‘Resident protests against children’s homes are a microcosm of an uncaring care system’

The "othering" of children in care by some residents is mirrored by the lack of support they receive in a care system unworthy of the name, says former residential child care worker David Jones

Young man looking sad talking to professional
Photo: motortion/Adobe Stock

By David Jones*

Last year, proposals to convert three domestic properties into children’s homes in two Derby suburbs were met with petitions and letters of opposition from local residents.

Citing fears that crime and violence would be visited upon the areas, allied to an increase in traffic and noise, and even sexual abusers roaming the streets, people seemed to fear Armageddon on their doorsteps.

Derby council, nevertheless, approved plans for two of the homes, in Alvaston and Mickleover, which registered 61 and 90 objections, respectively, saying that “the residents’ worries were unlikely to be realised”.

However, it upheld the complaints, amounting to 100 objections, regarding the third application, also in Alvaston. The authority agreed that it would be “entirely to the detriment of all local residents who have for many years enjoyed living in a community-spirited, quiet residential area”.

‘What is wrong with people?’

Two residents I spoke to in the area, who wished to remain anonymous, had more enlightened attitudes and admitted to feeling very uneasy about the decision. One said: “I actually find it unbelievable that the needs of vulnerable kids are simply ignored. What is wrong with people?”

His friend echoed these sentiments: “It’s shameful behaviour. These kids are at rock bottom and need to be shown compassion.”

Speaking to the BBC recently, Peter Sandiford, chief executive of the Independent Children’s Home Association (ICHA), highlighted how applications to build new care homes were regularly greeted with hostility by nearby residents.

“I think local communities and people often think about themselves rather than valuing children’s wellbeing,” he said. “An example would be how they fear their house prices will go down if they have a children’s home in the area.”

Children seen as criminals not victims

However, the scale and depth of the moral insensibility displayed was graphically articulated when Sandiford said: “For some reason they seem to believe that children who require care away from their families are criminals rather than victims, with objections to planning consents having included such terms as ‘murderer’ and ‘rapist’.”

As depressing as such attitudes are, serving only to treat kids in care as “the other”, I firmly believe they are a microcosm of a bigger issue: a children’s social care system whose attitudes and practices are so deeply flawed that they actually put children in grave danger.

That’s not to say this othering of children by residents feeds into the failures of the care system, driving how it treats children, or vice versa. But it is an attitude that appears to mirror its practices in that it doesn’t serve the children’s best interests either.

As such, it could be said to chime with the view of Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner for England, who recently described the system as “unfit for purpose”. Now head of the Commission on Young Lives, Longfield was speaking in the light of a report it had produced, Out of Harm’s Way, the first in a series on young people at risk. And the issues it covered are, sadly, only too familiar to those who work with these kids.

Moving youngsters to out-of-area placements, often miles away from the environment they know, can make them prey to abuse by county lines drug gangs and sexual exploiters. And to make matters worse, many of these placements are unregulated and so not even inspected by Ofsted. It is hardly surprising then that some residents will erroneously link kids in care with criminality.

Demand for residential places far outstrip those available, as more children, with often chaotic lives, become criminalised in a social care system that should be protecting them. One can’t help asking, just what on earth is going on?

A former residential care home manager I know, who was utterly devoted to his job, resigned from the post last year. Angered by what he called “a broken system”, he increasingly felt he was betraying the kids in his care.

‘I won’t forget the looks on their faces’

“I didn’t feel I had control over situations,” he explains. “Social workers not turning up for appointments to see a child, lazy, incompetent home staff who didn’t care. Experiencing this, day in, day out, became spiritually crippling. But the last straw was the moving of youngsters to placements that were sometimes hundreds of miles away. I won’t forget the looks on their faces when they were told.

“This is not a care system. And on top of that we have sections of society saying they don’t want care homes on their street. What do they think should be done with these kids? What sort of society is that?”

Last year, Coram, the UK’s first children’s charity, commissioned YouGov to conduct an online survey of around 2,000 UK adults for a report called Public attitudes to children in care and care leavers. Encouragingly, regarding the former, it found that people’s views were mostly sympathetic, drawing responses such as “forgotten by society”, “unloved”, “underfunded” or “abused”.

When asked what they thought were the biggest challenges facing young people leaving care, respondents pointed to their lack of an ongoing support network and the fact that they didn’t have the ability to fail compared with other young people. One said: “I still enjoy the backup of my parents and I’m 40.”

