Family Group Homes

The starting point for this article was a request for information about family group homes in the 1970s. There were six family group homes in my Division when I was an Assistant Director in the 1970s, and I therefore had personal memories of visiting them and discussing them in supervision sessions with the responsible Principal Officers. I can also recollect visiting family group homes in at least seven other authorities so that I could reasonably state that I had a broad personal knowledge of the subject too.

But when I came to look at the literature on the subject I was amazed at the dearth of information. As far as I am aware no one has yet written a book on the subject. Indeed, the longest reference to family group homes in any of the texts I came across is only three pages. So the first point to make is that if any reader is aware of sources not mentioned in this article, please get in touch.


In the Social Care Association Glossary there was the following entry:

Family Group Home
A small children’s home run by a married couple with assistance during their days off and holidays. Developed in Sheffield in the 1890s as an alternative to cottage homes, they were not widely adopted in England until the 1950s when they were developed as an alternative to the shortage of foster parents. They have also been developed in Poland.

The source of this information is not identified. In the nineteenth century children’s homes were usually large and often isolated in rural settings, and the cottage homes mentioned above were an innovation designed to introduce family life into the larger institutions by breaking them down into smaller units, each of which was meant to replicate some of the characteristics of a family. Very often the cottages were staffed by women, while the overall head of the home – or Superintendent – was a man, and his role was at times to ensure good standards of overall discipline, though he also offered a role model for the boys. Sometimes there were joint appointments and the Superintendent’s wife acted as the Matron for the whole home.

The family group home concept went one further. The whole home was no larger than a large family and the couple in charge acted jointly as Houseparents. By the time of the Curtis Report in 1946 a number of these were in existence, and they were referred to as “scattered homes” – presumably as against the cottage homes, which were grouped together on one site.

The Influence of John Bowlby

In the 1950s the thinking of John Bowlby started to influence planners – the need for children to have close attention and the opportunity to form attachments to the adults who looked after them. In consequence, the larger children’s homes were seen as institutional and were closed down over time, and there was a spate of building of family group homes. Often they were sited on new council estates, partly because it was easy to assimilate them in the design so that they looked like all the other houses, and, no doubt, partly because the tenants of the new council houses were not really in a position to complain about their neighbours.

The next twenty years were the heyday of the family group homes. The homes varied a little in size, the smallest holding half a dozen children and the bigger ones perhaps eight. Though there were a few homes for boys or girls, most were mixed, replicating the family. There was also a range of ages, again like families. Although some children stayed for short periods there were others in the early days who spent several years – and even their whole childhood – in family group homes. The resident group was therefore quite stable in some homes, and the children could grow up together as in a family.

The heads of family group homes were almost always women. I can only think of four men who took on the role, and they were all appointed for exceptional reasons, such as redeployment from a larger home which was being closed. Some of the women were single, and the children became their families in effect, rather like large foster homes. David Berridge wrote of their matriarchal nature, which deskilled their untrained assistant staff. (I have heard it said that between the two World Wars there were many women who took on this sort of role because of the dearth of men to marry.)

Where there were married couples, (disregarding the four cases mentioned above), the woman was the head of home and her husband was technically on her staff, though in reality, rather like foster parents or indeed married couples with children, there tended to be partnerships in which responsibilities were shared out and roles were complementary.

During the 1970s the service was professionalised, and a proportion of the Houseparents (or Officers in Charge as they were called later) were seconded for qualifying training, obtaining the Certificate in the Residential Care of Children and Young People, or later the Certificate in Social Services or Certificate of Qualification in Social Work. In many cases this training gave them new confidence, for example in speaking as equals with people from other professions such as psychiatrists and  field social workers. In some cases the broader horizons which education opened up put strains on marriages.

Meanwhile the husbands worked at their own jobs, and for a minimum of 15 hours per week (often worked at weekends) they obtained emoluments – free board and lodging – plus an allowance negotiated nationally. In many ways their role was modelled on the traditional father at that time – the breadwinner, out at work during the day, returning in the evening and joining in with the family at weekends. In the 6 September 1977 issue of Social Work Today’s In Residence column, Keith White wrote Housefathers see themselves as the forgotten species about this group, having undertaken a study of ten Housefathers in Hull and Edinburgh.

The couple usually lived in a flat or a house attached to the family group home, so that they could access the home through an internal door. This was a mixed blessing. Commuting to work took a matters of seconds, but there was the risk that work never ended and that the couple were always on call. However, this was equally true of foster care, and the family group home model did not differ greatly from a large foster home.

One distinction between foster care and family group homes was that there were assistant staff to stand in for the married couple and give them some time off. The practice here was variable. In some authorities there were only peripatetic relief staff; in others there were one or two permanent assistant staff. Very often these were young women near the start of their carrers in residential child care, perhaps having completed a Preliminary Residential Child Care Course.

One problem that the assistant staff faced was that they did not have the authority of the couple in charge, and the children sometimes gave them a hard time. Another was that if they were resident they usually had single bedrooms with no en suite facilities sited among the children’s bedrooms. They had to share the children’s facilities and they could not entertain guests without the children knowing every move they made. Being resident was not popular with staff, and a survey which I undertook in 1973 showed that this was one of the two factors about which staff were most concerned, the other being training.

