The Ideology of Residential Care and Fostering


There has never been a perfect or failsafe way of ensuring ‘good enough parenting’ of children in any society. Some children fail to thrive in their own families and communities for a variety of reasons including poverty, war and epidemics like HIV/Aids; adoptive families report chronic challenges which give the lie to the notion that adoption is a neat and ‘natural’ option; step-families encounter the sort of dilemmas brought into public consciousness by books like Joanna Trollope’s Other Peoples’ Children; foster care suffers from the risk of the breakdown or disruption of placements; and the history of residential care is littered with examples of poor and abusive practice. There have, despite all the achievements and good qualities of each form of child care, been tragedies catalogued right across the spectrum.

It would be a brave, if not foolish, person who advocated one form of care for all children and young people regardless of circumstance. This article focuses on residential care and fostering, not because familial care and adoption are unimportant or ineffective, but because it seeks to analyse how Britain came to define each in contrast to the other. Fostering is overwhelmingly the preferred alternative to care within the family. Residential child care is seen as a last resort. The attempt to understand why reveals some fundamental assumptions, dogma and ideologies, which need to be acknowledged if a therapeutic, child-focused welfare system for the future is to be facilitated.

Current residential child care in the UK has its roots in institutions like foundling hospitals, industrial schools, orphanages, children’s villages, approved schools, and large children’s homes. From the nineteenth century it has been overshadowed by the Poor Law system. The voluntary child care organisations that sprang up during this period offered an alternative to the workhouses and poorhouses in that children were separated from other ‘paupers’, but the type and scale of accommodation meant that daily living was institutionalised in ways not dissimilar to the Poor Law institutions.

Such care (combined in places with education and training) was seen as separate and distinct from ordinary family life and neighbourhoods. In fact this, in the case of children from inner city “slum” areas, was seen as one of its great virtues: a clean and pure environment was offered in place of unhealthy and immoral ones.

Foster care, by way of contrast, has its roots in informal care by extended families and neighbours, so typical worldwide to this day. When confinement of a mother, illness or death affected a family it was taken for granted that relatives and friends would provide help over a period. Where this system was supervised or organised by local authorities it was known as boarding out. The assumption was that a child would live with another family as if he or she were part of that family. Thus fostering was seen as a variant of family care.

In many ways these two types of alternative (or supplementary) child care, institutional or family, provide the compass bearings or coordinates for current assumptions, worldviews, policies and practice. Whatever they have in common seen from the child’s, or family’s, perspective (and David Berridge has produced much evidence to support the thesis that they have much in common), they are seen as opposites.

The former is essentially undesirable, formal, institutional, while the latter is desirable (in the circumstances), natural and normal. Attachment theory may have modified our understanding of the separation anxieties experienced by children and young people in both settings, and family support is the preferred option by far, but underlying this stratum of thinking and policy is a fundamental archetype that sees residential child care at one end of the spectrum and fostering at the other.

Any attempt to bridge or span this conceptual divide by presenting care as a continuum simply serves to demonstrate how deep-seated a gulf it represents. Take the Barclay Report, 1982. It argued “To think of children…living with foster-families as receiving one form of residential care diminishes the sharp differentiation often made between fostering and residential care and puts the relationship between them in what we believe to be a more helpful perspective” (page 53). Nearly twenty years later, this might just as well not have been written, for residential child care is still seen as inherently distinct from foster care.

The most obvious embodiment of this distinction is in the Guidance and Regulations that accompany the 1989 Children Act. Volume Three (red) is called “Family Placements”, while Volume Four (yellow) is called “Residential Care”. The two types of setting and experience are seen as no closer or more related than they were pre-Barclay.

The purpose of this paper is to argue that this way of conceiving or socially constructing the types of care has been restricting and unhelpful in the development of the services for children, and that a radical reframing of our conceptual world is vital for the well-being of children needing care over and above that provided by their extended families.

Residential child care, like the psychological understanding of child development, has undergone a revolution since say 1948. Large institutions are a thing of the past. Today’s establishments are much more in touch with local communities and contemporary life, and often care for three or four young people. Though they resemble foster homes they are still registered and inspected under the regulations noted above. Conceptions of them and reactions to them are stuck in a time warp, with consequences for the whole child care system. It is to be hoped that the next major children’s legislation will at last put this way of seeing the social world to rest.

Some of the effects of this divide between foster and residential care

This conceptual worldview of child welfare in the UK has many unintended consequences, and this article outlines just four of them. This list is indicative rather than exhaustive, and may serve to encourage further thinking and analysis. It is important to stress that the effects are largely unconscious: the system does not set out, for example, to override the wishes of children and young people. The examples given are intended to demonstrate how untenable the present dichotomising of care is.

