Why people come into residential social work and why some stay in it. By John and Marilyn McDonnell

 From Why Care?: A volume of articles on the values underlying residential work, edited by David Lane and Keith White, RCA Annual Review 1980, p. 37-41

If it is not doing too much violence to a useful quotation:

“Some people are born residential social workers, others become residential social workers, whilst some have residential work thrust upon them.”

WE HAVE yet to meet a born RSW and consider that anyone claiming to hold this distinction clearly is too arrogant to survive for long the various degradations which comprise the work. RSWs like this, for instance, who consider they are God’s gift to children, generally soon find it impossible to come to terms with that ubiquitous little boy who smilingly receives all their love and care, and then embarrassingly shrieks at his case conference that he can’t wait to get out of this dump of a children’s home. Admittedly, saints do come into residential child care but in our experience they don’t last long. Saints are for heaven. RSWs operate at best in limbo and often in hell.

Similarly, a small minority find that they have limited career prospects and residential work is thrust upon them as a last career option, often because they have failed to gain a more glamorous field work position. These do not usually last long. Long, irregular hours of work, low pay and exhausting, often unrewarding toil soon sort the sheep from the goats. Often they want the best of both worlds. How many times have you been asked by staff who leave you after only months, if the children can visit them or write when they have left.

Most of us, therefore, have to struggle to become residential social workers. We suspect that for nearly all, the original motives for wanting to become an RSW are based on little more than those same basic humanitarian values which are evoked in any human being when they meet children in suffering; that same desire all of us feel to comfort a crying or lost child or nurse a cut knee. But a person can only love and look after children in care for so long, before they feel the need to understand why there is an endless succession of these children in need of care. The original humanitarian values which were our initial motives for caring are insufficient in themselves. Anybody can put their arms around a child and comfort her for a short period. Frustration sets in, however, when the line of children waiting for that comfort appears unending and the care that is being given does not seem to be diminishing these numbers.

It’s at this stage in our view that people properly start becoming residential social workers. We consider that the RSW’s role is not simply to provide residential care to children, to apply yet another sticking plaster to one of society’s sores. But it is also central to the RSW’s task to understand and challenge the very causes of children coming into care. The residential worker has the vantage point of being able to witness like no other in our society the circumstances of the children who come into care and their families. It is our duty to these children and families to draw to the attention of the community the reasons for this human suffering. Our experience also puts us in a better position than most to put forward solutions to tackle this problem.

We should not shirk from this task by retreating from the outside world and burying ourselves in our various residential settings. Looking back over the past seven years and the dozens of children coming into our home, roughly three types of grounds can be identified on which a child has been taken into care.

Firstly, because the parents lack the material resources, (usually accommodation) to care for the child. As a lesson in the economics of capitalism, depriving a child of its parents because they can’t find a roof over their heads, smashed any illusions of fairness or justice which we had remaining in the present economic system. Peter Townsend’s recent massive study reconfirms the extensive poverty which exists in our society. Even by the state’s low standard of poverty at least 9% of the population representing nearly five million people were found to be living in poverty. Another 23% were living on the margins of that standard. In contrast, 5% of the population were found to own 45% of the country’s wealth. Townsend goes on to chart the consequences of this vast maldistribution of wealth in terms of deprivation in housing and the environment and at work for those on low incomes. Regrettably he does not dwell on the considerable risk faced by poor parents of losing their children. There can be no doubt in our experience that the resources over which parents have command are a direct factor in determining whether their children are taken into care or not.

None of the children taken into our care have come from what could be classed as ‘middle class’ families. For the wealthy the option of residential care is replaced by nannies, au pairs and boarding school. Fostering is unnecessary because relatives are not financially disadvantaged by taking children into their home. Let’s face it, life in a children’s home is strictly for the children of the poor.

Secondly, children have come to us because the parents cannot cope with the child. Often the most important factor has been the desertion of the family by one of the parents.

In Townsend’s survey it was estimated that 49%, of the 535,000 one-parent families in the UK were to be found in or on the margins of poverty as defined by the state.

