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74 MARCH 2005
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residential care

Going out – III

Peter Righton

(View Part I and Part II)

“Taken from want and penury, children are placed at once in the midst of abundance. Here they are kept for years, and then turned out into the world to make their way in it as best they can, without the possibility of having learned a single practical lesson to enable them to struggle against hardship and privation.”

The language of that extract, I think, betrays it as not belonging to our century, although the sentiments it expresses are, I regret to say, certainly in Britain, far too apt. This is, in fact, Alexander Thompson on Scottish Industrial Schools in 1847. And here we are in the 1980s still having to say the same thing about our children leaving care.

I want to make a link right at the outset with the somewhat long-winded expose I gave in a previous paper on the child care worker. I want to connect with the group care worker’s task of letting go (which was the third of the major category of tasks which we thought to be important for the child care worker). Letting go had two major elements: the linking of children with, and the encouragement of them in independent exploration of networks in the community that are significant for each individual child. And community, remember, does not only mean the local neighbourhood, parents, social workers outside the establishment and other official bodies, but all those elements in the child's life outside the establishment (and most of them will be outside) which are of crucial importance to that child emotionally. This can involve people at a considerable distance from the place, certainly an issue in South Africa where so many establishments are set in rural areas, but also less tangible aspects of human life, like, for example, reverence for pop stars, acting out and working through what has been seen on television – all of these are part of a child's significant community, and links need to be made between them just as for children living with their own families.

For example, consider the freedom that most children will carve out for themselves (I know I did) when even with quite restrictive families (and mine was, very). Play with other children may be on the doorstep of one’s house, may be further a field, may be with instructions ringing in ones ears to be back by six-thirty sharp, but we all know that if parents had been able to witness some of this play they would have been so horrified as to be dumbstruck for several hours! Lets be honest about that.

Friendships, suitable according to adult ideas, and unsuitable – and how much more fun the unsuitable ones were. Gangs, with secret rituals, carefully concealed from adults, especially from parents, and in which one learned just as much as at home, how to cope with hierarchies, how to handle the boss people, how to be the boss, how in fact to prepare for this crude but sometimes very realistic imitation of the adult world. Experimenting with danger – or at least things which adults see as danger – climbing trees, riding bicycles with one wheel, going down pits and caverns of all kinds, (this is all away from adult gaze), dares of one kind or another, going shopping – or shoplifting, and seeing whether I can get away with it. Leisure interests of all kinds, newts, tadpoles and frogs, fast motor bikes when one is a little older – or younger, pop music (the louder the better), discos – and here we are moving out into the world of other kinds of relationships, boyfriends and girlfriends ... These are kinds of worlds children carve out for themselves, living with their own families.

Allowing exploration
We ought to allow children to do the same in residential places too, but do we? Compare this with the fussy protectiveness in which residential places enshrine and enshroud their children. You see, these are all delightful experiences (fraught with danger it may be, but we don’t grow up without risk) which children need to have as a right even if it is not granted to them by their parents because they will take it anyway. We need to examine for ourselves how much we constrict our children from having these experiences – and if we do, it needs to be for a jolly good reason (and we may do for good reasons and there are sometimes good reasons when we are working with damaged children) because without those experiences children are badly disadvantaged after leaving care in coping with the world for which all of these experiences are an active, if not a conscious, preparation.

So this linking of a child with, and encouraging exploration of his significant community has somewhat more to it, I hope I have convinced you, than is commonly mentioned in the textbooks. It penetrates right to the vital formative experiences of a child. We have no right to deny that, without good reason, to a child. But nonetheless the pressure on us to exercise such a denial is very strong because of such things as public expectations, employer expectations, and expectations that die very hard from previous centuries, expectations of actual children in care.

Letting go
So that is the first element of letting go. Do we let our children go? Notice that I am not yet talking about leaving the establishment; I am talking about the kind of letting go without which the final letting go is going to be much more difficult.

