Attachment and Resilience in Residential Care: A Historical Perspective

Both ‘attachment’ and ‘resilience’ are twentieth century concepts, whereas residential care provision for children can be traced back to the sixteenth century in England and the fifteenth century in Italy. In this paper I will attempt to answer two questions:

  • How might residential child care workers down the centuries have addressed the concerns that underlie the creation of these concepts?
  • Are there any implications from their experiences on which we can draw to address issues of attachment and resilience today?

The development of residential care

Residential care is essentially a response to a shortage in community resources to care for vulnerable people, usually brought about by population movements which can in turn be caused by things like poverty or natural disasters. Until the nineteenth century when the idea of rescuing children from the evils of the city took hold, nearly all provision had been in urban centres and even the rural establishments of the nineteenth century largely accommodated children from urban areas.

Today the shortage of community resources is also affected by the much smaller families and family networks on which one can draw and the demands on those resources to care for elderly people and those with disabilities who might not have survived in earlier generations.

The eighteenth century saw the development of the idea of residential care as a reception facility for children in need as first Thomas Coram (Wagner, 2004) and others developed programmes for children in need based on the idea of fostering as the long-term option. In the eighteenth century, this was just until the age of seven, when the children could be apprenticed, but by the late nineteenth century and the development of education Barnardo was fostering children until around twelve, after which they were returned to residential care for a sort of ‘finishing school,’ a practice which was severely criticised half a century later by the Curtis Committee (Care of Children Committee, 1946).

Coram stressed that his long-term aim was family re-unification and the mothers who left their children were asked to leave a token by which they could be identified as the mother at a later date. However, by the nineteenth century, the idea of permanent separation from the natural family through emigration had taken hold.

In this context the arguments of Sheriff Watson (Seed, 1973) and Mary Carpenter (1853) that parents should remain responsible for their children were very much a reassertion of an earlier tradition. In the Poor Law establishments children over seven were accommodated separately from their mothers and the vogue for district schools in England meant that, once in Poor Law care, many were in different residential establishments from their parents.

Sheriff Watson and Mary Carpenter were divided on how to put the principle into practice. Sheriff Watson argued for what Davis (1981) was to call ‘supplementary’ care to enable children to remain with their families whereas Mary Carpenter argued for the provision of ‘alternative’ care within another ‘family’ to remedy the deficiencies in the care provided by the child’s natural parents. In the end Mary Carpenter’s supporters carried the day in Scotland. However, this had less overall impact on children because fostering remained the dominant mode of long term care for children in need in Scotland, and Sheriff Watson and Mary Carpenter were united in seeing the family as central to children’s upbringing.

To put it another way, in spite of the differences in approach of the nineteenth century reformers, they all saw children as needing an ‘attachment’ to a family, whether that was a foster family, an apprenticeship, emigration to a family in the colonies or the provision of a ‘family’ within a residential establishment – the purpose of this ‘attachment’ being the moral education of the child. Like Crime – a challenge to us all (Labour Party Study Group, 1964), they saw children’s problems as being a result of failures within families though, in the idea of supporting families, this group was probably closer in approach to Sheriff Watson than to their English predecessors. There was no concept of children having ‘resilience’ other than as part of a family.

In their terms, they argued for creating environments in which children will thrive and for reforming those environments which did not promote this. For example, the cottage home was a reaction to the barrack-like institutions that had grown up in the first part of the century (Gammie, 1936) while Barnardo used the good environment argument against the eugenicists:

If the children of the slums … can be removed from their surroundings early enough, and can be kept sufficiently long under training, heredity counts for little, environment counts for everything (Heywood, 1978, p. 53).

In this context children were very much seen as tabulae rasae, ‘clean slates,’ on which adults made their imprint, or not, as the case might be. Mary Carpenter’s argument that you should not blame the children for the failings of the parents came from the view that what had been ‘written’ on these children was not their fault but the fault of their carers.

Children did make attachments as a result of the stability of the placements rather than as a result of any awareness of the child’s need for them and, half a century ago, that lack of awareness of how such environments were meeting children’s needs led to David Divine being moved from the cottage home where his key attachment was to his housemother (Divine, 1996).

