“A Bad Home is Better than a Good Institution”

I really thought I had heard the last of this phrase a decade or two ago, but then it suddenly reappeared in some notes written by a colleague as part of a course on child development.As it happened, at about the same time, I heard of a local authority in the UK that was poised to close all its residential institutions for children (or to pass them all over to the private or voluntary sectors to run).

Clearly residential institutions for children still have a very bad name, while at the same time families have a very good name. Does anyone know the origin of the sentence and who uttered or wrote it? Whoever it was, they have a lot to answer for!

Let’s look at what the phrase might really mean. Here are some options:

(i) Families are the natural and best settings for child rearing, so whatever the difficulties a child faces, it is family homes that are likely to offer the most secure base for children in childhood.

(ii) However hard you try to provide those features and qualities that maximize the potential for child development in institutions, you cannot replicate them in such settings.

(iii) Something would have to go badly wrong in a family setting before it is right to remove a child and place him or her in an institution.

(iv) Seen from the point of view of the state or local authority and economics, families are a lot cheaper than institutions.

(v) Children will always tend to opt for family rather than institution.

(vi) A bad home is always better than a bad institution.

There are probably other ways of unpacking the idea, some more cynical than others, but my sense is that these options convey the general line of thinking that lies behind the mantra. And social work (or whatever has now taken its place) certainly tends to use this saying as a ready-reckoner, or compass bearing. At virtually all costs, those deputed to look after a child’s welfare will tend to see institutional care as a last resort.

As part of the way I tend to teach, I usually ask students on the first day of a course to share with me in writing and in complete confidence anything they would like me to know about their own childhoods. Recently there were adults in a Masters Class drawn from several countries in Asia. Each of them wrote to me in confidence and I learned (though no one else knew it) that about 50% of the students had suffered in one way or another in their birth families. This had included abuse, neglect, and bullying by parents or step-parents. Some of the stories were really sickening.

How bad did it have to get before someone contemplated placing them in a safer, more secure environment? Or were they supposed to grin and bear it, in order that the cosy mantra remains intact. “A bad home is better than…” Did they, I wonder, consider running away, as so many do worldwide?

I am not sure how aware people are of the way much child trafficking takes place. The predominant assumption in the West seems to be that children who were growing up in happy families are preyed upon by warped individuals and gangs, and tricked into the sex industry. To people who believe this it must come as a huge shock to realise that it is standard practice for poor families in many countries in Africa and Asia to trade their daughters for money, in order to maintain a form of subsistence living. Are these bad homes really better than good institutions? (This is not to exonerate those who are complicit in the whole sad, nauseating, and degrading process of trafficking.)

And is this statement gender-aware, I wonder? Is it equally true for boys and girls, or is a bad home likely to be worse for girls? If so, would social workers be prepared to consider alternative placements for girls sooner than for boys?

As a sociologist I am always intrigued by the way in which the word ‘institution’ is used in such contexts and discourses. Families (and ‘the family’) are contrasted with institutions, whereas in sociological terms, families are one of many institutions (such as health, education, law and so on). Thus to contrast them with institutions is rather strange, and tends to disguise the way power relations are structured and ordered in them.

One of the increasing problems for children growing up in contemporary families is the succession of step-parents that many of them encounter. The institution (yes, that’s what it is) of marriage has been severely critiqued by a range of groups and lobbies, and it is steadily being replaced by what is usually called cohabitation. Has anyone stopped to ask whether this social change has affected the truth of the mantra? Doesn’t a succession of adults in a household replicate a feature associated with many institutions? And where are the safeguards and boundaries: the risk assessments that would seem sensible when a new person arrives on the scene? Are there CRB checks, or is it assumed that the home and family are inherently safe places?

Let me hasten to add that I am not an apologist for ‘institutions’: what I am concerned about is the way this approach and worldview retains its hold, despite evidence to the contrary. In fact, it is clear to me that all things being equal, families, nuclear and extended, are the proper places for children and childhood.

A few days ago I was in Cambodia, and was soon learning firsthand of the ravages of the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. This was a systematic campaign, staggering in its inhumanity and cruelty, against families and family life. But remarkably, families proved resilient enough to survive, and the testimonies of children that I have read are unanimous in their respect for, and attachments to, their families and local communities, but predominantly the former.

What I simply cannot condone is the sloppy and irresponsible thinking (if it can be called thinking) that uses the word ‘bad’ without defining it. Martin Narey, formerly CEO of Barnardo’s, took some knocks for advocating early intervention in the lives of certain children where it was pretty obvious that their life-chances in their birth families would be poor. What he dared to question was the mantra, and there are always serious consequences for any who dare to challenge the status quo.

We all like to think of families as cosy, warm, happy and secure bases for children. But bad families are not any of these things. And so we need to raise our game, and begin to formulate what we really mean.

How would it go, I wonder? Families are the normal and natural setting in which most children will grow up and thrive. But there are some families and some times in the life of a community, where families cease to be safe places for a child. In such cases, which will not always be easy to analyse with confidence, if support does not ameliorate the situation for the children, alternatives should be found in the best interests of the child. These alternatives will include private and public foster care, adoption, and institutional care. No alternative is without risks, including institutions. But they should not be stigmatised unfairly.

If we were prepared to listen carefully to children they will tell us some truths about so-called happy families, and some will also tell of their wish to live in institutions. Why is it that their voices are so often unheard?

And how come that only today, while still teaching in Malaysia, I heard from the daughter of someone who lived at Mill Grove (in the 1940s and 1950s) thrilled that she and her mum were coming to be with us in a few weeks’ time, after a couple of decades during which we had lost touch with each other? Why is it that such people talk not of bad homes being better than good institutions but, sometimes, the reverse?

Meanwhile the phrase is still in the course-book of a colleague, and I frankly can’t see any signs of it being debated, let alone modified or replaced. And children worldwide are suffering as a result. Isn’t it past its sell-by date?

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.