No one is arguing for a return to forms of residential care now discredited, not least due to the growth in understanding institutional neurosis and attachment theory. New forms are developing and would develop further and faster if the straitjacket of legislation and its underlying ideology were removed, and if the models of good practice in foster and residential child care were celebrated.

Children’s wishes over-ridden

In the sharply defined world where foster care and residential care are seen as opposites, the adult professionals see foster care as inherently preferable. Residential care is no place for a child or young person to be by choice. It is institutional in some Goffmanesque sense, and is to be avoided at almost all costs. It is certainly no place for a child long term! At best it is a setting for assessment, respite or bridging. This helps to explain why in 1998 82% of ‘looked after’ children living away from home were in foster care in England in contrast with 39% in Germany. Let us be clear, this is the adult view of things, and of course the adult view has dominated in this aspect of social construction as in all others.

The consistently expressed view from children and young people is often quite different. Over the years when they have been asked their views many have expressed the wish to live in or stay in settings other than foster homes. The study by Save The Children in Scotland, published in May 2001, that found a preference among some children in care for residential care, was seen as a challenge to existing belief and practice and a surprise, but for any who had been listening to the voice of children in care it confirmed what they had often heard.

For some the children’s home or residential unit has become their familiar environment. It is safe, stable and predictable. The adults have become reliable and resourceful friends, and some of the other residents have likewise become good friends (friendships that will in some cases last a lifetime). Most of these children will have experienced foster care already, and for some it will have been a difficult time (as for the foster carers). Foster breakdowns are common, and reflect something of the intensity of the expectations by professionals and possibly society at large, that children ought to thrive in such ‘natural’ settings.

Many children needing help and support from care agencies have themselves experienced traumatic and sometimes tragic family lives. The emotional scars and wounds are open and fresh. It is simply not possible for them to live in a situation that daily reminds them of these experiences as if nothing had happened. They need emotional space where they can choose the level of involvement with and commitment to significant others in their lives. (They may find this in the best foster homes of course.)

Is it surprising that such children often choose an alternative base for living? There will be others who choose not to be in non-familial settings, and prefer a foster home. The point is that children do not automatically prefer one type of care rather than another. The number of repeated foster breakdowns is among other things testimony to the stubbornness with which professionals hold to their assumptions and preferences, despite the evidence of the detrimental effects of such disruptions on children.

Foster care restricted in its development

With the expansion of forms of family support and care in local communities there has been an increase in the number of children living ‘in the community’ who previously would have been taken into care (‘looked after’ by a local authority). This means that those for whom foster care is sought nowadays tend to bring with them significant behavioural challenges and disabilities.

The task of foster carers is that much more difficult and specialised. Those committed to the raising of standards in foster care see the development of a professional service as essential. The days when foster parents could rely on their own experiences as children and parents to guide them are over (if they ever were sufficient!). Many foster carers are in effect providing specialist residential care for children with substantial identified needs. Training and support are essential to this task.

Why then the resistance to such a notion (in practice, if not always in words)? One reason is the fantasy that foster care is essentially a natural extension of family life, distinct from residential child care! There is a seemingly disproportionate amount of research and attention devoted to residential child care and training when compared to the equivalents for foster care. When the figures for children in the two types of care are considered, this emphasis appears strange indeed. But the situation reflects the archetypal way of seeing things: foster care does not need the level of training or skill required in residential child care, because it is in essence quite different. This is simply untrue, but worldviews are not easily changed.

All through the provision of child care in the UK there has been the economic factor: foster care is assumed to be cheaper. The figures reflecting stated cost (or payment) per child week certainly seem to back this up, but one of the problems is that it is hard to compare them in any rigorous way. Support services for foster carers for example may be treated as a separate budget and so on.

If foster care were to be seen as a type of residential care (which by any definition it surely is) then there would be the space, opportunity and incentive to develop the service more readily.

Residential child care institutionalised

The other side of the coin is that anything other than foster care is seen as institutional. There are token references in the 1989 Guidance to parenting and family life, but these are on the margins. The mainstream is seen as a setting where the adults are staff that work shifts, the food is prepared in accordance with industrial regulations, where the office is the place in which the children are most likely to find the staff, where inspections by fire authorities, local authority inspection units and the like are seen as normal, and so on.

In short it is organised and regulated as if it were anything but a family setting. Notices are required to be displayed, and staircases may need to be ‘sterile’ in the interests of fire prevention. The places are seen as workplaces rather than homes. They may be appropriate for staying in for short periods as one might do in a hospital, for assessments and even treatment, but they are definitely not homes for living in long-term!

Part of the institutionalising process is also at work in foster care, as the organisational ‘metropole’ extends its control, by means of standards, forms and reviews. Someone should do some research on the number of forms a young person would be required to read or complete in say a five year stay in residential care, the number of adults with whom he or she would be expected to talk about personal matters, and the number of formal meetings to be attended. Compare this with the experiences of children in their own families, and the point is made.

