“I came into this job to have really close contact with children and make things change – it was a no-brainer.”
Emma Hibberd is discussing her motivations for accepting the role of lead manager – residential care, at Hampshire County Council, which she stepped into last year after spending over a decade working in social work teams, latterly as team manager.
While the role was a promotion, a key motivation was the opportunity for direct work with a team of highly skilled professionals, to meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable children in Hampshire.
“All the children in my care now, I know what they like, their hobbies and interests,” she adds. “Last week, I spent three hours writing a rap with a child. It was a great way to end my week.”
Significant and complex needs
The children in Hampshire’s homes have significant and increasingly complex needs, says Emma.
“They may come in with really complex needs, and a lack of respect for any adults because they’ve not had any boundaries or not received the right level of love and attention,” she adds. “A lot of the children in our homes are there because of neglect.”
While the focus is on providing children with the consistency and boundaries to start addressing their difficulties, Hampshire is also applying its strengths-based social work practice model – known as the Hampshire Approach – to residential care.
“We need to get to a place where we have exactly the same outcomes as for children in foster care,” says Davina Malkin, district manager for Havant, a role which involves responsibility for social work teams in the area.
“We want children to come out of residential care with a good education, stable mental health and all the other things we value for all children.”
This starts with social workers identifying when a residential placement would be appropriate.
While previously, children’s homes were predominantly for older children, Davina says Hampshire is now placing younger ones in residential care, when this is right for them.
“If younger children are struggling to attach with a foster carer, then going into a residential home for a period of time, with staff who are skilled to work with them in a therapeutic way, may be the best thing,” she says. This is in line with an embedded focus across the service on ensuring that children receive the right help, at the right time, and in the right place.
It’s also about having clear objectives in the care plan for what the placement should achieve.
“It’s not about moving into residential care and that’s it,” Davina continues. “The care plan needs to outline what the longer-term plan is, too. For example, considering whether the child can live in a foster home, move into supported accommodation after they turn 16, or return to live with their families.
Making this work involves having residential care staff who can see, and build on, the strengths in every child.
“It’s about workers really believing that every child in their care has strengths, and not just focusing on risks or issues,” says Davina.
“It’s being very child-centred within the home.”
Emma says this starts with recruiting staff for their values.
“You can teach workers how to meet the day to day needs of the children, but they need to have the compassion and drive to better the outcomes of the children.”
Passion, commitment and resilience
“You need to have the understanding to look beyond the behaviour to understand why that child is doing what they are doing,” adds Davina.
“You want a worker to be passionate, committed and dynamic because you must constantly be thinking. It’s about being creative to make a difference to that child – as well as being resilient to handle some really challenging situations.”
To support staff in dealing with those challenges, Emma is ensuring they have access to monthly reflective supervision, which involves discussing issues that have arisen in residential care as well as focusing on a particular child, based on anonymised information.
“I say to homes, ‘which children are presenting with difficulties and let’s have a look at what things have been like for that child so we can reflect, understand their needs and make a difference’,” she says.
“I’ve taken my learning from the multitude of years I’ve had of reflective supervision, to offer staff that time to reflect on and share their experiences, in a managed way, so it doesn’t become a negative conversation but a productive one.”
She gives a recent example where she and staff discussed a child who had been violent and whom they were anxious about working with.
“I went right back over the child’s life chronology and completely anonymised it,” she says. “As a result, staff were a lot more understanding and less anxious about working with that child.”
Improving joint working with social workers
Emma, Davina and other managers from across the service are supporting residential care staff and social workers to work holistically for the good of the children they are responsible for.
This involves supporting residential care staff to work towards achieving the outcomes in the care plan, while helping social workers to understand the day-to-day challenges in children’s homes that can make this more difficult.
“In this sort of role, everyone is so busy,” says Davina. “You have to make that time to communicate with each other. It’s also about valuing each other’s skills. Both roles are equally important for a child and therefore it is necessary for them to speak to each other frequently and understand how best to provide support, as this naturally differs with every child.”
Emma says that some children in residential care may struggle to talk to social workers because they associate them with the decision to separate them from their families.
“When I went into residential homes, the children wouldn’t always talk to me about the things I could really help them with, but they had fantastic conversations with residential care staff,” she says.
“We speak really highly of social workers in residential settings, so I say to children, ‘if you change your mind, your social worker is really well placed to answer your questions’. It’s about placing trust back in social workers among those children.”
If you are interested in a role in residential care, or social work, in Hampshire, check out the latest vacancies here. Find out more about working at the council by reading Hampshire’s employer profile.