More positive public attitudes

Pointing to the language used by respondents regarding kids in care, and the theme of vulnerability – even victimhood – it revealed, Coram saw this as stigmatising to a degree, in so far as it defined children in care by their care experience. This is perhaps to be expected, as the phrase ‘in care’ can have pejorative connotations. But the report is more positive – and not reflective of those residents in Derby or elsewhere – when the vast majority of those asked felt that children in care were neither a good nor a bad influence on other children. In other words, they were just like the vast majority of kids.

Recent research published by Ofsted shows that more than a third of care leavers felt they left care too early, unprepared for independent life. An observation in the Coram report addresses this head on. “There is no transition or guidance, at 18 these children are expected to be adults with no life skills or support. This is a national disgrace.”

Coram’s findings are positive and hopeful, given that the way kids are failed in care is often hidden. But perhaps they also point to more public awareness of these failings, given their increased exposure in mainstream media.

Negativity not the norm

This will never convince everyone, of course, and some residents’ negative attitudes will possibly persist to varying degrees. However, Coram’s research strongly suggests such negativity isn’t the norm. And having worked in six children’s homes in Derby, I can attest to the relaxed relationship enjoyed between kids in care and local residents.

Of course, it’s desperately sad that people feel the need to sign petitions and scaremonger when they think “the other” could be housed so close to them.

But the real tragedy here is that we have a children’s social care system that doesn’t match the job description; one that falls seriously short when charged with providing troubled children with an environment that should be about care, protection and love.

*The author is a freelance journalist and former residential child care worker. His name has been changed.


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6 Responses to ‘Resident protests against children’s homes are a microcosm of an uncaring care system’

  1. Izzy April 20, 2022 at 9:14 am #

    Perhaps the laziness and incompetence of staff has some connection with “not being in control” too. Perhaps being employed by businesses with which they have no organic connection to and no sense of belonging to has some relationship with their sense of disconnect. Poorly managed staff with no loyalty will invariably have little too no incentive to perform well beyond their own commitment to do their best. Perhaps the problem is the “business model” and not bigoted uncaring residents and lazy and incompetent staff. I too worked as a sleep-in residential worker. I too tried my best inspite of a culture of disinterest emanating from the business owner. l too would have objected to the chaos brought to the area by our ‘care home’. Social workers dumping children and young adults in to unregulated placements miles away from familiarity will do that won’t it?

  2. Walter April 22, 2022 at 1:54 pm #

    If the residents of stable, thriving communities could instead reflect on how their unique communities could offer a safe haven for vulnerable children to thrive and develop and become connected with a community that would hold them well….

  3. Barney April 22, 2022 at 9:26 pm #

    Except the not so “safe havens” for vulnerable children tend to be located in less than thriving communities where properties are cheaper aren’t they? Why is altruism always expected from already deprived communities and not on the better off ones? Last time I strolled along the “Georgian quarter” of any given town I didn’t see any provision for vulnerable children. Should I be looking harder?

  4. Jonathon April 25, 2022 at 1:09 pm #

    With food bank use at record levels, with heat or eat choices commonplace, with children seldom seeing social workers once ‘placed’, with bedroom tax severing family ties, it’s hard to locate where these stable and thriving communities are. Last time I looked even our esteemed former Prime Minister was dishing out polenta packs in the Cotswolds. But in a long line of the worthy accusing the uncivilised it’s ever so good to read yet another bucketfull being thrown about. How dare residents, who know more than most of us care to admit about the sorry state of social care, have an opinion we don’t approve of.

  5. Jade April 26, 2022 at 9:49 am #

    Before qualifying as a social worker, I worked for many years in residential children’s homes so I am all too familiar with poor management, ineffectual staff, owners who see the resi home business as an investment (I even worked for one company where the owner told the children/young people that the “business was his pension”) and also private care home companies basically taking on “the worst of the worst” so they can charge silly money for placements – and failing to ensure they have a robust, resilient and well-trained staff team.

    I also made an objection to a care home application (that was approved) on my elderly parents quiet cul-de-sac of bungalows, where most of the houses were occupied by elderly people because I knew what was coming. Lo and behold, there have been smashed windows, vandalised cars, a ridiculous amount of staff vehicles parked up and clogging the roads and regular police attendance.

    I can see both sides of this argument and the problem lies in the owners and management of residential companies. These businesses are not set up because the owners care about children, they’re about money and nothing else. And I would not want to live next door to one either.

  6. Sammi May 4, 2022 at 8:40 am #

    I’d say what was a microcosm of an uncaring care systems is social workers colluding with transporting children miles away from what’s familiar to them, handing them over to unregulated staff and then complaining about how stressful all this is for the poor social worker.