Child Care Past and Present

This year marks the centenary of a major piece of child care legislation, the 1908 Children Act, often called the Children’s Charter. While I am not yet old enough to reminisce about the intervening century of policy and practice, I have been involved with services for children in care for nearly half of that time and, as a result, I am often asked three questions about then and now. Inquirers wanting to know if things have got better usually want a clear cut opinion but, unfortunately, the answer is not that straightforward, as I shall try to explain.As a starter, some background history might be helpful. When I began work, responsibility for children’s welfare lay with local authority Children’s Departments, although some of the larger voluntary organisations, such as Barnardo’s, also had children in care. The Children’s Department was usually a small scale affair, led by a Children’s Officer and a team of Child Care Officers. In my authority, it was awarded the same status in terms of salaries and resources as weights and measures.


Most departments had started in a humble way, my own organisation beginning life behind the council offices in a caravan occupied by the Children’s Officer and two assistants. But by 1960, the departments had achieved some degree of professional organisation and had increased in size. When they were set up in 1948, there was difficulty in recruiting suitably qualified senior officers and many of those appointed simply continued their work as war-time evacuation and welfare workers. Similarly, staff who had previously been Boarding-out Officers with responsibilities for finding and supervising placements, had now become Child Care Officers with a wider brief and training background.

The big event in my early years was the 1963 Children Act. Prior to that, Children’s Departments could only deal with young people when they needed substitute care and Child Care Officers spent most of their time ferrying youngsters around residential and foster homes. But the new legislation mandated work that prevented children from entering care, activities which were unspecified but which opened the door to almost anything. This was perceived as a liberation, allowing us to do what we really wanted rather than simply waiting for bad things to happen and picking up the pieces.

Throughout the 1960s, professionalism increased but child care work was still very personal and rule of thumb. For example, there was limited information on the children for whom we were responsible, even on the numbers in care, their age and gender, and there was no research of any quality – the first studies of foster care not appearing until the late 1960s.

Equally, knowledge of child development was scant. Psychology was emerging as a discipline with Bowlby’s work on separation being particularly influential, but many conditions now recognised as requiring specialist help, such as dyslexia or bereavement, were not part of professional thinking. Acting out teenage girls, for instance, were simply perceived as promiscuous, whereas nowadays practitioners would automatically entertain possibilities of sexual exploitation and its effects.

Thus, the staff simply did what they believed was best for children. Even the Children’s Officers themselves thought nothing of taking youngsters out for the day, visiting them in their placements or putting them up in their homes, and junior staff were encouraged to do likewise.

These were optimistic times (or was I simply young?). Resources were expanding and research and practice wisdom was growing, encouraging a belief that all would eventually be well and problems would be overcome. Nationally, the economy was in good shape with full employment, new medical treatments were coming on stream (for my generation, the disappearance of polio, the introduction of antibiotics and cures for TB and pneumonia being the most significant), slum housing was being cleared and there were exciting developments in primary and secondary education.

The 1964 Labour election victory seemed to mark the end of a stratified society and a genuine collective sympathy to do something for the poor and deprived. I recall Christmas 1964 when two doyens of the child poverty movement appeared on TV to remind those of us who were indulging ourselves of the children who were missing out.


In 1971, child care work was integrated into the wider social work profession and Children’s Departments became part of the new Social Services Departments responsible for all age groups and all welfare needs. This was paralleled by changes in provision for young offenders and disabled children where previously separate facilities, such as the Approved Schools and accommodation for the ‘subnormal’, were brought under the same umbrella. This led to a huge increase in resources, sufficiently large to survive the economic pressures of the oil crisis of 1973, much greater career choice for staff and greater flexibility in planning for children and families in need.

The rest will be familiar – the growing emphasis on child protection in the 1980s, concern for rights and users’ voices in the 1990s and the integration of services into provision for all children in the last few years.

Was life easier?

So the first commonly asked question is, Was life easier for social workers fifty years ago?