The financial support provided by the state for one-parent families is limited to a minute addition to child benefit. Most have to struggle to maintain some form of job or are forced to rely on means-tested supplementary benefit. The pressures to materially keep up with other families become intolerable and often lead to what is the third reason for children coming into our care; illness, usually mental illness. Parents simply cracking up under the pressure of trying to keep the home together and maintain a standard of living expected by the rest of society.

In our view, poverty should never be a factor in a child coming into care. The vast inequalities in the distribution of wealth are an indictment of the current economic system which should not be tolerated. If this sounds to you like a call for political action, you’re quite right. RSWs, in our view, have got to ‘get political’. Poverty is a major factor in causing the suffering our children experience. Townsend’s work reconfirms that poverty results from the political structure of our society which ensures that the power and influence of the poor are negligible. If RSWs seriously want to tackle the disease rather than the symptoms, it is vital for us to challenge that political structure on behalf and with our clients. In practical terms, this means raising the child care issue in every possible political forum whether it be your Trade Union branch, local Labour Party meeting or M.P.’s surgery. We should be taking every opportunity to put the problems of children coming into care on the agenda of both national and local debates. We should look upon this task as a major part of our work.

We recognise, however, that a redistribution of wealth and power is not enough in itself. It must be accompanied by a change of society’s attitude towards children in need of care.

All three grounds for receipt into care which we have mentioned, fail to take into account any action other members of the community can take to assist the family in caring for its children without resort to formal care. The children come into care not simply because their own family has failed but also because no other family has aided them. In other societies and in the past in our own society, the extended family provided the care needed when individual parents could not cope. Increased mobility and the destruction of the extended family system have removed this support and have replaced it with state institutional care rather than community care. The values which dominate our society do not create an environment in which other families will step into the breach when another family fails. Social responsibility is thus relegated to feeling guilty about dropping litter on the pavement. Any assistance offered to a family with problems of this nature is now seen as interference. The concept of the family as an economic unit closed to the rest of the community predominates in our society. Even to break into this concept in a minor way with fostering has proved very difficult. In addition, the economic pressures placed upon ordinary working-class families to compete in a highly materialistic society have the result that without adequate financial support, it is extremely disadvantageous for a family to take over people’s children into their home. Therefore, the two sisters come into a children’s home when their mother’s paranoia develops. Little chance of a foster placement, thus they must be put away with at least eight, if not at times ten others, in the same institution to create sufficient economies of scale. Similarly, the scruffy, underfed and ill-clothed vandal who turns up on the door-step with a policeman and social worker in train, is received into care often for a number of years without any alternative available. In short, the predominant values of our society do not encourage or permit the community itself to respond to the problems it has within itself.

Gramsci, an Italian Marxist of the early 20th century used the concept of hegemony to describe the way certain ideas dominated society. Our aim is to break the hegemony of those ideas which result in so many children coming into institutional care when they could be at home or in ordinary families. The ruling ideas which currently allow children to languish in children’s homes for lengthy periods of time need to be replaced with those values of care, compassion, mutual assistance and co-operation which will prevent this.

The onus of caring for children must also be placed back on the community itself. Communal care of children has been a longstanding ingredient of our society based largely on a Christian tradition. Only during the past two and half centuries when capitalism has become fully developed has the family come to be regarded as an isolated impenetrable unit.

Ideas and attitudes are not immutable for all time. They change and can be changed if necessary at will. If this sounds utopian, then it’s worth considering the ease with which the media has been able to inculcate within the present generation the pursuit of material wealth to see what power is available to shape the values which dominate our society. We see it as part of our role to contribute towards changing existing attitudes towards child care and pushing the concept of communal care, using every means of communication available whether it be speaking at local meetings of the tenants’ association, tackling local journalists or even writing articles like this one. Naturally, the economic and attitudinal issues often overlap; for example, fostering demands both a commitment from a family to take a child into their home but also raises the economic issue that the family should not be economically disadvantaged by caring for the extra child.

RSWs should be at the forefront in confronting these issues, ‘fighting our corner’ on behalf of the children we care for. We come into the job because of our compassion for these children. That compassion is not enough in itself to fulfil our duty towards them. In fact, our care can even be misused by society to keep the children out of sight and out of mind. In addition to caring, our task must be to keep the issue very much in sight and very much in mind.