Heyday Over

In the late 1970s things began to change, in part because of professional thinking and but mainly because of extraneous decisions which had unintended consequences.

In earlier decades there had been married couples heading up approved schools, remand homes, children’s homes and family group homes. The professionalisation of residential child care workers led to workers being seconded for training on qualifying courses as individuals and being given contracts as individuals, rather than as married couples. Joint appointments were phased out. In the late 1970s the heads of family group homes began to be called Officers in Charge. These were single appointments, and Deputies were appointed to take charge in their absence. The phasing out of married couples took several years, but it changed the nature of the homes.

There were, in any case, weaknesses in the joint appointment system. For example, one partner might be enthusiastic and competent while the other was not. It was impossible to dismiss one partner. They either worked as a couple or had to leave as a couple. Or again, there was the problem of the care of the couple’s own children and the conflicting demands on their parents’ time.

The move away from joint appointments was coupled with a renaming of the homes, as the family group homes became small group homes. It was acknowledged that the homes could not replicate family life to the full and that the title might therefore be misleading. In part this shift of thinking may have reflected the views of field Social Workers who saw residential care as institutional and wished to deny the possibility of the family model. It also reflected the views of some of the children, either because they did not want another family (as in foster care) as a challenge to continued contact with their own family or because they did not want the confines of family life at all.

The external factors had even more influence. About 1971 a 48-hour working week was introduced, which was progressively reduced to 45, then 42. Prior to this, staff had worked very long hours, and 100-hour weeks were commonplace, on the foster care model. With the introduction of a fixed working week local authorities had to increase staffing levels dramatically, and there was no room to house the new staff, who were recruited locally and came in to do shifts. Staffing went up to typically five staff per home at this time.

About 1978 it was decided that “realistic rents” would be charged for residential workers in local authority accommodation and salaries were raised. There was no longer any financial benefit for staff in being resident. Staff moved out into their own accommodation, since being resident had been stressful and unpopular, but deemed necessary. By 1980 very few staff were resident. In consequence the extra space meant that more children could be accommodated or they were given bedrooms to themselves. The homes were no longer ‘home’ to any adults, and were just places of work which they attended for shifts or for sleeping-in duties.

Of course there were still conscientious staff who worked long hours, but the non-resident Officer in Charge was not available by knocking on an internal door as the resident Housemother and Housefather had been. The combination of fixed working weeks and staff non-residence had a massive impact on the whole nature and quality of the residential child care offered by the homes. I do not recall any debate whatsoever about the impact on the children when these measures were introduced.

There was also a change in the clientele. In the 1960s young offenders were placed in approved schools. With the implementation of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 these schools became community homes with education, and over time (for reasons that go beyond this article) they were used less and most were closed. Where were the young offenders to be placed? In some authorities the small group homes were expected to absorb many of them. In parallel, fostering services had been developed and the younger children who had made up a proportion of the family group homes’ clientele were placed mainly with families.

The task facing the homes was therefore very different. In the small group homes staff came and went on shifts and the adolescents who made up the resident group often stayed for short periods only. There were increased problems with neighbours with the arrival of older and more antisocial residents. The era of the family group homes was over.


Considering the number of family group homes, the literature on them is thin.

Caring for People : Staffing Residential Homes, usually known as the Williams Report, as Lady Williams chaired the working party set up by the National Institute for Social Work Training, was published in 1967, and the staff supporting the working party undertook the first survey of the whole residential workforce. While children’s homes run by voluntary bodies had an average of 28 children in them, 61% of local authority homes were family group homes serving fewer than ten children by this time, and over half of these were staffed by married couples either jointly employed full-time or with the wife full-time and the husband part-time (and presumably following his own job). This was a much higher proportion than for any other size of home.

Juliet Berry wrote Daily Experience in Residential Life in 1975, and provides a good factual description of residential child care at that time. Five of the forty-four homes in the sample she studied were ‘small children’s homes’. On a quick skim I found little material describing this group.

Residential Staff in Child Care was published in 1968, and it includes a chapter on Residential Staff and their Children by David Lambert, which has a few interesting sidelights on the problems of being families within children’s homes (including family group homes). There is also a chapter inveighing against the introduction of non-resident staff into residential child care, a battle lost a decade later.

Why Care? was published by the Social Care Association in 1980. It does not contain much factual information about family group homes but it is perhaps unique in that Why People Come into Residential Care was written jointly by John and Marilyn McDonnell, who ran an excellent family group home. The chapter argues strongly that compassion motivated staff and an awareness of the poverty and poor social conditions suffered by the children. (To bring history right up to date John has just been re-elected as MP for Hayes and Harlington and is making a bid for the leadership of the Labour Party.)

Children’s Homes by David Berridge was published in 1985, by which time family group homes run by married couples were virtually a thing of the past. However, seven of the twenty homes visited in the preparation of the book were small group homes, and three pages are devoted to them.

Perhaps most surprising is the absence of references to family group homes in some of the main texts of the times.

