by David Jones
I first met Bob 11 years ago when he was placed in our children’s home at the age of 15. Having experienced a chaotic and often violent upbringing, I witnessed an initially reticent and timid lad gradually develop into a confident and engaging young man.
On leaving the home just before his 18th birthday, a foster home and further education were his next destinations.
Out of the blue Bob contacted me recently with some exciting and unexpected news. He was now working as a full-time residential child care worker in another city and loving it. (In my experience, I am aware of only one colleague who had been in care as a child, indeed, I’m told it’s very rare).
Bob and I discussed how his experience of being in care was proving invaluable to the young people he is working with and his own practice, and he explained that he had taken this a step further with an initiative of his own.
Encouraged by his manager, he arranged to visit every children’s home in the area to give talks to the kids and staff about the good, bad and indifferent aspects of his time in care. Would they, he wondered, have stories that chimed with his?
Under the skin
Only one home manager refused Bob’s offer, telling him a recent Ofsted inspection would have covered the same ground. But as Bob insisted: “I wanted to relate to my audience in a more intimate and hopefully meaningful way, and really get under the skin of the environment.”
The feedback from the young people proved both uplifting and disheartening, while the attitudes of some of the staff “were quite frankly alarming”.
He said he’d been struck by the number of times the youngsters referred to “staff that care” and who “are always there for you”. Whether that involved simply being listened to, supported in writing a CV or praised for a school report, this was clearly of immense value to the kids.
“One lad told me that he’d been very aggressive in the home because he didn’t feel liked by the staff,” explains Bob. “When he appeared in court for breaking his bail conditions, he was amazed when the staff member who’d accompanied him was asked to address the bench and said what a decent kid he was. The kid never forgot this and became more settled in the home.”
When Bob told the young people that such positive experiences reflected his time as a teenager in care and informed his approach as a child care worker, they told him he must be “good staff”. He also confirmed to me that he’d met many such staff on his visits who were clearly passionate about their role.
“Some spoke of it almost as a vocation, and while the job could be demanding and emotionally draining at times, it was rewarding in so many ways.”
‘Hide in the office’
There was a flip side, however: “Colleagues who didn’t or couldn’t appreciate the ethos of the home were deeply resented,” Bob says. “I was told by a manager how upset a young boy had been when a member of staff who’d taken him to play in a trial for his local football team, spent the entire game sat in the home’s people carrier playing on his mobile. That’s not good enough.”
“The young people became particularly indignant when it came to staff, who they said, ‘hide in the office,’ saying they’re too busy to attend to whatever concern a kid has brought to them. The kids recognised that this always seemed to be the same staff.”
Bob quotes one youngster: “I swear down I knew two staff who never left the building, at first I thought they were just office workers. We used to tell them they were only here to pay their bills.”
When asked if they ever read their daily logs or care plans, some young people weren’t interested, a few had, while others had been discouraged by staff from doing so. “Not all the kids knew that they had a right to read these documents,” Bob explains, “and were told they could access them only when they’d left the home.”
Some staff argued with Bob that kids shouldn’t read negative things about themselves. “What about their emotional development? It contravenes homes’ policy for a very good reason.”
The mention of social workers met with a mixed reaction. Staff appreciated their onerous workload and thought they did their best for kids in care in the time they had. The young people couldn’t see the point of them, although the consensus was that “most of them are quite nice”.
Bob hopes to collate his interview material and produce a manual of what he calls “best and bad practice,” to be distributed to the homes in his area. It should make for interesting, and required, reading.
David Jones is a pseudonym. He is a residential children’s home worker. The names in this piece have been changed.