News Views : April 2006

Residential versus Foster Care?

In the SIRCC column this month Ian Milligan writes of the conflict between residential care and foster care. Which is best? It is a hoary old chestnut that has been around for a long time – thirty or forty years at least. It is really sad that it is still persisting, because it does no one any good.

In our experience, the conflict is not caused by rivalry between residential workers and foster carers. They actually share a lot in common, as it is they who work directly with children and young people in their respective home settings. Very often children move from residential care to foster care or vice versa, depending upon their needs at the time. Both types of provision are valuable in meeting children’s needs.

There are also many people over the years who have fostered before becoming residential workers, or vice versa. Many of the skills, such as communicating with children and young people, settling them down and overcoming their anxieties, finding them ways of occupying their time constructively, and so on are shared between the two groups.

Our view is that the conflict comes from two sources. The first is from one school of field social workers, who have felt strongly that residential care is institutional and damaging, and only to be used in extremis. As field workers they have tried to avoid residential placements for their children and as managers they have closed homes down.

The other group is made up of a mixture of social work managers, service commissioners and budget holders who believe that residential care is more expensive. But it is what is on offer that is important, and whether it meets children’s needs. Providing a really nice plaster of Paris leg is no good if someone needs chemotherapy.

These two groups have managed to keep a non-question on the boil for decades, and as Ian Milligan has pointed out, it has not been in the best interests of children.

Numbers in Homes

The York Group has met again, and this year they looked at bullying. A couple of years back they looked at the established numbers of children and young people in homes. Years ago, the Department of Health and Social Security (as it then was) advised local authorities to build homes for the elderly with 48 beds, as it was the most economical. What is the right number of beds in children’s homes?

It is my experience that, whatever the size of the home, the staff usually would like it to be a bit smaller. I visited a home in Comarom in Hungary for 350 children. “If only it could be 320 children,” the staff said, and another in Budapest where they wanted a 170-bed home to be reduced to 120. “If the numbers were reduced we could give more individual attention to the children, and more space in their bedrooms,” they said. All quite true.

Then there was the secure unit where the staff thought that eight residents was rather a lot as only three staff were on duty at any one time. “One staff member might be answering the door and another might be on the phone, and the eight young people could rush the third one and escape,” they argued, apparently oblivious to the fact that in prisons as well as children’s establishments, order is maintained essentially with the co-operation of the inmates / residents, and that co-operation is achieved by being fair to them, not by overpowering them.

The only places where I have not heard the grumble has been in the homes, which seem to have mushroomed in recent years, designed to serve only one young person at a time. I do recall though, when I was running an assessment centre in the early 1970s, suggesting to the Director of Social Services that it would be much better practice to assess children’s needs in their own homes and for staff to be peripatetic. He laughed.

Crises to Order?

Keith White writes this month about the daily round, suggesting that different types of activity match different times of day, with each day matching the seasonal cycle. It’s a fascinating idea.

When do social problems fit into this cycle? What time of day do people have their rows? We’ve heard that people get most depressed on Sunday afternoons. When do people offend? What times of day do they take drugs most? We know that one of the signs of social dysfunction is when the daily round goes adrift and people stay up all night and sleep in the daytime. We’ve heard too that it has been established that some people have body clocks that run on 23-hour days and some on 25-hour days.

Has anyone researched all this? Surely there’s PhD for somebody here. If we were to know when the best time would be for social workers to visit and have the greatest impact, it could change their work patterns fundamentally.

If one is to help people resolve the sorts of problems which social services address, it does help to be present at crisis time. That is a problem for field social workers. When they pop in for their half-hour visit during office hours, it tends not to be at a time when the kids have been getting on the parents’ nerves for hours at the weekend, or during a marital row as father returns from his Friday night drinking and decides it’s time to take it out on his partner.

Family centres which are staffed round the clock can intervene at the points of crisis, and there is nothing like a real crisis to provide first-hand information about what people are really like, rather than when they put their acceptable masks on during set-piece visits. The tension means that people unburden themselves, the truths come out, and the participants are often more open to change if the crisis can be resolved and understood. Such events can be real learning points, opportunities for personal growth and for strengthening relationships. Hard work, but it can be very rewarding.

News from Mittel Appenzell

We didn’t hear from Appenzell this time last year, but we have just received news of a new twist in the political complexion of the Canton. They were the first to give all children the vote, and the result of some clever campaigning was that enough young people were elected to ensure that they could appoint one of their number as the Burgomeister.

Then the grey vote rebelled and ousted the young politicians. The latest news is that the females of Appenzell have come together, young and old, and have turned on their men and boys, electing a mixed age Council. Electoral activity in schools was conducted secretly, without the girls letting on to the boys that they were running such a campaign. The girl candidates therefore obtained some boys’ votes, while the girls boycotted all the boy candidates. The same happened in the Women’s Meetings at church. The all-female Council will now have to prove itself, as feelings are running as high as in Lysistrata’s day.

From the Case Files

The house was no cold – there is no eating.

No inner warmth then?

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