Editorial : Taking a Long Look

The need for a long-term perspective in research about services for children

One of the major defects of child care policy development is that those responsible – the politicians, civil servants and their advisers – all talk about evidence-based practice, but little consideration is given to the long-term outcomes of the measures taken to help children in the past.

Evidence which is gathered systematically tends to be about current practice, and (other than research reported to us undertaken by Professor June Thoburn into fostering) no systematic research seems to have been done to gather the views of former children in care from earlier decades.

We have anecdotal material from inquiry reports covering the last fifty years, such as Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s study of residential and foster care in North Wales, but by definition, they are selectively looking at the scandals, problems and failures.

Yet it is the long-term perspectives which are the most important. They indicate the fundamental impact of services on former children in care, rather than the immediate reactions. Of course the views of children and young people who are in care now are important, and it is good that they are now consulted so much more than in the past. But the purpose of taking children into care was not only to offer them immediate protection and to give them a good experience of childhood, but to fit them for adulthood as well.

Looking back what do they now think about their experiences? Was their time in care horrendous? We have heard of the scandals, abuse, Pindown and so on; was this typical, or the exception? What could have been done to stop abuse? Who had a personal impact on them? What were the good features of care? What do they think about the quality of the staff  and foster carers? And the physical standards of the homes they were in? And were their social workers supportive? Or did they change too frequently to get to know and trust them?

Were they helped to develop the right skills and attitudes for work? Or to be good partners? Or to act as parents? Or did life in care leave them unprepared? Has it been a struggle to make sense of life or did social workers, foster carers or residential staff help them come to terms with problems and face life positively? What was their aftercare like? What have their lives been like since they left care? How happy or fulfilled are they now? And is their current state because of, or despite, the impact of the care system?

Would those who were left at home in poor circumstances prefer to have been removed and taken into care? Were some types of provision preferable – adoption, residential care, boarding school or foster care? Which types of provision or working methods can be seen to have been effective or damaging retrospectively? What improvements would they suggest in the care system?

There really are masses of questions which we need to ask. The problem is that we blithely move on to the next round of new ideas – as in the recent Green Paper, Care Matters – without really learning from the experience of the earlier decades.

Publishers say that there is no interest in books about the history of child care. If so, that is sad, as it is from past mistakes that we can learn for the future. We certainly have a large number of inquiry reports and they spell out powerful – and consistent – messages about the failings of the system.

But it is dangerous to base positive practice simply on negating bad practice. We need to know what has been effective and what worked, and to gather that information will require systematic studies of the huge amount of case files still stored by local authorities and other agencies, and follow-up interviews with those who were in care. Such work will have problems. Some people will be untraceable or dead. Some people will not want to co-operate and raise spectres from their past. Understanding what was effective will prove difficult to disentangle from the many variables.

The perceptions of those who experienced the services will be important, though, as their long-term view of their past will have given them an opportunity to re-interpret their experiences and refine their views, understanding them from an adult viewpoint.

A few years back, we met an old man who had been a child in care in Leeds early in the twentieth century. Although his life had not been easy, he had enjoyed his experience of living in a large institutional home. Unlike the children from the poor families in the neighbourhood, the home children had three meals a day and shoes on their feet. They were envied, and families wanted their children to be taken into care.

If we gather long-term data, we shall have to do so with an open mind, and be prepared for surprises.

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