Can We Talk Sense about Fostering?

(SIRCC) Scottish Institute Of Residential Child Care

I’d like to be pro-fostering and pro-residential, and in fact I am. I think it’s good for children and young people to potentially have both these options if they need to be looked after and accommodated. I’m glad that we are developing different kinds of fostering and the way that some residential units have been developing their services.

Now I’m afraid, like most people, I don’t have a good system or method I can recommend which can tell us whether a foster care place will best meet a particular child’s needs or whether a residential place might be better. (And that is precisely the kind of research we should be undertaking)

Anyway, back to my theme: I want to be both pro-fostering and pro-residential care without being ‘anti’ either of them. It is in fact very easy to be pro-foster care; it is the long-established preference and strongly preferred by most social workers and their managers.

Generally speaking a foster placement is much cheaper than a residential one and that is enough for many managers struggling to keep to budget at a time when children services are seriously under-resourced.

(SIRCC) Scottish Institute Of Residential Child Care

However, it is still difficult to be unambiguously pro-residential care. Despite many official reports from respected sources calling for residential to be seen as a positive choice, we continue to see residential being caricatured and mis-called whenever politicians or social work professionals want to promote fostering.

And that is the specific point I want to tackle – it should be possible to value and promote fostering without condemning residential care and it would be a lot more honest and true to the experiences of children if politicians and social workers would make every effort to stop doing so.

Official Views

There are two places recently where residential care has been attacked in the course of an attempt to promote fostering. Changing Lives, the recent government-commissioned review of social work in Scotland, contains much that is positive about the future of social work generally. Sadly, the report contains just two sentences directly addressing residential child care – despite substantial submissions on that subject from SIRCC and senior child care figures in the statutory and voluntary sector.

One of the two sentences is positive in the sense that it recognises that residential care of children is a complex and demanding job requiring highly-skilled ‘practitioners’ – not social workers note. However the next sentence makes the sweeping – and of course unsubstantiated – assertion that although residential care might be suitable for a ‘few children’, many more are currently there ‘because of a shortage of foster-placements’. At best this is wishful thinking, at worst it is just prejudiced nonsense.

The second occasion when residential was rubbished in the course of promoting fostering was when the Director of Social Work in Glasgow chose to advertise for more foster carers by claiming that children in residential needed to be fostered because they experienced poor outcomes.

Be Wary

I just want to make a few points that should make anyone wary about such a one-sided approach and urge us all not to seek to advance either service at the expense of the other.

First of all, we could recognise that lots and lots of foster placements break down, with all the hurt and loss that such an experience entails, for the foster parents as well as the children. Unfortunately in the past (?) social workers and their managers seemed to accept this as inevitable but – following the House of Commons committee report in 1998 which talked about young people being ‘passed around like unwanted parcels’ – the Government in England has now demanded that authorities reduce their level of placement instability. I only wish local authorities in Scotland had similar guidance from the Scottish Executive.

Secondly, we would do well to remember that ever since the formation of Who Cares? and other advocacy groups they have given the message that many young people prefer residential over foster care. Not all them, of course, but surely in this era when we are required by law to consult children and take their views into account, and when they give us such clear messages, any responsible authority should make sure it has some of its own residential provision. Sadly, in Wales, no doubt partly in response to the Waterhouse Inquiry, many local authorities have decided to shut down all or nearly all of their residential provision and leave all that remains to the independent sector.

The Dangers of Ideology in Australia

The dangers of pursuing fostering, at the expense of residential, for ideological and costs reasons is illustrated by recent developments in Australia. In Queensland State residential care for children has been reduced to an extremely low level – perhaps 1%. (Why Australia chose to go down that road would be another interesting issue to explore. In brief, residential care got associated with the shameful treatment of aboriginal children, although of course many aboriginal children were also placed in white foster homes in a racist attempt to extinguish their culture.)

However, Queensland has now had a very major sexual abuse scandal relating to foster care. The result has been a system crisis and the transfer of child protection social workers into a separate department – amongst other developments that are causing great concern to a shaken social work profession.

Following a major inquiry report containing over a hundred recommendations  the State government is now rapidly expanding its residential care so that there will be at least some kind of option. Needless to say, this is not happening in the most planned and purposeful fashion!

There are many other points that could be made about the way that services have developed in Australia. Others, such as Frank Ainsworth, have pointed out that once you close down most of your residential provision you tend to see more teenagers appearing in either homeless accommodation or juvenile justice detention.

The Dangers of Ideology in the UK

Nearer to home it is perhaps worth speculating about the fact that Secure Training Centres have appeared in England – but not in Scotland – and this may have something to do with the fact that all CHEs were closed down in England in the 1970s and 1980s. Scotland has retained a number of residential schools, and they currently supply about half of the available places for looked after children.

One local authority has recently taken the step of expanding its residential provision, and publicising it under the slogan Bradford’s Bold Plan! This basically describes their policy of opening up five new residential units, and the reasons why they have done so are instructive.

In the late 1990s Bradford had reduced its residential provision to one unit, in the belief that they would be able to foster nearly all their children and could rely on the occasional placement with the private sector if they needed it. Alas, this was not how it worked out. What happened was that they had larger numbers of children whom they couldn’t sustain in foster care and they ended up spending a great deal of money for private residential places, often many miles from the area.

So it was that, following a Best Value review, they decided that they needed more of their own provision, and hence the five new homes.


In conclusion, I repeat : I come to praise foster care, not to bury it! Compassionate and resilient foster carers, properly supported and with carefully matched placements are a valuable resource for some children, and are rightly sought by all social service departments. However, in seeking to recruit them and enhance this service, we should not raise the ‘bogey’ of residential care. We need to avoid the old clichés!

It has been recognised that child care from Victorian times to the Second World War was characterised in large part by a judgemental ‘rescue philosophy’ – rescuing children from the bad influence of their parents and communities. We have rightly reversed that emphasis and we must make sure there is no room for a new ‘rescue’ mentality in which social work managers or politicians promote a message which is based on the idea that they need to rescue children from residential care to give them the boon of a ‘normal home life’ with a foster family.

Life is not that simple. Back in 1997 Bill Utting said the time had come to expand residential care. Bradford shows the way ahead, Wales in going backwards in the direction formerly taken by Queensland. The evidence would suggest that the latter is not a child-centred direction.

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