‘You need to work towards going back to foster care’: how the narrative around children’s homes harms young people

A child and adolescent counsellor writes about the damaging impact professional views of children's homes has on children

Photo: Elvira/Fotolia

by John Radoux

Residential children’s homes are often seen as a last resort or second best to foster homes, and that has an effect on some children in care. Others have written and spoken eloquently about the use of language – I agree with them, and will therefore use the word “home” instead of “placement”.

My own view is that we use words like “placement” because they are less emotionally resonant and protect us, as professionals, from experiencing the full impact of what is happening and the decisions we make. Phrases such as: “she’s had 14 homes”, “short-term home” or “emergency home” have quite a different feel, don’t they?

There are many reasons why a good quality children’s home maybe a better option than a foster home for some children in care. Perhaps living with a substitute family is simply too painful – too stark a reminder of what they have lost or never had – or perhaps a child might feel that if they attach or bond with another family, they will be betraying their own. It could also be a child’s early experience of a family home was frightening and abusive – so they just do not feel safe in that environment.

These reasons, which are not exhaustive, might lead to what is sometimes called “acting-out” or “challenging behaviour”. It might be that a child does less of this in a children’s home because they feel more comfortable or safer in that environment.

Further – let’s not sentimentalise the issue too much – abuse and trauma can lead to behaviour, which, however much compassion, empathy and understanding we have, can be very difficult to be alongside for sustained periods of time. I have looked after some children in residential homes who I cared for deeply, indeed loved really, who I absolutely would not have had the capacity to look after on my own. My admiration for some foster carers and adopters is boundless.

Last resort

One of the problems with children’s homes being seen as a last resort is that a child might be “tried” in multiple foster homes – often in double digits – before a children’s home is considered. Let us call this what it is: systemic abuse.

The other, just as significant, problem is the messages the children are being given – both implicitly and explicitly. Basically, it is a “bad thing” to be in a children’s home rather than foster care and to be in one is they are being punished for their behaviour. Very recently I read this line in a letter from an Independent Reviewing Officer to a child: “you need to work towards going back to foster care”.

The young person has no obligation to do anything of the kind, what they need is to be cared for by compassionate, knowledgeable, empathetic and reliable adults. If you question this, I would invite you to reflect on how much you have honestly “worked on” your own personal development in the last six months. Repeating some of the same old unhealthy behaviour patterns and ways of relating? I bet you are.

If we want a young people to stop or reduce the things that we think are unhealthy or high risk: running away, self-harming, angry outbursts, misusing substances and so on, they will only do this in the context of meaningful, stable and long-term relationships with key adults who they trust. They won’t be incentivised into doing it by the prospect of being able to go and live in another foster home. All this message achieves is shaming them – making it more likely they will engage in these behaviours, not less. It also implies that where they are currently living is not permanent – making it virtually impossible for them to settle.

More generally, when a child is moved from one home to another home, whether that is foster to children’s home, foster to foster home or whatever, this should be because it is, in some way, in the best interests of the child. Therefore, there should be no difficulty in presenting it as a positive move. Where there has been failure or inadequacy then the adults involved should take responsibility.

I recall vividly a conversation with a 14-year old girl who was being moved from a children’s home I worked at, she told me she wished she had stayed at her first foster home but: “I messed it up”. She was taking responsibility for having to move from the children’s home too. Instead of “responsibility”, you can read the word “blame” and the word “shame”.

John Radoux is a child and adolescent counsellor. He grew up in care and works in children’s homes. He tweets @JohnRadoux and his website is johnradouxtherapy.com.

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7 Responses to ‘You need to work towards going back to foster care’: how the narrative around children’s homes harms young people

  1. Jodie Elliott May 16, 2019 at 4:12 pm #

    This is brilliant. As someone who works with children who are in care I feel the message you are sharing is really important. Thank you.

  2. Sandy Mayhew May 17, 2019 at 8:58 am #

    Really well written piece on an issue I am very passionate about. I do think views are starting to change in the right direction but a lot of this goes back to the very early training and influence young social workers get. I personally spend a lot of time influencing others both formally and informally with changes to language use and presentations etc. A lot more needs done though and should start at universities delivering social work degrees

  3. Jonathan Stanley May 17, 2019 at 10:37 am #

    Absolutely, essential to put meeting children and young people’s needs first.
    If we can put ‘Right home, right time, right reason’ at the top of our thinking we can create the right strategy and the practices to follow.
    Much more to be said
    Thank you John for writing this piece. It is something children’s homes have been speaking about for a long time.
    Thank you Community Care for publishing. Residential work is not given many opprtunities for a balanced representation of the situation.

    • Ed Nixon May 17, 2019 at 12:54 pm #

      Such an impressive and well written piece highlighting the importance of looking at assessing children’s needs. Almost invariably children moving to a children’s home is perceived as a last and often rather resigned stop on their journey in care when all other ‘routes’ have failed. Of course, sometimes it should be the first stop en route often facilitating a life back with the child’s own family or other carers including foster carers. Can children be loved by those who care for them? Absolutely they can and are regardless of what ‘home’ they are living in. Great article thank you. There is a distorted narrative about children’s homes. This rightly challenges that. Some children love (and I use the word deliberately) living in their (children’s) home and some of ‘their’ staff. Hence the ECLCM campaign. Thanks John

  4. Angela Walker May 17, 2019 at 7:27 pm #

    Totally true I remember numerous children who didn’t want fostering but social worker and IRO felt it was in their best interest as they deserved a ‘real home’ only a small number of these were successful and often resulted in multiple ‘placements’ including times in secure. A good caring home where a child is valued and parented appropriately with adults that they can trust is what is needed labels are for clothing not for children

  5. disillusioned May 18, 2019 at 5:42 pm #

    A really moving and candid article.

    It is true the child is blamed for all the moves and the trauma that goes with all the moves and changes in a way gives message to the child that you have brought this upon yourself.

    Why can’t the organisation be accountable – lacking and inadequate corporate parent leads to so many moves. They tend to do more harm and the child continues to live in the cycle of trauma, having similar experiences from where they had been removed from.

  6. Bee May 19, 2019 at 5:26 pm #

    Also agree with needing to change the narrative – it has long been known that a good residential home is what particular children need rather than a foster placement. We need to be ‘needs led’.

    By the way, as an Independent Reviewing Officer, I have a recent situation where I have been arguing that a child remain in a children’s home rather than moving to yet another foster placement. The child wants to stay there and it meets needs, it is the child’s home.