What’s the use of residential care for children?

Some recent research findings about admissions to residential care

This article is based on a presentation made at this year’s national SIRCC conference held in Aviemore on 5-6 June.

Recently myself and a colleague have completed two separate but complementary pieces of research into the pattern of admissions to local authority residential units in Scotland. One was a national survey* based on a sample of local authorities and the other was a piece commissioned by a particular local authority which was reviewing its residential provision.

The national survey report, which was funded by the Scottish Executive, is available in full from the SIRCC website (www.sircc.strath.ac.uk, then follow the publications link). The national research collected data an all admissions to a number of homes in a 6-month period. This included a total of 22 children’s homes in six local authorities with about 150 places between them, which constitutes about one-fifth of the number of the places provided by the children’s homes sector in Scotland.

The findings from both pieces of research mirrored each other very closely. In this column I want to comment on some of the findings from the national research but I will also draw on the local research which had allowed for a more in-depth exploration of some of the trends.

In general terms the findings show that residential care is still heavily in demand and that it is being used for a wide variety of purposes. However, it is also clear that there continues to be a great deal of unplanned or emergency placement and that some homes are being used to cater for all kinds of admissions, both very short and long-term, and this raises questions about the demands placed on staff to do a proper job and about the experience of  the children – especially those in longer-term care having to share their homes with a succession of children who are placed for very short periods of time.

The research was undertaken to try to provide more detailed data than are available from the annual ‘looked after children’ statistics which are published every autumn, for example, to confirm whether more younger children were being admitted to residential care. I also wanted to get harder evidence to back up the anecdotal evidence that SIRCC staff were reporting as they carried out training with staff teams across the country. In particular I wanted to find out to what extent sibling groups were being split up and to what extent parental drug misuse seemed to be a factor in admissions.

Length of placement

While the research mainly collected information about admissions, I was also able to collect some data about discharges thus enabling me to gather data on length of stay and other things. Out of a total of 88 discharges for which I had information, an amazing total of 17 children were placed for a day or night or less! Many of these would be the young children who were then moved on quickly to a foster placement or perhaps back home.

The data from the local research conducted by my colleague showed a similar pattern with a number of very short-term admissions, especially for younger children. His evidence also showed that many of these ‘emergency admissions’ were of children well-known to the Social Work Department and this conforms what has been anecdotally known for a long-while. The national research showed that over half of all the admissions were unplanned or emergency admissions and that 80% of these were from the child’s own home.

In many places we seem to have allowed a position to develop where social workers are reluctant to make planned use of residential (or even foster placements), even when families are in severe difficulty and the social worker may suspect that an admission to care will become a necessity. However, whether because of a shortage of places or perhaps the old idea that an admission to care represents some kind of failure, the end result is that admissions do take place but on an unplanned basis. Hence this volume of crisis admissions and residential placements frequently being used in an unplanned way.

The national research also provided data on the contribution that foster placement breakdowns were making to residential use, finding that 18% of all admissions were from foster care, which of course is still the preferred placement for most children.

Age at admission

Another factor that I wanted to explore was the question of the increasing number of young children being admitted to care generally – which was reported in the Scottish Executive figures for the past year or so – and to see whether this trend was also present in relation to residential admissions.

The national research found that the average age at admission was 12.5 years, and that 24% of all admissions were for children under 12, with 10% under-10s. As noted above, it is possible that many of these younger admissions were for very short periods. However, the experience of the SIRCC placement information service is that we do get a steady trickle of calls for social workers looking for residential placements for younger children who have had several foster placements break down. There was something of a gender split apparent in these figures with twice as many boys in the age bracket 5-11 years being admitted to a residential unit in the survey period.

Parental drug misuse

The figures for the number of admissions where parental drug misuse was the principal reason for admission were surprising. The national survey showed that this was a factor in the admission of 12% of the children. In the follow-up interviews with unit managers and external managers they were uniformly surprised by this (low) level and most of the external managers were of the opinion that the ‘real’ figure was definitely higher.

It may be that there was some under-reporting of this factor for a number of reasons. It was suggested to us that sometimes drugs were suspected to be a major issue but the social worker/residential manager could not be certain and another explanation was that in some local authority documents ‘alcohol and drugs’ were categorised together.

Sibling groups

I discovered that it is very complicated to collect data on admissions of siblings through a questionnaire! The range of options associated with an apparently simple question such as “Were siblings admitted at the same time?” was much more complicated than I had allowed for. For example, some children had siblings who had been admitted previously and others had some siblings admitted to the same unit with others placed elsewhere and so on.

Nevertheless, there was one main finding, namely that, out of the 215 admissions for which I had data, 58 children had at least one other sibling admitted at the same time, and of these 52% were all admitted to the same unit. Thus just under half of sibling groups were being split up on admission to residential care.

This is a disturbing finding – though not a surprise to those involved in the sector. It seems that, despite statutory guidance requiring siblings to be placed together, local authorities do not have the places in either foster or residential care which will allow sibling groups to be kept together. There might be a very few occasions when it is not in the interests of children to be kept together but my evidence showed that in the vast majority of cases it was down to the fact that there are not enough places. Given the trauma associated with family break-up and admission to residential care, it is a shocking indictment of current practice in many places that siblings are separated on admission.

The fact that it can be different was candidly acknowledged in relation to one of the local authorities which participated in my study. In this authority they had managed to keep all their sibling groups together and the external manager explained to me that this had been a pattern over a number of years because “We have had a principal officer(external manager) who is very keen on this”.

The research report contains a lot more data that may hopefully be of interest and of use to those involved in planning services and managing placements. I’m afraid it reveals that we have many issues to tackle if we are to improve the use to which residential care is put. In my view the research shows that residential care is part of a system which is often under strain, and that when we consider the ‘poor outcomes’ of both residential and foster care, we have to consider what has happened in terms of social work involvement prior to children being admitted to care and the manner in which placement occurs.

*Milligan, I., Hunter, L. & Kendrick, A. (2006) Current trends in the use of residential child care in Scotland. Glasgow: University of Strathclyde/SIRCC.

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