Editorial : A Prejudice that Needs to be Shifted

For the last forty years – or maybe more – there has been a substantial number of field social workers who have been implacably opposed to residential child care. Many of them have moved into managerial or lecturing jobs, and they have taken their opinions with them, influencing the policies of the agencies they work in and the tone of the training of the next generations of social workers.

This is not just a matter of a balanced and rational debate about the merits and demerits of different types of service. There is a real depth of feeling. For a small number the closure of residential services has been a matter of campaigning, and a few authorities have actually disposed of all their children’s homes. There is no other service for children and young people which has attracted such opprobrium and negativity. It is a matter of gut reaction as much as any intellectual analysis.

It has to be acknowledged that antipathy for residential child care is not universal among field social workers. There is a whole spectrum of views. Some tolerate it as a necessary evil, to be used when there are insufficient foster placements. Some are neutral, seeing it as one of a range of options. Some positively value residential child care, and are happy to seek placements when they feel it is right for the children and young people for whom they are responsible.

Questions and Answers

But the antipathy felt by a sizeable proportion of the workforce is still there after forty years. It has had an impact on services, but residential child care services are still there, still needed. So, the questions are: why the antipathy? what impact has it had? what should be done about this unresolved issue, which has been a weeping sore for so long?

If there were easy answers to these questions, they would have been resolved long ago. It would be presumptuous to suggest that they can be resolved in a short Editorial. What we can do here is to highlight the issue and suggest lines of thought in the hope that others will take up the debate.


First, it has to be acknowledged that there have been scandals in residential services, in which children have been abused and when practice has been institutionalised. There have, of course, been examples of abuse in foster care, or of appalling field social work too. The fact that there are examples does not mean that the services are necessarily bad per se. It means that there are instances where practice, management, support or training should have been better. The lesson should be that standards need to improve, rather than cleansing the system by disposing of a whole category of provision.

There are those who would argue that residential services are more prone to bad practice than other services, because of their nature. Children and young people are in the care of residential staff 24 hours a day, and there is plenty of opportunity for covert abuse. The same is, of course, true of any setting in which children are brought up. We are unaware of any evidence to suggest that residential care is more prone to failure than foster care in this respect. If anything, the number of workers in residential care could act as a check on abuse, whereas foster carers have more unmonitored access to children. Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s inquiry in North Wales found abuse in both foster care and residential care, and the widespread attachment of stigma only to the latter appears to be irrational.

Institutions and Individuals

Secondly, residential care is criticised for being institutional, denying the individuality of the children and young people and treating them uniformly and insensitively, without paying attention to their personal wishes and needs. Clearly, any formal social grouping has to establish ground rules for its participants, and in residential child care, if they become set, they can dominate the lives of the children in ways which are counterproductive in meeting their needs.

On the other hand, informal groupings have their rules too. If a child is to settle into a foster home, it is likely that the child will need to adapt more to the way that the household works than that the household will change its fundamental modus vivendi to suit the child. There will of course be give and take, but the child will have to adapt more. Indeed, for some children, it is the continual adaptation to new foster placements which institutionalises them, developing their skills in settling quickly while making only superficial relationships.

There are plenty of examples where residential child care provides greater space – both physically and emotionally – for children to create the way of life which they choose, away from what they perceive as the stifling demands of the family setting. In this respect, residential care can respond more sensitively to the needs of individuals than families. It is a question of matching the child and his/her needs to the appropriate placement, rather than the common approach of priority always being given to foster care.

Rights and Roles

Thirdly, there has been a growing emphasis on children’s rights over recent decades, and increasing importance has been attached to involving children and young people in planning their futures, giving them choice and treating them as individuals. This has been reflected in the increasingly complex paperwork to be completed for reviews and in care planning.

The emphasis on children as individuals is no bad thing, but they are also members of their families, pupils at schools and members of peer groups. They are not just individuals in isolation, but also social beings, in part defined by their relationships. While the trend in casework has been to focus on the individual, a large element of residential child care has traditionally been to see them as members of their residential communities.

Indeed, in the past it was seen as one of the strengths of residential care that children learnt how to socialise and be members of the wider community by having to fit in with others, to make compromises, to listen to others and adapt. The group was seen as being a therapeutic force for good in working with children with behavioural and emotional problems, and the skill of the workers was in creating a positive and constructive group atmosphere in which children could genuinely help each other.

Unfortunately, recent trends have undermined this strength. Some homes are now so small and the turnover of residents can be so speedy that it can be hard to develop any continuity of group feeling among the children. It then falls to the staff to build relationships with individual children, which fits happily with the fieldwork model, but makes no use of the real strengths of residential care. The home risks becoming a place where a number of individual children happen to be living in the same building for a time together, but without any sense of cohesion or group loyalty.

The turnover of resident children is another spin-off of field social work thinking. In field work, the primary aim is to address clients’ problems, find solutions and then close cases. In working with children residentially the primary aim is to deal with the whole child, not just the problems, and to address the child’s problems at some point, possibly of the child’s choosing, but in the meantime helping the child develop – and enjoy life – in all sorts of ways. The two philosophies are both valid, but different, and in so far as the field work philosophy has been applied to residential care, it has sometimes led to discharges and turnover when stability of placement would have been preferable.

Qualifying Training and the Creation of Assumptions

This argument may have moved some distance from its starting point, but it may have helped to identify the different bases of the two types of work. Unhappily, over a thirty-year period, specialist training for residential child care workers was abandoned, and much of the learning was lost. Residential child care workers have been trained on social work qualifying courses which have often been fundamentally hostile to their work, and local authority departments have often been managed by professionals promoted from field social work backgrounds with similar attitudes.

It is time that the hostile attitudes were dropped. Residential child care need not be institutional. For some children it is the setting of choice, and some need to enjoy stable periods in residential care. Homes are here to stay, and any field social worker with residual hostile feelings needs to re-examine the grounds for their views and be prepared to change them.

That is not to say that everything is now rosy in the residential garden. There are many improvements to be made, not least re-learning some of the lessons abandoned with the loss of specialist training back in the 1970s.

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