Over the last 20 years the idea and practice of residential care for children and young people whose lives are in crisis has been much maligned by the media, government and social work professionals alike.
Many residential homes have closed in the last two decades and the numbers receiving this care have reduced considerably.
The dominant ideology now is that care is best provided by a family, and not just any old family, but the ideologically loaded ‘nuclear family’. Fortunately, there is now a little more enlightenment with regard to gay couples, but the format remains the same – two parents plus children. Even the word ‘care’ has fallen into disapproval, with ‘looked-after children’ having become de rigueur.
During my 30 years in probation and social work, I have often found myself on the losing side of debates about the best or most appropriate course of action to take when a child or young person may be suffering abuse in one form or another.
It has always struck me as ironic that for children who have suffered at the hands of their own family – and let’s face it the vast majority of abuse does take place within that venerable institution, the nuclear family – we propose that the solution is a move to another family.
Moving to a similar institution to the one that caused the pain is surely to disregard a few basic instinctual emotions, which are likely to plague the child. For example, lack of trust and confidence, and fear.
If those claiming to love the child are the source of his or her pain, how is that child likely to be able to trust foster parents who don’t even know them?
I acknowledge that some atrocious practices have been uncovered in residential establishments, but the same is true for nuclear families. In principle, there’s no reason why such accommodation, whether public or private, should not provide a high standard of care that fulfills young people’s needs and requirements. With adequate funding and fully trained staff, quality provision can be maintained.
Foster placement with a family is appropriate for some. However, with the focus on assessing individual needs, professionals should not rule anything out.
Part of the problem for social workers is that for too long the profession has been burdened with political ideology and ever changing theoretical ‘flavours of the month’. This means that sometimes, as I’ve found through experience, one is constrained to offer what one thinks is the most appropriate way forward for any given youngster.
To offer an alternative view is often to bring disapprobation from management, accusations of disloyalty to the agency and a failure to understand the needs of young people.
It’s time for residential child care to be taken back into the fold as a primary care resource for children and young people, rather than as a last resort.
This means it must be funded and resourced adequately so that young people in need are offered first rate standards of care.
Adrian Zakrzewski is a social worker and trainer