In answering this, I would say that life was not necessarily easier, but it was certainly less complicated. People were more confident about what they did and the effects it would have, and problems and solutions were perceived in more simple terms. Professionals were pretty certain that their practice would help children, and it was not until the late 1960s and 70s that disturbing evidence about the effects of what was being done began to emerge with the Court Lees Approved School punishment scandal and disappointing results revealed by follow-up studies of young offenders, the revelations about children in care in Rowe and Lambert’s study Children who Wait and the death from abuse of Maria Colwell.

Prior to that, it was easy for professionals to make life-changing decisions about children, such as to restrict contact between those separated and their families, or to obtain powerful legal orders. This freedom was not unique to social work as in schools, head teachers could impose more or less whatever rules they chose, beat children as they wished and fashion their own curriculum. So, the decisions of Child Care Officers were uncluttered by expectations that are part of the process today, such as sensitivity to race and culture (most of the children were from poor white families), incorporating children’s views, meeting legal and human rights and responding to the advocacy of pressure groups.

Lest a picture of a golden age be portrayed, it should be stressed that there were hardly any resources at that time other than foster homes and residential care, so children had to fit into what was available. There was nothing like the current variety of residential regimes, types of foster home, arrangements for adoption and family support provision. A range of large institutions, such as residential nurseries, sub-normality hospitals, Approved Schools and orphanages, was also in use.

Interventions tended to be ‘all or nothing’ in the sense of children being taken into care or being left alone. In addition, a lot of children were separated from families simply because they were poor or for reasons such as minor property offences or non-attendance at school, none of which would now be entertained as a justification for accommodating a child.

Looking back, the approach was probably more punitive to families and children than it is now; indeed parents had to contribute to the cost of caring for their absent child, and there was undoubtedly much unacknowledged misery and sadness. But it needs to be emphasised that all this occurred at a time when there was still considerable subsistence poverty in the country, when families were often very large and poorly housed and when people’s general experience was one of being controlled, whether in school, work or, for boys later in life, National Service.

Are children more difficult?

The second question is: Are the children more difficult now than they were then?

Measuring, let alone comparing, the difficulties presented by children and adolescents is an academic minefield that cannot be discussed fully in this short piece. But what can be said is that there is a difference between the individual and general level. In terms of individual children, I think that any difficult case nominated by a Social Worker today could be matched by one from the 1960s, whether in terms of challenging behaviour, complexity of needs or adverse background factors. The situations were just as extreme, even if they were not recognised as such. However, the situation is different for the population of children in care as a whole.

In the 1960s, the child care population comprised some children whose parents were unable to care for them because of deprivation, poverty or admission to hospital. These children no longer enter care, meaning that those who do are more likely to have long histories of abuse and neglect and/or difficult behaviour. This fact, coupled with the increasing adoption of young children who would previously have stayed for a long time, mean that the care population as a whole displays high levels of deprivation, abuse and neglect and, in many cases, adaptations to these in the form of difficult behaviour and attachment problems. Thus, the standards of assessment, interpretation of evidence, therapeutic work and rehabilitation are higher than before, testing the limits of professional skill and experience.

Have things got better or worse?

These points usually then lead on to the 64,000-dollar question, have things got better or worse?

In seeking an answer to this, it is too easy to select the evidence that supports the preferred conclusion. A more considered analysis reveals a mixed picture. As explained, the resources and options available to help children and families have increased enormously and legislation provides a sounder basis for action.

The Children Act 1989, complemented by the 2004 legislation, re-defined the relationship between the state and families with children, created a single threshold to permit state involvement in family life and established a single set of orders to cross private and public domains. It also required that local government pays greater attention to the rights of parents.

What made the legislation robust – and this solidity was acknowledged over a decade later in the Laming Report – is the strength of the ideas that underpinned it. One contrast with current thinking, however, is that it did not specify how local professionals should interact with families or how the state should intervene once thresholds had been passed.