In Jean Packman’s Child Care Needs and Numbers which covered services for children and young people in 1968 there is a single reference to group homes.

The Residential Task in Child Care, edited by Barbara Kahan and Geoffrey Banner and published in 1969 is usually known as the Castle Priory Report. In our Key Text digest Robert Shaw wrote that the Report “is widely regarded as having propelled residential work from being an almost feudal occupation in which staff lived in as tenants for a peppercorn rent and could be exploited to work long hours because they could not get away from the children to becoming a profession in which being off-duty and having time to recover away from those they are caring for is seen as important for the quality of the work they are able to do while on-duty.” Yet the Report makes no mention of family group homes, and its insert chart which was the standard calculator for staffing ratios for many years surprisingly used only children’s homes serving 24 or 30 children as its models for calculation.

In 1970 Chris Beedell wrote Residential Life with Children, which became a standard text for students, but from a quick skim (as it has no index), the only reference to family group homes which I was able to see was a quotation from the Williams Report in one of the appendices.

Family group homes were small, unpretentious and were meant to merge into their local communities. They obviously managed to develop a very low profile, and in my view that does not do justice to their contribution to child care.

Roger Clough

The Swiss Model

When the family group home model had been subverted, there was a gap in the market, and this was filled by professional foster care. After all, foster parents work 168 hours per week, and they are not restricted by negotiated conditions of service affecting continuity of child contact.

In the early 1990s I tried – but failed – to pilot a type of family group home found in Switzerland. Under this system a married couple who are trained and qualified give an undertaking to see a group of young people through their childhood. The group – of up to four children and young people – is built up to become a stable unit where damaged children can experience long-term security. There is support to enable the couple to have some time to themselves. When the couple have seen the cohort through to independence they then consider whether to take on another cohort. I understand that the system has worked very effectively in Switzerland, but maybe it sounds too much like the old family group homes to be adopted in the UK.


This article has been put together fairly hastily, and anyone needing to quote its contents should double-check for accuracy. The purpose of the article is to point out that this is a subject which would merit study, not just as a historical phenomenon, but also as a challenge to rethink the nature of the services we should offer children. If anyone would like to take up the challenge of writing a book – or a PhD thesis – on this subject, it would pay dividends. The model of the family group home provided care and security for thousands of children. Its demise was unintended, and it was abandoned for reasons beyond professional child care.

So what are the types of provision which children need as an alternative to their own homes? What are the comparative strengths and weaknesses of different types of provision? What should be the features of the provision? Would anyone like to pilot the Swiss model described above, for example? And how can we ensure that external factors such as conditions of service serve the needs of the children?

8 thoughts on “Family Group Homes”

  1. I use to live in a Group home back in the 70s the Group home name were Awhanee hill schools in Awhanee California and Westren Instute of humon resources in Santa Rosa California because I had a disability and the group home up in Awhanee California is now a goverment park and the Group home in Santa Rosa is now a rest home for senior’s I have memories of what hapen to me in these two group homes. some great and some very ugly.

    My mom told me to get ready were going for a nice ride I got excided got my jacket and walked out the front door where my brothers and sister were playing ball they stoped playing as I walked out the front door my older brother throwing the ball into his mit looking at me as if to say you do not fit into our family my younger brother standing be hind him with his mit proped on his side as if to say the same thing and my sister standing on the other side of the lawn leaning on the baseball bat as if to say I do not fit into the family.I got into the car that pulled up my mom got into the car as well we drove to the martinez childern shelter and there was a man on my right my mom on my left and a man behind me and a man by the door then my mom looked down at me and said these people will take vary good care of you and walked out and never came back.

    These group homes were full of about 60 to 70 boys and ran like a millitary camp with out the wepons from 72 to 75 up in Awahnee hill school and we had to answer as yes sir yes yes mam it was like boot camp and juvinal hall we had to whare blue jeans and a white tee shirt comback boots every day. there was no family life style with in these places. the one up in Santa Rosa was a lot better to live in there was more fredom with in the public.

    Any way 38 years latter and counting society,my mom,brothers,and sister do not under stand why I keep strick boundaries tord them.

    The living Father in Heaven through his son Jesus is the only reason I servived those places not my family.

  2. I was in a Family Group Home called Mercas in St George, Bristol. UK. from 1968 until 1974.
    It was a very unhappy time for me and in those years we had 4 different House Parents.
    I arrived as a 9 year old and left as a traumatized 14 year old.

    I recently had a lot of papers/files from Bristol Social Services and was amazed what happend at Mercas. Thankfully nothing sexual happened to me but cannot answer to anyone else.
    If you require any further information please get intouch.

    • Peter Maggs – I am new to this and have already made a mess of things with my email. Anyway, I was at Mercas from 1964 for about 2 years and again in about 1967/8. My cousin was also there and i believe remained in care until a young adult. I have limited information but am keen to share if you are?

  3. I was in Mercas as a toddler from about 1964, my cousine also was a ‘resident’. As far as I am aware she remained in care until she was a young adult.

  4. Peter Maggs – I have inadvertantly left the wrong email on this site that is no longer used. I have re applied my current one. Sorry.


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.