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.
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”.