And so we come to the second element: helping a child to acquire and practise the knowledge, the skills, the independence, the coping capacity for surviving, mastery and enjoyment of whatever he finds in the world outside. And if any of us here feels inclined to dispute the view that our children are entitled as far as they can in this vale of tears to enjoy what they find outside, I would feel ashamed of them. This element relates very closely to Brian Gannon's metaphor that to give a child a fish is to feed him for a day: to teach him how to fish is to feed him for life.

Notice that these two elements are closely related: the first is clearly highly relevant to the second. And this implies, surprise, surprise, that preparation for departure should begin not during the week before departure but before the first day of admission! And I want to say a little about five things related to this:

1. Child Care Workers must become good at flexible planning
We have already said that this needs to be done before the first day of admission and not during the week a child leaves. If someone should ciy that very early on we don’t have any information on which to base any kind of plan, I would have some sympathy but not total sympathy with him. I know that in Britain, and I’m sure its also true in South Africa, often the child care worker has very little say over who is admitted. Often children come with very scant information – and there are even now places where child care workers are not thought fit to be entrusted with information – I trust that isn’t the case south of the equator! So, yes, I do have sympathy with those who have to work with little information, but remember that even in the building of a house one starts with very sketchy plans and these become more detailed and elaborate as we get nearer to the actual building – and that is precisely what I mean by flexible planning. We can work from initial information, and there is nothing more stupid than devising a plan for a child with elaborate structures at the beginning from which it is impossible to depart. It is much more sensible to begin with a very sketchy outline, fill it in as more information comes in and as the child and staff get to know each other, and then modify it with the child knowing all the time what the modifications are. So we need to have a vision of the child's preferred future, though one might keep in mind several alternative preferred futures since planning should allow for a number of possible outcomes. Vital in this planning is not to be trapped in automatic assumptions based on information which may well be out of date next month. We in Britain are saddled with observation and assessment centres – and if you don’t have them in South Africa, please don’t start them: they are quite unnecessary. So often the information they gather is based on artificial behaviour; their report is usually in the form of fairly substantive labels which follow the child from place to place; and the information is in fact not used when the child goes to the next place anyway. The point I am making is the importance of operating on up-to-date information which actually represents the child.

And let us also not make prior assumptions about whether a child will return home or not, will follow a particular career or not, whether a child has certain vocational capacities or not – or even about a child's clearly expressed preferences. Of course you will want to take those seriously, but of course they will alter. So planning needs to be continuous and constantly changing. And it is vital, I repeat, that the child participates in those plans, knows what is going on, contributes his views, and is told in reasoned terms why those views may or may not prevail.

2. Each member of a residential establishment needs to be good at working as a team member with his colleagues.
It should be fairly obvious that no children's home can fulfil its functions of letting go – or of strengthening and nurturing – unless there is a real degree of confidence in each other amongst all the members who work in it. That doesn’t mean consensus or agreement, but at least it means an agreement to follow a particular plan of action in a loyal way.

3. Teamwork skill needs to be expanded across the boundaries of the place to operate with others outside it – not only fellow professionals in the social work or educational fields but also with those people significantly concerned with the child's community.
This area becomes particularly important when we are considering a child's departure. Remember that here we are dealing with not only the sort of people who would come to a case conference, important as they may be, but all of the important (and, to the child care worker, seemingly unimportant) elements of the child's significant community. The children's home, and the individual staff members, need to develop their teamwork with all of these elements, from the local shops to the wider network of extended family and friends. It means, in fact, breaching the geographical boundaries of the residential establishment.

4. The child care worker needs to be concerned about and play with children a significant part in developing an appropriate structure or system to provide this service, to enable the first three things to happen.
What kind of system are we going to have – and in particular, is our home going to be an open system or a closed one? I will not take you through the thorns and barbed wire of systems theory, but I want to make it very clear what I mean. By an open system I refer to an organisation which is open to the influence of the outside world in a genuine and undefended way. There are complications, because you might be so open, but the outside world may be very defensive towards you. By a closed system, I mean the opposite to that: I mean a system which devotes a lot of its energy (and here I mean people devoting their energies) to keeping the world out.

