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40 MAY 2002
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Know the score

Jeremy Millar

This is the latest punchy slogan adopted in the war against drugs in Scotland. Those working in residential child care also need to know the score. They need to know the history of their setting and it’s place in the broader social policy framework. I must confess that before embarking on the MSc in Advanced Residential Child Care I was not aware of the bigger picture.

The Scottish model of the development of substitute care for vulnerable and neglected children mirrors the issues raised by the growth of western capitalism. It highlights the exploitation of the labouring classes ameliorated but not substantially changed by philanthropic good intentions.

In reading the Orphan Country (Abrams1998) I couldn’t help but be struck by the expediency of initiatives to provide salvation for these children. The interests of the Establishment were rarely compromised and more often than not, were positively enhanced. Witness the boarding out of children, firstly in Scotland and then to the corners of the Empire, to provide cheap labour in marginal economic situations.

The role philanthropy once assumed in responding to the problems of and caused by the poor are now subsumed within an array of professional interests. There used to be a debate about whether social workers ought to be in or against the State. That debate seems strangely dated. Social workers are now unquestionably agents of the State. We seem to have forgotten agendas about eradicating poverty but instead seek to blame the poor for their situation through our exhortations to personal responsibility.

I would argue that in order to seriously further the interests of those most vulnerable members of our society a far more radical response is required.

Firstly those who work in and care about residential child care need to regain some passion. Burdened by bureaucracy, it is too easy to forget that most of us came into this work to make a difference. Read the history! Connect with the individual stories of utter misery inflicted on children whose only fault was to be born into families struggling with poverty! Realise where the fault lies and why it has not been resolved for those still at the sharp end of structural oppression!

Secondly, find, reclaim and own a language that is relevant to our task. Residential workers, the children and youth we look after have a rich shared culture. When the care experience works, we connect at a human level and great things can happen. Unfortunately the dominant professional culture in social work inhibits an alternative and more meaningful discourse from developing.

In Scotland we can draw on similarities between the policy of ridding the Gaelic or Scots languages from the classroom and the imposition on social care of constructs and theories developed in other times, other cultures and generally by members of a political, professional and at times an academic elite. They have established the positivist, pseudo-scientific conventions that we slavishly follow. Anyone wanting to enter or change the debate has to first jump through the established hoops in order to earn the right to have their views taken on board. When caught up in this process it is too easy to become distanced from the realities of residential life and culture.

My third point is this. Why do we have to keep investigating outcome measures. We know what works for children. Generally speaking it is modelled around all the advantages that exist for the western middle class elite. By this I don’t mean only the material wealth but more the freedom to invest in children by having the time to spend with them, to read to them, nurture their interests and support them through education. Yet the spectre of “less eligibility” is manifest in professional concentration on the problems rather than the potentials of children and youth.

If it is our intention to offer children and youth a better opportunity within the confines of the capitalist system then lets get a bit more honest about it.

Research tells us that good projects are well resourced, have clear philosophies of practice and remits they are empowered to stick to. This can only be sustained until external pressures build up and dissipate their energy. Do we actually desire to improve the lot of our most disadvantaged citizens or are we content to play the game of tinkering around the edges, covering backs with policies which seem designed to prevent us doing what needs to be done to improve the lives of kids?

Such approaches do nothing for the morale of staff and completely by-pass those for whom they are intended, as they struggle to live each day incoherently trying to make sense of the burden they are shackled with.

I leave you with a final thought on “Know the Score”. The score is this; we society, in order to protect our comfortable lifestyle impose on you the poor, hardship and disadvantage. When you take drugs to escape the effects of this existence we condemn you, criminalise you and patronisingly dispense with the relevance of your experience. A resounding victory for society. But our research doesn’t tell us this part of the story. Call me an idealist but I believe some things are too obvious to ignore. Whilst professional bodies and institutes of learning have their place they need to be led in the debate by workers and young people in the front line. Put it like this, wouldn’t it be interesting if visitors to our establishments came to experience the answers and not to trouble shoot the problems.


Abrams, L. (1998) The Orphan Country, Edinburgh, John Donald

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