Some places, like Mill Grove and the Children’s Family Trust, are family homes where there are more than three children cared for. Although it is the adults’ home, and daily life is very similar to that in families and foster homes, these places are regulated and inspected under Volume 4, Residential Care. This volume simply doesn’t fit the situations; the civil servants were told so when the Act was being drafted, but ten years and more on, the institutionalising effects of the mismatch continue.

Some local authorities do not place children in them because of the bureaucracy and institutionalisation even though children would choose to live in them! Until the divide between foster care and residential child care has been bridged such places are destined to remain forever on the wrong side.

We chose the name, Mill Grove, so that all labels were avoided. It was not a children’s home or a foster home: it was sui generis. Children could make of it what they would, and relate as they chose to do so. But all the time under the Children Act they are bombarded with letters and communications telling them that it is a children’s home! Why should this dysfunction continue? Possibly because if Mill Grove were seen and recognised as a family, or residential community, it would threaten all the time-honoured and cosy assumptions about the British nuclear family and home. We cannot be allowed to choose what we may be, or how we are to be named.

It is important in all this not to be parochial. The institutionalising forces driven by management cultures, targets, legal safeguards, risk assessments and the like are felt right across society. Hospitals, schools, prisons, courts, businesses, offices and factories are all subject to increasing demands for written statements, policies, insurance, training, and standards. The tragedy is that children in care are not protected from these bureaucratising factors even in the place they may see as home.

For part of five days a year we have an inspector in our home wanting to talk with all who live here. Isn’t there another way that recognises that for some of us this is our home and family? If there is another way, might not more children and young people choose to live in such places?

Obviously there is a need for regulation, registration and inspection of each part of the child care system. We cannot risk the reoccurrence of the tragedies of the past, but the system needs to catch up with the changing realities of current provision.

Abuse is associated mainly with residential care.

When the North Wales Abuse enquiry report was published it had five chapters referring to foster care, a continuous theme describing an inadequate organisational, professional and management culture, and of course, sadly, sections on abuse in residential settings. Yet when I questioned Dip. SW students about the report they told me it was about “abuse in residential child care”. There have been all too many high-profile cases of child abuse in the UK. Some of these have been in residential settings, some in foster homes, and some in birth families. Why should abuse come to be associated largely with residential settings?

There is a possible deep subconscious reason. It is easier to believe that abuse happens in institutions away from normal family and community life. This leaves us free to continue with our cherished notions of happy family life, unaffected by any amount of evidence to the contrary. The sad truth is that Britain is not a child-friendly environment, and that abuse of horrendous proportions has occurred across the board. The life experiences and chances of children on poor council estates are almost too grim to contemplate. We need to explore why this is so, not only in deprived areas, but more generally, drawing from every type of experience including, as Barbara Kahan was so good at doing, boarding schools.

The focus on extremes of abuse also serves to detract us from the way emotional abuse is built into certain systems. Do we really begin to imagine what it feels like to be the subject or object of a foster placement breakdown? If so, how come so many children experience multiple such breakdowns? Is there any way of comparing the comparative safety and well-being of children in their own homes and those in residential care? This sort of question underlines the way a public/private divide operates either side of the family/institution divide.

The extent of child abuse in residential settings has been as enormous and harrowing, as it is inexcusable. Would the situation have been better if families were taken as the model or norm, rather than single-sex, large institutions? We cannot undo the past, but there is much food for thought for the future.

Towards a Radical Reframing of Child Care

Why is this reframing so important in the development of UK child care? It could after all be seen as the thoughts of a small minority operating at the margins of foster and residential care! Among the things it would do are several of great significance.

Throwing off the Poor Law

The Radisson Report charts the way in which European countries other than the UK were forced into major social reconstruction by the wars in the 20th century. Social welfare was rethought and re-conceptualised. In Britain, despite innovations such as the NHS, some deep-seated assumptions continued. Residential child care has never thrown off the Poor Law/institutional stigma. Boarding schools, although providing very similar types of care and education (leaving aside quality), are always seen as completely different. They were never tarred with the Poor Law brush.
One of the reasons for the distinction between foster and residential care is the Poor Law division being between indoor and outdoor relief, between the workhouse and boarding out. It is not a compelling reason for maintaining it at the beginning of the 21st century!

Listening to children and young people

We have been stressing the importance of listening to children and to respecting their rights, especially since the Children Act 1989. There have been improvements in certain areas. But we steadfastly refuse to listen to, and respect, what they say about this issue. Residential units have been closed despite the wishes of their residents. Some departments and local authorities have tried to close all residential establishments for children.