In addition, the science that informs policy and practice is more extensive; we know a lot more. But knowledge does not always produce clear practice messages and some would argue that too much of it complicates issues and saps practitioner confidence. This may be true but in the longer term, better science seems to me to be the only way that complex problems will ever be understood and solved.

At the moment, we are only in the process of describing problems as opposed to understanding their causes and a quite different research approach is needed to take thinking forward. This will have to comprise carefully evaluated experimental projects, randomised controlled trials and rigorous cross-national analyses.

To give an example, in 1966 in the first major study of foster care, Roy Parker found that placements were more likely to break down if the carers had children of their own around the same age as the foster child. Four years later, Victor George found no such relationship. Since then, the hypothesis has been endlessly quoted but never been properly tested, even though it is an exercise that a local authority could undertake from its data base in a couple of hours. So practitioners are still in the dark on this matter, but this does not stop Parker’s finding being cited as gospel every time such a breakdown occurs. I fear that the anti-intellectual aspect of much current policy and practice is potentially suicidal in an age of increasing litigation and concern about value for money.

It is easy for old codgers to compile a list of changes perceived as indicative that things are getting worse, but the temptation is strong. The emphasis on child protection has resurrected the perception by families of Social Workers as punitive state officials rather than helpers and has led to practice being unduly inhibited by risk concerns.

In addition, the system seems overly bureaucratic with relationships between Social Workers and children sacrificed to affective neutrality.

The separation of juvenile justice has led to a discrete system for dealing with offenders, despite the fact that many of them have the same needs as youngsters helped by different agencies and are sent in increasing numbers to Prison Department custody. The wider political and economic context has also deteriorated, with diminishing employment opportunities for the unqualified, widening gaps between rich and poor and hardening public attitudes to those in need.

So the answer to the final question has to be ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. This is not surprising, because the difficulties encountered in the struggle to be conclusive illustrate those that confound discussions about children in need generally. I think it is difficult to give a definitive answer without disaggregating the child care population as the answer will vary for children with different needs and for age and gender groups, some of whose situations have clearly improved to the detriment of others.

There is also a contrast between judgments about individual children and the whole population. For instance, global statistics might show improvements for children in narrow areas, such as decreasing infant mortality in society or, for those in care, fewer placement changes and greater permanence, but these might not occur across the board. For example, air pollution used to affect all city children sixty years ago and although now mostly reduced, it remains a hazard for those living near motorways.

So, there is often a contrast when an individual child is scrutinised within the context of general changes with gains in one area or for some groups being offset by losses elsewhere. To give another example, while the education of looked after children is improving, there is a greater likelihood that they will be obese. Whether these perspectives can be homogenised into a general conclusion about the benefits of recent changes remains unclear.

No simple answers

In closing, I think that this failure to give a straight answer reflects tensions intrinsic to discussions between the various groups involved with child welfare – politicians, tax payers, charities, managers, professionals, researchers, journalists, families and children. In short, there are no simple answers to what appear to be simple questions.

Roger Bullock works at the Centre for Social Policy, Warren House Group at Dartington.

1 thought on “Child Care Past and Present”

  1. I was brought up in a foster home in the early 60’s to early 70’s, as a male child I was physically abused, and the girls raped!!! We thought the was the way of the world as we were told we were there because nobody wanted us… Well I am 57, been through 2 marriages and many relationships, I am an alcoholic, cant hold a job, because I was told I would never amount to anything, I hear all the stories on our aboriginal foster kids who had it so tough, let me tell you I could tell you true stories that would fuck up your head, compared to them.. And what do I do?? I don’t know, I may go to jail in June because I Am fk’d up from that shit.. Never had true guidance, don’t know how to cope, Tried. always fell on my face, I get up but I keep falling down. So who the hell can help me?? Nobody cause nobody cares, There I said my piece, I hope somebody reads this because I have just about had it with all the nightmares even to this day, So someone tell me their life is tough.. whatever!!!!!!!


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