Readers of this article will have become accustomed over the decades to hearing and reading of the doubts about the benefits of residential care for children. Whilst there can never be any doubt that residential child care services have failed some young people, there remains a significant proportion whose lives have improved because of a residential intervention.
With this in mind it was a pleasure to be able to administer an event organised by the Residential Forum which brought together representatives from the voluntary, private and statutory sectors and included government officials practitioners, managers, owners, providers, policy and academics from throughout the United Kingdom over a 24-hour period to discuss the theme Modernising Residential Care for Children and Young People. Unfortunately our best efforts to involve service users proved unsuccessful.
We set ourselves the task of setting a vision for children’s residential care in the United Kingdom in the 21st century and sought to identify the key elements of a framework to embody and deliver the vision.
We know that about 9,000 children looked after by local authorities are in residential placements on any one day and that up to 40% of young people positively choose residential care in preference to other alternatives.
It will surprise no one that our vision did not contain any radically new ideas but brought together good philosophies that as a whole could provide a service that we could all to be proud of.
The vision, as we saw it, was that:
- the service should be child-centred, geared to putting children’s interests first and helping them to overcome their difficulties;
- residential child care should promote and extend children’s human and civil rights and help them grow, develop and realise their potential;
- children should be enabled and encouraged to participate in the range of decisions affecting them, including the way their units are run and priorities for the use of resources;
- residential care should be a service children and young people receive as a positive choice, providing a valued, stable, nurturing and therapeutic form of care;
- instead of concentrating solely on the position of children in the public care, the focus should be on policy and practice implications concerning the scale and diversity of the whole residential sector;
- residential care should be seen as an integral part of the whole spectrum of services for children and families, offering specialised and expert provision, and closely linked to fostering, adoption, family support and services for children in need and children at risk;
- child protection strategies should seek to ensure that abuse of all kinds is prevented, and where it arises, it is subject to early identification and action;
- high quality staff should be enabled to develop skills and promote innovation.
Implementing the vision
How, then, do you bring the vision about in order to modernise children’s residential services?
- Quality residential care needs to be adequately resourced, both financially in terms of staffing levels, and in the provision of expert support from other services, particularly child and adolescent mental health services.
- Regulation of residential care and its workforce should be rigorous but flexible, to encourage innovation and creativity, and to enable the service to be wrapped around the child, not making the child’s needs subordinate to the service.
- Investment should be made in research and development programmes to build the knowledge base for good practice in residential child care.
- Investment is required in the development of a skilled, knowledgeable, sensitive and creative workforce able to express and encourage high aspirations for all children in terms of their potential.
- There is a pressing need to develop a cadre of leaders in residential child care, able to communicate the vision to their staff, young people, councillors and trustees, and the public.
The Residential Forum will examine the issue of leadership at a future workshop, for, if we do not find away of letting skilled people communicate this vision, the chances of modernising residential care for children and young people will be limited.
Similarly the chances of modernising will be hugely restricted if we do not reintroduce justified risk into care policies and practice. I believe this applies to all forms of care for children whether in their own home or away from it.
Life skills cannot be developed without sensitive and creative work that brings out the potential in young people.
The fear factor and blame culture that our care workers and teachers feel is clearly inhibiting good quality practice. Providers and regulators are often reluctant to support risk for fear of opprobrium.
An integrated system
We, at long last, seem to be moving towards a system of ‘whole package’ care which will not be compartmentalised into fragments. The package must take fully into account the move into adulthood for it is surely in this area that the system has encouraged failure. We have an absolute responsibility to ensure that the transfer of life stages for a young person is not left to be taken in isolation.
Modernising residential care for children and young people will not be easy without the will of all those involved but so much could be undertaken with some positive attitudinal change and I hope that the Residential Forum will be able to do its bit to support those responsible for developing the framework for the twenty-first century.
Richard Clough OBE is Secretary of the Residential Forum and former Chief Executive of the Social Care Association.