Fostering is universally preferred by the professional establishment. But what about the voice of the child? Again and again, as demonstrated by the Scottish study above, it is simply not heard. Perhaps families have not been such cosy places for them, and they do not have a rosy and sentimental view of family life. By what authority do we refuse their persistent requests?

If it is a financial issue then let it be dealt with as such, and not hide behind adult agendas and preferences. There is a growing suspicion that compared with the Government funding made available for health and education, the money invested in the welfare of the nation’s most vulnerable children is paltry, if not indefensible. While foster care is provided on the cheap, this may be disguised, but taking seriously the expressed preferences of young people could expose such underlying realities.

Social Pedagogy

In much of Europe child care is seen as social pedagogy. This sees care and education as interwoven and inseparable, and views a child as a whole. There is an attempt to integrate the various agencies and disciplines that help to shape the development of a child so that they function as parts of the same system or process. All professionals are involved in the life of children as social pedagogues, though they will bring different specialisms.

If we could reconstruct foster and residential care it would be an important step in the process of integration. Instead of assuming that the physical setting (institution or family home) is all-important in determining the experience of the child, the child him or herself would become the focus. It would be possible and necessary to explore the various strands of life (health, care, education, spirituality, skills etc) as they affect and enhance one another rather than assume they are separate and represented by different organisations or professions.

In short, this change would be a step in the direction of reclaiming or forging a child-centred view of the world, where education and leisure are not mutually exclusive, nor education associated with schools rather than home and community, and where health includes emotional well-being and development.

Experiments in Foster Care

Many foster carers are restricted in what they can do because of the prescriptions of the Children Act 1989 (e.g. three children only) or general assumptions about the notion of foster care. If the divide were bridged, no end of possibilities would be encouraged: home tuition, small residential schools, extended foster families, integrated health and foster care and so on. Foster care has been restricted to a far too narrow world of the nuclear family.

Foster households, like step households are not simply an extension of a ‘normal’ family; they are qualitatively different, and have their own potential and dynamics. They should be encouraged to flourish and grow. There are many possibilities if we are ready to learn from models from around the world. One effect of the divide and Poor Law inheritance is the insularity that it has left as a legacy. My hunch is that if foster carers were asked about ways in which they would like to develop their care, many projects are ready to take off here and now.

Residential care acknowledged and respected across the spectrum

While foster care has much to gain from the reframing, residential care may gain even more. Until the reframing, it is destined to remain forever as a last resort (however much documents call it a positive choice). With reframing there would no longer be the two-tier system, but a continuum or range of settings. Each would be encouraged to become what it can best be for the good of children. Therapeutic communities might be home for some of their children; there might be foster relationships within them. Large foster households would become the residential communities of the future. And there is some small glimmer of hope that the throttling industrial service model will be held at bay, as the personal, private and family aspects of a child’s life are re-emphasised.

This all sounds very idealised, even utopian. But how will we know how greatly our understanding of children and care have been contorted and restricted by this conceptual divide until we come out from ‘under the rubble’?

Cross-cultural studies of childhood indicate how significantly British attitudes to children and young people differ from those of other traditions. What if this really was the main key to change? The place of language in this reconstructed world of children’s services is, of course, vital. The German word ‘Heimerziehung’ is the closest equivalent to ‘residential care’, but it is sometimes used to describe all types of care outside a child’s own family. ‘Fremdunterbringung’ is another term lacking an English expression. There can be no reframed vision without reframed terminology!

Community and Neighbourhood Involvement

For very contrasting reasons the care of children in the UK has tended to separate them from neighbours and neighbourhoods. Residential establishments were deliberately conceived in isolation (for reasons of moral and physical health), while foster homes, like ordinary homes, were seen as private spheres of influence.

If residential care could be recast to include the many varieties of experience including family, health and education, it might be possible to think in terms of genuine care in the community. Schools are part of a universal and non-stigmatising provision. Teachers have a big part to play in a child’s emotional development. Perhaps this might free up some of the networks of support. Why not semi-boarding schools in some communities? The Children Act has, perhaps unwittingly, paved the way for this sort of experiment.


Much of this is visionary and speculative, and will remain so until we grasp the nettle. Until we do, foster care will remain undervalued and under-resourced, residential care disparaged, and children unheard. It is a long-term goal, and the next Children Act would seem to be the obvious target. The most likely alliance would seem to be the foster care organisations, NCVCCO, and the full-range of residential establishments. The uniting vision would be of a system of child welfare that was non-stigmatising, holistic and therapeutic across the board. If adults fail to achieve this, then it might just be that children and young people will need to take political action themselves. They deserve much, much better than they are getting. And we owe this radical reframing to them and their futures.

“The Ideology of Residential Care and Fostering” first appeared on pp. 231-242 in Re-framing Children’s Services, NCVCCO Annual Review Journal No. 3, 2002, and permission to reprint is gratefully acknowledged.

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