Closing children’s homes

By David Cliffe with David Berridge (1992) Closing children’s homes: an end to residential childcare? London: National Children’s Bureau 0 902817 80 9

Over the 1980s the number of children in residential care, measured by those in care on a single day in the year, had declined by two-thirds (Utting, 1991) and there was a widespread belief that the use of residential care might be eliminated. However, (Rowe et al., 1989) showed that most residential care placements were short-term and therefore that the decline in the number of children in residential care over a year was not as steep as the decline in the number in care on a single day in the year. Before this research was published, Warwickshire County Council had closed its last children’s home in 1986 and David Cliffe had been given access to the county’s records to explore the background to this development and its implications for child care services.

Key ideas

  •  After a rise in the proportion of children in care in the 1970s, the 1980s saw a decline to below previous levels, a limited increase in the number of children in foster care and a steep decline in the number in residential care partly because there were fewer older children in the population.
  •  Warwickshire started with a different baseline from other authorities but the proportion of children in care did not change.
  •  The county pursued a deliberate policy of favouring foster care and professionalising its residential care.
  •  New services were funded from closing residential facilities.
  •  There were more placement moves, less frequent contact with parents and more difficulties over keeping in touch with friends and maintaining their education among children in Warwickshire compared with children in care elsewhere.
  •  Overall, Warwickshire had a lower success rate than the authorities studied by Rowe et al. (1989).
  •  The new services were not successful in reducing admissions to care.
  •  Admissions to residential care tended to follow several placement breakdowns.
  •  There was a high level of emergency admissions and normally no choice of placement.
  • Overall, the policy disadvantaged children.


In Chapter 1 Introduction, they try to put into context the Pindown Report (Levy and Kahan, 1991) and the closure in 1986 of Warwickshire’s last children’s home. By the late 1980s Warwickshire had 2% of its children in care in residential care – the average at the time was 20% though one local authority had 40% – and the population in care was significantly older.

During the 1950s and 1960s fostering had expanded partly at the expense of residential care but during the 1970s residential care had expanded while fostering had contracted slightly so that, by the end of the 1970s around 95,000 children were in care; by 1987 this had dropped to around 66,000 with the number in residential care down from around 37,000 to 14,000 while the number in foster care had risen from around 30,000 to 35,000.

However, there were fewer older children, who are more likely to go into residential care, in the population and only 3,000 more foster placements in 1987 than in 1965. What had happened was that the proportion of children in care had risen from 6.5/1,000 to 7.5/1,000 in the 1970s and then declined to 6/1,000 by 1987. There had also been a decline in rehabilitation and discharge during the 1970s while the 1980s ‘permanency planning’ movement had increased efforts at rehabilitation and also towards long term fostering.

However, these figures also masked short-term placements; in practice 37% of all placements are in foster care and 38% in residential care though there are wide variations between local authorities (Rowe et al., 1989).

They note the criticisms of residential care and its perceived expense, raised by Parker (1966) and more recently by Knapp and Fenyo (1989), but including indirect costs reduced the difference between foster care and residential care. They review the evidence in Berridge (1985) and Rowe et al. (1989) that

  • children’s homes are mostly housing adolescents for short periods though some remain for longer periods and
  • in Berridge and Cleaver (1987) that
  •  fostering continues to present problems for some children, not least
  •  because of arguments over transracial fostering,
  •  because of the continuing preference of some foster parents for ‘exclusive’ fostering (Holman, 1973) expressed through encouraging children to call them Mum and Dad and
  •  because, other than specialist placements, most placements are not properly prepared.
  • In Chapter 2 Design of the research, they describe how they were able to use the records in Warwickshire to look at:
  •  ‘breakdown rates’,
  •  location and parental visiting,
  •  the attitudes to parents,
  •  schooling,
  •  the quality of care,
  •  whether the placement lasted as long as the child needed it (which was not necessarily as long as had been planned).
  • They monitored 215 cases over a fifteen month period and examined samples of:
  •  children in care over a year (55),
  •  children newly admitted (excluding siblings) (72),
  •  children not in care but receiving substantial support (74 not admitted plus 14 admitted later).

There were over 200 placement episodes for the 141 children admitted which were studied through four successive questionnaires.

They also undertook case studies of all residential placements lasting over 2½ years and the use of special schools by the Education Department.

The figures in Rowe et al. (1989) were used for comparisons.

In Chapter 3 A history of recent developments in childcare in Warwickshire, they point out that from the outset in 1974 Warwickshire’s policy had been to increase foster care and reduce residential care. In fact, though the numbers in care changed, the proportion in care remained roughly the same, varying between 4.3/1,000 and 4.8/1,000. Warwickshire had a fostering rate 10% higher than the national rate in 1976 and a residential care rate 9% lower than the national rate. While the number in residential care dropped in the late 1970s, during the 1980s the number in foster care remained stable while residential care declined in line with the national decline. During this period home on trial rates declined but adoption rates went up.

With a focus on getting children out of residential care, the county decided to professionalise its residential staff and created four children’s centres for 12 children each; by 1985 only two were left, one for the north and one for the south and in 1986 both closed.

There had been confusion over the roles of the children’s centres which were used as dumping grounds even though admissions were decided at Divisional Management level. The children’s centres also ended up doing individual casework with children, rather than offering residential care, in part because many of the newly qualified recruits had little experience of residential care. So once the decision was made to close the third children’s centre, no one wanted to work in the remaining one.