Awareness of relationships

The end of the nineteenth century saw the development and emergence of a number of new ideas about children, some of them disseminated by the New Education Fellowship (Shaw, 2008) which had grown out of the late nineteenth century educational reform movements. These were sufficiently well-known for the planners of the Little Commonwealth to have incorporated them into their plans before they invited Homer Lane to become director (Bazeley, 1928). Among them are the ideas that children can be active in managing their environments (Bazeley, 1928; Makarenko, 1936; Neill, 1962) and that a child’s relationships with their parents are significant for the success of a placement, something noted by the Home Office Children’s Branch in the early twenties (Heywood, 1978)

However, the spread of Freud’s ideas inhibited adoption of the first because Freudians and their successors, the behaviourists and cognitive-behaviourists, tend to see their therapeutic role as involving directing rather than facilitating growth in children’s lives – an argument that was played out across Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War when several children’s republics had been set up (Shaw, 2008).

The second idea lay dormant – though raised by Clare Britton in the accounts of her wartime work with Donald Winnicott (1957) – until Taylor and Alpert (1973) found that successful residential care was associated with parental involvement throughout the placement, a finding corroborated for foster care shortly afterwards (Fanshel and Shinn, 1978). This inconvenient fact was largely ignored by social workers in the UK – and continues to be ignored even after the Children Act 1989 and the Children in Scotland Act 1995 made parental involvement central to child care.

Similarly, the arguments for greater involvement in decisions about their lives by the young people involved in Who cares? (Page and Clark, 1977) were largely ignored as social workers, whether trained in Freudian, behaviourist or the newly-fangled task-centred system (Reid, 1978), carried on in the tradition of Mary Carpenter by separating children from their natural families in order to provide an alternative environment for them.

The relationship needs of children

In fairness, it has to be said that our understanding of children’s relationship needs evolved considerably over the twentieth century. Reading August Aichhorn (1925), or even David Wills (1970), it is clear that, in spite of their best efforts, they both struggled to find the relationships most appropriate for their work with children. Child care workers were seriously driven off-course by the misconceived ideas of John Bowlby (1953), in spite of the clear evidence at the time that he had got it wrong (Skeels, 1942; Lewis, 1954), and took them as evidence that residential care would always be the last choice for children.

There was considerable disbelief at the results discovered by Wiener and Wiener (1990) in their longitudinal study of children in adoption, fostering, residential care and returned home. Residential care was second only to adoption in providing quality outcomes for children. But by then most of the pieces of the jig-saw had fallen into place.


Children do benefit from a secure attachment early in life and that benefit carries on throughout their lives (Ladd, 2005) but it carries on because the adult who provides the secure relationship also provides the mentoring and support that enables them to make positive peer group relationships; it is in those positive peer-group relationships that a child will ultimately succeed or fail in life. Children who have poor peer-group relationships almost invariably have low attainments at school and are more likely to become excluded and to join anti-social or variant groups.

However, it does not matter if a child does not get a secure relationship early in life as long as they get one (Tizard, 1977). Tizard’s study also helps to explain the puzzle for Wiener and Wiener – why children who went home did less well. Tizard found that the adoptive parents devoted far more time to the children that did the natural parents whose children were returned to them. The natural parents expected the children to slot in without them having to make any special effort whereas the adoptive parents assumed they would have to put in the effort. This may also explain why the adopted children in Wiener and Wiener’s study did best of all.

Wiener and Wiener also found that, whatever the placement, more than five moves in fourteen years resulted in less satisfactory outcomes; given that at the time children in the UK could easily have fourteen moves in five years, this certainly went a long way to explaining the poor outcomes of care in England (Department for Education and Skills, 2006). But it also offers an explanation for the success of residential care in the Wiener and Wiener study.

They note that many of the children spoke of having access to a constant adult in their lives but they were also able to develop peer-group relationships in stable environments as they grew up. Half a century earlier, Brosse (1950) had reported that those children who had best survived the horrors of the war were those who had had access to a constant adult while Freud and Dann (1951) had reported that a group of young children rescued from concentration camps had had some constant adults and also each other, to whom they turned rather than to adults for comfort and support.

The Moulin-Vieux children’s republic evolved out of a group of children who had had constant adults for around a decade and who, unlike the majority of children rescued by the Juliens, had not been able to return to their parents. All those who met them noted that they were far more mature than many other children who had survived the war (Shaw, 2008) and it seems reasonable in the light of what we know now to suggest that it was the constancy of both adult and peer group relationships which gave these children the edge over so many of their contemporaries.

Children who only have access to other children do less well than those who have a secure attachment to an adult (Ladd, 2005) because the relationship with the adult enables them to expand their repertory of behaviours. The key point is that attachment is never an end in itself; it is only a means to the end of enabling children to make a range of peer group relationships which will be the ones which will support them throughout their lives – long after the adults who provided the attachments have died.


