not only survived working more than 30 years in children’s homes but prospered – as have the young people and the staff. “I stayed in residential care because I wanted to put it on the map. And I still want people to stand up and listen to what children really have to say.” Now retired, complete with MBE for services to children, she has no regrets about her career as a “Cinderella of social work” – although it’s more glass ceilings than slippers these days.

“I think we do get the recognition now as opposed to what we did years ago,” she says. “I can remember people saying, ‘well anybody can look after kids’. You can’t just run a children’s home – it’s a very skilled task.”

Ayre’s first management job was running a family group home in the 1970s for nine young people with a nowadays unacceptable age range of four-and-a-half to 17. However, her attitude towards other people’s children was transformed when her own son was born in 1980. “Since then I’ve based my caring on my belief that what is good enough for my Gareth had to be good enough for every child I looked after. It might sound corny but it’s genuine.”

So why does Ayre think children’s homes survive? “These days children in public care have their own families as well. Thirty years ago I was looking after some children who were orphaned. That’s rare now. Children with their own families don’t want a substitute family. They perhaps need a stepping stone they need that interaction and intervention with a range of workers and agencies – they are not able to give as much as foster carers perhaps expect of them.”

Having been a “foster mum”, Ayre can see both sides. “We fostered a 15-year-old boy who we’d worked with in the home since he was 11. It took him years in our home before he would stop saying things like ‘is it all right if I turn the telly over?’, or ask if he could make a cup of tea.”

She adds: “Why would he need to do that? I’d tell him it was his home now. And he would reply, ‘no, it’s your home Linda, I’ve just to come to live with you’. He simply felt more relaxed in a children’s home. And I think for a lot of young people the ­intensity of having to go into somebody else’s home and feel comfortable and make it your home is far too much for them. Some children just can’t do that. In a children’s home my perception is there is no pressure placed on you to make that deep bonding or relationship.”

Ayre believes that the Children Act 1989 had the most dramatic effect in residential child care. “We became more accountable and, when interviewing new staff, we found there had been insufficient checking and vetting. The Children Act changed that – it professionalised the service.”

The years have seen more integration. “Thirty years ago we were an isolated ­service. But now we work much more alongside our partners in other agencies – youth engagement services, child and adolescent mental health services and so on.”

Although she admits to still being ­overwhelmed by her MBE, her real rewards are less tangible. “I would go that extra mile for any of my children – and they would tell you that. When a child is able to come to you and allow you to enter into their life and invite you to trust them – what better reward does a residential worker need than that? I can’t expect a young person who’s a stranger to me to just trust me. You build up that trust and you work hard on those relationships, and it’s about allowing that young person just to be the best that they can be.”

Top tips
* Never give up
* Learn to listen more effectively to young people
* Make sure young people feel involved in planning their own lives

Rubbish tips
* You’re experienced and qualified – so you know best
* Treat everyone the same – they’re all children
* Some children are just impossible

Contact the author
Graham Hopkins

This article appeared in the 1 March issue of the magazine under the heading “Home truths”



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