In effect, the first round of closures had funded training for unqualified staff, the second the new Children’s Services Teams (CSTs). With foster care expected to provide emergency placements, assessment placements and accommodation for adolescents, the county retained four places at an NCH home in the north of the county.

In Chapter 4 Finding and making placements, they note that Warwickshire’s use of foster care for short term placements exceeded that of any other local authority in Rowe et al. (1989). Most children went into foster care first, home on trial second and residential care third because residential care was only approved if other placements had failed. With 80% of placements for adolescents in foster care and only 4% in residential care, there was an increase in those in educational establishments but a decline in those in penal establishments.

Social workers reported that they did not always get the ‘ideal’ placement and more children ended up in foster care than they had planned; there was a shortage of black and mixed race foster parents, a higher proportion of emergency foster care placements than reported in Rowe et al. (1989) and a lack of choice of placement, both emergency and planned, in half of the cases.

In Chapter 5 Three case studies, they describe the experiences of Angela, Becky and Chris.

In Chapter 6 Meeting the needs of children in their placements, they report that there was a higher number of placement changes than in Rowe et al. (1989) but the range of variations in success was roughly comparable. The children were significantly less settled than in other studies and, while the proportion of children in contact with their parents was comparable with other studies, the frequency of contact was half that in Rowe et al. (1989). Half the children in foster care had difficulties keeping in touch with friends and about half the children’s education was disrupted by placement.

In Chapter 7 Progress in placements, they continue to explore the experiences of Angela, Becky and Chris.

In Chapter 8 Placement endings — successes and failures, they report that most placement endings were child-related as in other studies and the rate was similar to other studies. Overall Warwickshire had a lower success rate than the local authorities in Rowe et al. (1989).

In Chapter 9 The Children’s Services Team — foster care involvement, they report that there were difficulties recruiting suitable foster parents; only 10% of enquiries turned into new foster parents and recruitment did not keeping pace with losses. Foster parents received good training but a lot of effort was diverted into supporting difficult placements. One third of referrals for new placements were needed on the same day and placements were often made by persuading ‘resting’ foster parents to take a child.

In Chapter 10 Children’s Services Team — direct work with children and families, they report that about half of the staff of CSTs provided direct work. They were successful in juvenile justice but not in reducing admissions to care and mostly did crisis work with older children already in care.

In Chapter 11 The use of residential care, they report that Warwickshire used less than other local authorities; residential schools tended to be used for younger children and other residential facilities for short stays for older children. Typically the children had had several previous foster placements; distance was viewed as a problem with NCH placements.

In Chapter 12 Special educational needs and the use of residential schools, they report that Warwickshire’s use of schools, particularly day schools, for children with educational and behavioural difficulties increased compared with other local authorities though there was a decline in their use of residential schools.

In Chapter 13 Conclusions, they argue that Warwickshire was negative towards residential care, they lacked clarity and most of those who worked in it were opposed to residential care. They started with a below average percentage of children in residential care but an average rate in residential special schools. Closing homes resulted in moving children to other areas and in there being no choice in over half of cases. Though their success and breakdown rates were similar to those in other studies, their success rate was lower than the other authorities in Rowe et al. (1989).

In other words, Warwickshire got where it did because it started from a different starting point from other local authorities.


This study was particularly useful in providing a counter-argument to those who mistakenly argued that the decline in the use of residential care in the 1980s was a result of ‘good practice.’ It is also instructive to consider alongside the Pindown Report (Levy and Kahan, 1991) because it demonstrates that both situations were influenced by similar factors.

One of the unexpected outcomes of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, which had been intended to encourage more work with parents and more voluntary intervention (Under Big Ben, 1969), was a sharp increase in the proportion of children admitted to care. So, as the DHSS lamented (1981), there had been no change in the numbers of young people admitted to residential care as a result of the introduction of the Act while the proportion admitted to foster care had gone up.

However, the birth-rate had peaked in 1964 and plunged to its lowest level for many decades in 1979 while the 1980s saw a significant increase in the proportion of women entering the workforce — so reducing the number available to offer foster care. The 1980s was therefore a decade of readjustment; there was a return to earlier levels of admission to care, no significant increase in the number of children in foster care and a steep decline in the use of residential care as the (now adolescent) mini-baby boomers of 1964 left the child population.

Warwickshire was not unusual in taking a negative approach to residential care; the impacts of Bowlby (1952) and Goffman (1968) on attitudes to residential care, notwithstanding the rebuttals by Clarke and Clarke (1976) and Wolins (1974), continue to affect the ways in which residential care is provided in the UK.

Though Warwickshire ostensibly took the opposite approach to Staffordshire in that they appointed qualified social workers to work in residential care, like those in Staffordshire they were unable to see any way of using residential care positively. So, while they did not directly do things that were unlawful, they indirectly damaged children by reducing contact with their families, breaking their ties with peers and disrupting their education in part because they were unable to satisfy the most basic requirement that there should be a choice of placement for a child. As a result their much vaunted ‘good practice’ resulted in more adverse outcomes for children in care than possibly those of authorities where benign neglect was the order of the day.

The fact that qualified social workers, whether abusers like Frank Beck (Kirkwood, 1993), those who were prepared to ignore child care law like Tony Latham (Levy and Kahan, 1991) or those who were ostensibly implementing ‘good practice,’ all managed to harm children raises the question as to whether there is something fundamentally wrong with social work training (Winkler, 2009) which was originally seen by the Curtis Committee (Care of Children Committee, 1946) as the solution to poor practice in residential care.

However, one must congratulate Warwickshire for opening their records to the researchers; it is a pity that so little attention has been paid to the results of their openness.


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