It has long been known that children vary in the extent to which they demonstrate resilience; after his first master in Glasgow proved unsuitable, William Quarrier, whose father had died, was apprenticed to a master in Paisley and his running to Glasgow in time to celebrate Hogmanay with his mother so tickled the passengers in a carriage that they gave him a lift (Gammie, 1936).

It would appear that resilience is related not so much to anything ‘in’ the child but to the support network on which the child is or has been able to call; people who have had a secure attachment which has led to the development of positive peer group relationships and a positive sense of identity are always likely to be more resilient. Among adults, those with a limited support network are more likely to suffer from mental health problems (Brugha et al., 1993) and those who have higher self-esteem are more likely to get over victimisation more quickly (Dziech and Hawkins, 1998). As adults who have experienced adversity in young adulthood tend to cope better with adversity in old age (Maas and Kuypers, 1974), we may also be able to assume that children who have successfully dealt with adversity may emerge from it more resilient than those who have not had to face adversity.

We know that children can get over extremely adverse situations if they are offered a benign environment for long enough; indeed, if they are offered a benign environment, those who have suffered the most adverse circumstances make the most rapid recovery (Clarke and Clarke, 1976). After five years in adoptive placements, children whose prognoses had been considered too poor for them to be given priority for adoption had lost all the symptoms which had supported the earlier assessments (Kadushin, 1970). Conversely, even if children make improvements after an adverse experience, they fail to maintain those improvements if they remain in or return to a less benign environment. The only long term remedy for the consequences of adverse experiences is a consistently benign environment.

Implications for residential child care

The search for answers to children’s problems normally lies outside rather than inside them. In a sense we have returned to the starting point of the eighteenth and nineteenth century pioneers, that children’s problems are the result of things that are wrong in their environments and the key to changing things for children is to change their environments (Fogelman, 1983).

We all need secure attachments and we can obtain these in a number of different ways. If we don’t obtain them as very young children, the adults in our lives may need to put as much effort into the relationship as parents normally do with young children. The problem for many parents is that their environments are not conducive to putting in the effort that is needed (Tizard, 1977).

It doesn’t seem to matter if we lose our original secure attachment as long as we have the opportunity to develop other secure attachments that can accompany us through our lives. But the benefits of these secure attachments lie less in the quality of the relationship between the child and adult than in the mentoring and support that we obtain to go out and obtain and develop the peer group relationships that are fundamental to our sense of identity and self-worth and to providing us with support when we encounter difficult situations. Children who join variant groups, whether gun crime or substance related, are looking for a sense of identity and self-worth and support in difficult situations. Our ‘resilience’ comes from the support we get from the groups of which we are members as well as from the constant adults in our lives, not from any ‘internal’ characteristic.

Residential care seems to be most successful in two contexts:

  • where it provides a short term ‘supplement’ or ‘alternative’ to family care (Davis, 1981) in which the family is fully involved (Taylor and Alpert, 1973);
  • where it provides a long term ‘substitute’ (Davis, 1981) within which there is relative continuity of adult and peer group support (Wiener and Wiener, 1990).

The first involves residential workers in supporting and strengthening the existing attachments that children have through working closely with the families. In some cases, this may involve allowing the children to experience a positive attachment within residential care which they can transfer to their parents, as happened with Lucy (Robertson and Robertson, 1971), but in most cases it will also be important to support the parents in maintaining the child’s existing peer group relationships.

The second may involve maintaining relationships with the family and existing peer groups or helping to create a new set of attachments and peer-group relationships which will sustain the child in the long term. Today, this is conventionally regarded as the sphere of adoption or long-term fostering but, as Wiener and Wiener found, sometimes best intentions do not come to fruition and residential care ends up providing an alternative to long-term adoption, and sometimes the children’s adverse experiences have been so serious that it is unrealistic to ask an adoptive family to provide the long-term benign environment in which they can recover.

In this context, there needs to be a constant adult in the residential establishment as well as access to a relatively constant peer-group – perhaps in an outside school rather than necessarily in the residential establishment. Children (and adolescents) tend to make their key relationships with the unit head (Nicholson, 1968; King et al., 1971) rather than with junior staff whose turnover is too rapid for children to be able sustain long-term relationships. However, today there are very few residential establishments dedicated to long-term care rather than short-term problem-solving and it is rare for heads to remain in post for the twenty years that was common half a century ago, when it was not uncommon for children in long-stay care ultimately to be ‘adopted’ by the head and matron if they had no family to return to.

From a historical perspective, it would appear that most of our current residential care facilities would be better suited to supporting families in making or mending attachments and in creating or sustaining the networks of peer group and constant adult support which a child needs to face adversity with resilience rather than in providing a long-term benign environment.


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