By David Jones*
It’s a measure only ever undertaken as an absolute last resort and thankfully applies in just a small minority of cases, but removing a young person from a residential home can prove a very upsetting experience for both the child and staff.
It also raises a simple but vital question: Did we as staff fail the child?
When a kid’s behaviour over a period of time is so extremely challenging and disruptive that it affects the equilibrium of the home, they will be asked to discuss a behaviour contract with staff. This will outline the negative behaviours which the young person needs to address, but also the positive aspects of their character and potential.
The kid then signs the contract which is usually in force for four to six weeks. If their behaviour doesn’t improve over this period, they are told that they will be moved on.
Interestingly, I’ve never known a young person not to sign, and when the behaviour of one kid didn’t improve and I asked them why they did sign, they replied: “It’s only a squiggle on a piece of paper and I thought it would keep staff off my back.”
‘Staff never knew where she went’
Steven* was a very troubled 17-year-old who was verbally abusive and physically threatening to staff and the other young people in the home. He would also regularly trash his bedroom and damage furniture.
This behaviour escalated over a couple of months, and having no interest in education, training or employment, he ended up living in a local YMCA on the minimum of financial benefits.
I later bumped into a friend of Steven who said he was still at the YMCA and still lacked any stability or direction in his life.
Tina*, 16, also found herself at the YMCA, having damaged the home’s people carrier to the tune of nearly £3,000 over a five-week period and staying out overnight and returning at all hours. Staff never knew where she went and so struggled to keep her safe, which seriously compromised our duty of care to her.
Fortunately, this only lasted for three months before she moved in with an uncle. A year later Tina visited us at the home and told us she was now at college and had never felt happier.
She apologised for her behaviour and said the time she had spent at the YMCA made her appreciate how much we had tried to care for her. She was also seeing a therapist at college “and dealing much better with my demons”.
Most of these cases are particularly heart-rending because some of these damaged kids clearly need therapeutic care, which they might initially agree to undergo, only to change their minds.
Children with traumatic backgrounds can and do flourish in the home, with or without therapeutic input. But whether it’s down to sheer frustration or a less than enlightened attitude, certain staff insist that they can do nothing when young people refuse to help themselves and that a children’s home is the wrong model for them.
But surely this is the challenge we face? As staff, it must be our responsibility and should never just come down to the child. Accordingly, your sense of failure with such kids can feel profound.
On the one hand, you ask yourself what more you could have done, and on the other, you question why the young person didn’t or couldn’t engage with you in any meaningful way.
However, might we actually be asking the wrong questions? For as the experience of Tina and other kids I’ve worked with has demonstrated to me, surely therapy is a tool that must not only be more widely recognised, but also more expediently located?
Some children’s homes have a visiting or in-house therapist which can prove very effective. It’s also practical, because when young people refuse to be taken by staff to an outside agency, ‘on the spot’ interaction with a therapist is less of an ordeal in the child’s eyes and so much easier to facilitate.
My children’s home used to employ a therapist, but due to cuts she no longer works here. Such a therapeutic model in all kids’ homes would be a major step forward in progressing the emotional wellbeing of these young people.
*The author’s name has been changed as have the names of the young people