‘Some Theoretical Observations on Group Care’ by Martin Wolins

Martin Wolins (1973) Some theoretical observations on group care in Pappenfort, Donnell M and Kilpatrick, Dee Morgan and Roberts, Robert W (Eds) Child caring: social policy and the institution Chicago: Aldine ISBN 0 202 36101 2

Martin Wolins (1920-1985) was born in Odessa and moved with his parents to Pinsk, Poland, from where he fled to the USA in 1938. He was not able to train as a vet as he had hoped and went into social work, joining the staff of the University of California, Berkeley in 1958. An orthodox Jew, he undertook extensive research into group care in Israel and on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the 1960s and 1970s before retiring in 1982 and settling in Israel where he died.

This brief article, however, is significant in setting out for the first time a cognitive developmental approach to group care which, while having a wider application than child care, nonetheless provides a new way of looking at children’s behaviour and which explains why, for example, different approaches appear to be more effective at different stages in a child’s development, as well as providing new ways of assessing, planning and estimating the likely success of particular interventions.

Since then the work of Carol Gilligan and her colleagues (Gilligan, 1993; Gilligan et al., 1988) has greatly extended the usefulness of cognitive developmental ideas by identifying the different issues in male and female moral and cognitive development but, as far as I am aware, there has been no attempt to build on these ideas in group care.

Key Ideas

– The purpose of group care is normally socialisation.

– The role of the family in relation to group care is viewed in different ways.

– The relationships people have within group care can fall into one of four broad categories: dependency, nomocracy, other orientation and exchange.

– Professionals have no professional role within group care.

– Group care can have a positive role in assisting people who are negotiating transitions.

– Goffman’s analysis of asylums is fatally flawed.


Martin Wolins starts by arguing that, though some are used for warehousing or restraint, the main goal of asylums is socialisation which includes morality, knowledge and skill.

He then reviews the current situation, noting

– Kathleen Jones’s comment that the literature of dysfunction “has tended to confuse the elements in criticism by treating the institutional situation as a whole” (1967, p. 14),

– the widely varying views about the family model in group care from Hermann Gmeiner (1960) who argues that Kinderdörfen are good because they resemble natural families to the Soviet theoreticians who argue that group care is good because it does not ape the family,

– that most papers criticising group care do not compare like with like.

He then presents a four stage framework for development:

– dependency which requires love tempered with restraint and where, when love and restraint are absent, a reciprocal tyranny develops in which the dependent exploits their helplessness and the caretaker their power,

– nomocracy in which behaviour is restrained by external rules, a situation in which too many rules can be stifling and which in due course can lead to conservatism, evasion or clandestine parallel authority, unless those involved are able to move to a stage where they can participate in the rule-making,

– other orientation in which behaviour is based on group acceptance but where problems can arise if the group contains people who want to exercise their expertise or the group is tempted by fads,

– exchange in which behaviour is informed by internally referenced and externally supported standards of behaviour.

Apart from the internal reference, the other key difference between the last two stages is that, at the third, external influences, e.g. family ties or work commitments, are not accepted as appropriate influences on behaviour, whereas they are at the fourth level.

He argues that the group care milieu needs to match the stage at which people are by drawing on Kohlberg’s argument that there is a built-in pull towards higher stages but that people can only understand up to one stage above their own.

He also draws on Maxwell Jones (1963) who argues that therapeutic milieux must maximise group influences and minimise professional interaction while being applicable to every aspect of the environment. The problem with involving professionals is that they imply that there is something is wrong with the inmates and they then have no role once the client/patient gets better. This, he argues, is the fundamental flaw in the disease model.

Drawing on the idea that transitions between stages are often provoked by a crisis, he argues that group care may act as an asylum which offers a ‘safe place’ in which to negotiate the transition. However, asylums often find it difficult to accept difficult behaviour and sometimes have to find ways of managing behaviour.

Finally, he reviews Goffman’s views on ‘total institutions’ (1968), arguing that neither the binary character nor the authoritarianism that Goffman ascribes to institutions are automatic features and that batch living can itself be positive.