Now it may seem absolutely obvious that we need an open system, and I would agree with you, but I want to share with you my view that the forces on child care workers to turn their places into closed systems are very great. It stems from all sorts of quarters: the general devaluation of residential work, rejection by the local neighbourhood, the lack of self-confidence staff often feel in each other. And this kind of thing often affects families too; a family can seal themselves off from the outside world too. What I am saying is that for a residential home to do this is professionally inept and probably emotional suicide both for children and for staff. Which is not to belittle the difficulty of being an open system. Some residential places are ahnost conspiracies to keep the outside world out and, given the kind of practices that sometimes happen, I am not surprised at that.

I lived in a unit once that used to be inspected once a month – and inspected is the word. There would sometimes be visits of an informal kind, with an advance telephone call about ten minutes before, and sometimes of a more regal kind, when ladies with large hats would sweep through the corridors and examine the lavatories and bathrooms, and the heads of the children for nits, and of course we knew what to do when the inspection was coming: we would tidy the ruddy place up! What the ladies in large hats saw bore no resemblance to what happened when they had gone – and this is often true of visitors to establishments, and in a mild way true of visits to our our families. We like to show people what we think is the best side of ourselves, and what a tangle we get ourselves into. In residential places this spells disaster, because you get two different kinds of rules operating: those for visitors and those for when they've all gone, and before you know where you are you are operating a closed and not an open system, and the children are victims of this, not its beneficiaries, because it operates against their need to go out and explore. Not only explore their local communities, but also to seek some kind of integration between what they experience within the walls and what they experience without them. But we must be careful: we can be very open on the surface, but very closed in reality, because of our psychological need to protect our territory against threat. And this has a lot to do with supported staff.

Staff whose work is valued have much less pressure to feel defensive against the outside world than staff whose work is undervalued, as is the case with most child care workers. So we need to work to make our boundaries both psychologically and geographically permeable. Permeability implies two-way traffic.

Without this permeability and openness, no matter how good we have been in our treatment programmes, eventual departure “going out “is not helped. We have to help the child, while he is with us, to develop a range of contacts and a range of skills which he has opportunity to practise. Some places in Britain have a special unit, a sort of half-way house, which allows more independence, but even this is artificial, making for not one but two cut-off points between home and the outside world. But in most families we have a more gradual, almost unconscious freeing up, a continuity of experience for the youngster, and this is difficult to achieve.

Now who is to take the responsibility for all this? Obviously the Head of the home has certain ineradicable responsibilities, but increasingly in Britain – and I hear the beginnings of it here in South Africa – this is seen as the work of the child care worker, and, more important, the work of one single child care worker who is charged with seeing to this growth for one single child. No matter how good the team, teams can lose sight of individuals. The person given this responsibility should be one who is in intimate relationship to that child, making use of the affectional bonds which have been built up, and this is more usually the child care worker. A name given to this special task relationship is “key worker”.

5. What policy is any residential place going to work out to ensure that responsibility for the above four needs is actually undertaken and the work actually done?
Many residential places of care have an age, say 18, at which children must leave. How vitally important it is, though, for a youngster who has left to be able to keep contact with and visit those with whom he has lived. Compare a child leaving a family who expects, without even any discussion about it, to be able to return to his home and use it as a base for refreshment, recuperation, talking to mum and dad, being soothed and being readied to go out again. He is automatically welcomed, and residential places should be able to do that as well.

There are so many things to be considered. Budgeting, work, transport, cooking, friendships – the experience of developing relationships and being able to cope with them long before actually leaving. And the last problem to be faced is the child's ambivalence about leaving: he longs to go but hates leaving when he must – and yet so often we add to this ambivalence the fact that the child is inexperienced, incapacitated and incompetent, and this is often because the children's home approaches its own task of letting go inadequately, at best sporadically, and too often too late.

And so it comes about that all too many kids who leave care could echo the bitter comment made by a girl of 18 when asked how things were going: “At first I used to resent deeply the fact that people were making plans behind my back without consulting me; but what really made me feel bitter and angry at the end was to realise that nobody, really, had any plans at all.”|

This feature: Righton, P. (1983) Going out. In The Children's Home, a place in which to grow, a place from which to go. Cape Town: National Association of Child Care Workers. pp 64-69.

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