There are numerous steps which providers of residential care need to take before closing down a children’s home. It is a complex business, where actions relating to property, utilities, the Regulator, commissioners of services, local authority children’s services departments and other organisations such as PCTs are required.The aim of this article is not to give a step by step guide (as this would require a fairly lengthy and highly detailed booklet) but rather to concentrate on the less technical and more human issues which must be encountered when closing a children’s home.
Children’s homes are what? – institutions, communities, businesses? It is my aim to look at this from the perspective of the people who work and more importantly live in these places. It is in my view essential to consult with the people and their representatives before making any decision affecting their lives. A decision to close a children’s home therefore should only be made following proper consultation accompanied by clear information about the implications should the proposed closure become a reality.
By consulting properly, I mean take into account the views, wishes and feelings of the young people living at the home. The implications of closure or even a proposal to close can have a major effect on the welfare of the children and young people. Many will have faced rejection and still feel unwanted, marginalised, disempowered and uninvolved in decisions about their lives. Proposed closure can have a very unsettling effect on young people. Try to imagine yourself, if as a child, you were told that you may have to move (but not told where or when).
Of course, young people will often require help in responding to the consultation process and independent support and advocacy will be of enormous benefit in assisting the young person make sense of the consultation process and get their views to the right person and on time. Young people have a right to participate in the formulation and review of their care plans (Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010). In addition, children should have their views wishes and feelings taken into consideration before any decision is made about them (Children Act 1989).
In discussing these matters it is easy to generalise and treat children in care and more specifically, those living in children’s homes as a homogenous group. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, for those young people who find that they are being looked after well, protected from harm, supported and encouraged to do well in education, learn about themselves and make positive relationships with those around them, the closure of their home could be disastrous. It could lead to anxiety, feelings of loss and dissociation and often a backward step in the recovery that they had been making from the effects of issues encountered before coming into care.
If a young person or a group of young people during consultation, oppose a closure and give valid reasons, the provider should take due care to listen to these views. But what if the provider is proposing the closure for financial reasons and has already, as part of their business plan, determined the necessity of the closure? It would seem futile in such cases to oppose the proposed closure, wouldn’t it? The power of a local authority or private company against a young person seems overwhelming. However, the young person could with skilful advocacy garner the support of members of the local authority whose care they are in, seek publicity and media attention to their plight and in extreme cases seek a Judicial Review.
For staff too, the process of proper consultation and information sharing is critical. Staff teams which are successful in promoting and safeguarding the welfare of our most disadvantaged citizens care for young people with skill, energy and an overwhelming desire to make a positive difference. They will often build significant relationships with each other as well as with the young people. This is about team playing and group care. Therefore, they may experience and feel the prospect of closure over months as a slow and painful demise. Their feelings of self-worth may well be affected and their work unvalued by their employer. The anxiety about continued employment will affect their ability to undertake their work without distraction. It will become increasingly difficult to come into work each day with a smile on their face, ready to meet the challenges which present on a daily basis.
The key therefore is good and clear communication, information-sharing and real consultation which does take account of the real concerns of the people affected. Once undertaken properly, consultation should provide a realistic result for all concerned, not just the one which was desired by the provider in the first place. In such terms young people can take control of their lives and where possible reverse unfair, oppressive and uncaring organisations.
Steve Walker is a qualified social worker, ex-residential worker, former manager of residential services and currently a Director of ICSE, and an Independent Reviewing Officer.