Apart from both having a deep religious conviction, Martin Wolins shares with Mary Carpenter (1853) the distinction of being familiar with group care in many countries and more than one continent. He differs from her explicitly and from many other contributors to this series implicitly in rejecting the disease model of difficult behaviour and focusing on socialisation. This has a number of advantages:

– It locates all issues of child care development, whether `normal’ or `variant,’ within a common framework.

– It locates difficulties in a child’s development outside the child in the relationships which the child has and for which not only the child is responsible.

– It avoids locating responsibility for any difficulties solely with the child’s parents since many other people have relationships with a child.

The cognitive developmental approach also helps to explain why so many successful group care initiatives have been based on working with a relatively narrow age group, why the younger children at Summerhill (Neill, 1962) were not be able to participate fully in the School General Meeting, why there might be debates among the older children about particular decisions depending on their level of cognitive development and why Wiener and Wiener (1990) found that the children who moved through age-graded residential care were not disadvantaged, presumably because the age-grading enabled them to experience relationships appropriate to the stage of their cognitive development. It may also offer a theoretical underpinning to many of the decisions Mr Lyward made (Burn, 1956) which at one level may appear to have been arbitrary and authoritarian.

In drawing on Maxwell Jones (1963) to argue that there is no place for professional expertise in the day to day life of a group care setting, he also offers explanations for why Makarenko (1936) and the unnamed head in Clegg and Megson (1968) were right to insist that staff shared their meals with the children and why both Neill and Mr Lyward found that children got better anyway. Interestingly, a few years earlier the Advisory Council in Child Care (1970) had seen no need for specific professional interventions in group care, rather the development of a shared environment.

The idea of using group care as a form of refuge or asylum for children can be dated back the Foundling Hospital in the 18th century (Heywood, 1978) and it has been developed in various ways within English child care, including the establishment of reception centres at the start of the 20th century where children going through a crisis might stay, pending a decision on their long term future. But more recently the focus in the UK on keeping any stay in residential care to a minimum and on achieving something specific in that time has tended to preclude the use of group care as an open-ended intervention for someone going through a crisis who can stay there as long as is necessary for them.

In rejecting the disease model and focusing on a child’s current needs Wolins is closer to Makarenko (1936) but he also, after 120 years, heralds a pause in writing about theoretical approaches to child care as Taylor and Alpert (1973) and then Wiener and Wiener (1990) were both to cast doubt on their value.


Advisory Council in Child Care (1970) Care and treatment in a planned environment: a report on the community home project London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office See also Children Webmag December 2008

Burn, M (1956) Mr Lyward’s answer London: Hamish Hamilton

Carpenter, M (1853) Juvenile delinquents, their condition and treatment London: W & F G Cash See also Children Webmag November 2008

Clegg, A B & Megson, B E (1968) Children in distress Harmondsworth: Penguin

Gilligan, C (1993) In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development London: Harvard University Press With a new introduction

Gilligan, C, Ward J V & Taylor, J M (Eds.) (1988) Mapping the moral domain: a contribution of women’s thinking to psychological theory and education London: Harvard University Press

Gmeiner, H (1960) Die SOS-Kinderdörfer: Moderne Erziehungsstäten für verlassene Kinder Innsbruck: SOS-Kinderdorf-Verlag

Goffman, E (1968) Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates Harmondsworth: Penguin

Heywood, J S (1978) Children in care: the development of the service for the deprived child (Third ed.) London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Jones, K (1967) The development of institutional care In Association of Social Workers Education Sub-Committee (Ed.) New thinking about institutional care London: Association of Social Workers

Jones, M. (1963) The treatment of character disorders British Journal of Criminology 3(3), 276-82

Makarenko, A (1936) Road to life: translated by Stephen Garry London: Stanley Nott Originally published as Pedagogicheskaia poèma See also Children Webmag February 2009

Neill, A S (1962) Summerhill: a radical approach to education London: Victor Gollancz

Taylor, D & Alpert, S W (1973) Continuity and support: following residential treatment New York: Child Welfare League of America See also Children Webmag March 2009

Wiener, A & Wiener, E (1990) Expanding the options in child placement Lanham MD: University Press of America

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