I write this article from a professional-personal perspective. My work in the children's home has brought me into contact with a client group which has taught me much about child care and the realm of family and child services – and about the parents of the children in our care. They have spoken with me, these parents, and with their permission, some of their comments appear here. I think this is important. They have a lot to teach us.
At some level, it may be that increased dialogue between child care practitioners and parents could promote a better understanding of what the parents experience, a better perception of their world view, and of the process of removal, separation, and reconstruction which has affected them and their families. If this can even slightly improve the attitudes of some social workers and child care practitioners towards parents, then it will have served its purpose. As one parent commented:
I suddenly found myself an “unfit parent” ... yes, I knew that for my child to be admitted I had to go through the courts ... I could even accept losing custody ... I can accept that I can’t help him or manage him right now, but to be publicly declared “unfit” ... the humiliation and shame ... I think this is hurtful ... suddenly my status is changed ... suddenly I don’t count.
This anomaly of some child care legislation deserves more space than is available here. Enough to say that the dynamics which are thus set up are powerful, potentially destructive, and disempowering for parents. Such reduced status, labels and attitudes are carried through to the social workers and even the child care workers within the children's home.
A plan divided against itself
Maintaining links with the family, along with family reconstruction work, has become an important aspect of residential care. Frequently insufficient attention is paid to this process. Residential care, if viewed as part of a broader treatment process, must account for the natural parents and family and the community. The placing of a child into residential care should therefore be seen as a necessary and effective way to help both the child and the family, to restore family functioning so that the child can return to the natural parents.
For this reason, residential care should be short term, and should provide the space and place for the active involvement of the natural parents – for their incorporation into the process. (Millham, S. 1987) The exclusion of natural family members from the care of their children is a dangerous and unhealthy practice. Studies have shown that children isolated from their family of origin, and who are placed in alternative care in a context which reduces the active participation of parents in child rearing and caring, reduces the possibility of child-family reunification, with a resulting poor prognosis for permanency of placement within the family system. (McCotter and Oxnam, 1981).
Such practices place these children in limbo. They can be come lost within the residential care system and not be returned to their rightful places within the community and family. In some circumstances it be comes impossible for children to be returned to their family of origin. However, this in itself is not a criterion for excluding natural family members from active involvement with their children. (Ainsworth and Hansen; 1983) The care received by children growing up in their own families is directly impacted upon by the nature of the support and care available to their care-givers – the parents, grandparents and extended family. Children are at the end of a chain of support: their parents, the wider family to protect their parents, society to support the structure of families and traditions so as to give a cultural continuity to systems of tending and training. (Maier 1978:89-90)
When the system fails
What happens when society fails the family system – when there is not support and structure for child rearing, when parents and families are isolated and alone? This is often the point at which the child is removed and placed in substitute care.
One parent said:
If there had been help out there ... some support ... then maybe this would not have happened. Yes, sure it is my fault too ... I could have done things differently ... now my kids are here in the home ... it is like there is no space for me ... no way for me to teach my children and be a parent ... all this was taken away ... And even now you know they are different ... I mean here they have been exposed to, to ... something else that wasn’t part of our home ... I don't know ... maybe different values ... I mean here they get things and ... do things ... are looked after by strangers ... What does this say to my children? ... that I can’t look after them ... parent them? ... this is humiliating ... a punishment. When they come, back I don’t know how we will give them this stuff and all ... how can I be a parent to them again ... I have let them down for ever ...
Another parent commented:
When at first my child was here I felt that I was not consulted about issues ... problems ... some very basic things in his life: the care workers seemed to do it all ... there are some parents who probably find this okay ... I don’t. It made me feel left out and unimportant ... when would I get a chance to show I can parent and be part of his life ... to share again in decision making and the like?
“The parents must have failed”
Frequently when a child is admitted into a residential programme, the agency and it’s worker’s exclude family members from continued involvement with their own child. The basic value-laden assumption is that the family and the parents must have failed, they are poor parents because their child has to be admitted into substitute care. One of the many dilemmas faced by children's homes has to do with the role which the child care worker takes in the process of admission, orientation, placement and on-going residential treatment, through to disengagement. Often there is ambiguity in our understanding of the children's home as giving substitute group care versus substitute family care. There is confusion over the model upon which we base the type of care given. Children's homes – which attempt to provide substitute family care base their care on the so-called 'family model'. In this case, the family is used as the model for the structure and nature of the living context -and group homes can easily adopt family-like practices, norms and values, unwittingly reproducing a “family” environment that is doomed to fail on many levels, but most significantly in not making a space for the natural parents. There is a pervasive encouragement, within this model, to see the child care worker as a substitute parent, rather than as an adult performing nurturing, caring, teaching and therapeutic tasks designed to promote the healthy growth and adjustment of the child in care. The natural family is excluded from participation in this because the 'family model' encourages the child care workers and practitioners to view themselves as substitute parents.
This then inevitably leads to the parents feeling shut out, excluded, isolated and negated as the child care worker now begins to act in their place – and leaves them feeling:
... I guess I felt resentful ... angry and even enraged. I mean it was like this feeling of F” you all ... I just did not care. Yeah, it was very lonely and hurtful ... as a father I still wanted to be part of things but there was not a space for me. When this changed and the team started to use me as a valuable source of knowledge, I started feeling better ... like, now I counted. I just still get angry when I think that a whole year got wasted before this kind of thing really started happening ... us parents, me, being a part of the team and involved ... like the time when my kid busted up the school classroom ... it was bad but you called me in to be part of the thing ... I felt like I was my kid's father... it was great.
It is not surprising that until an agency sorts out it’s philosophy and approach, and finds ways to actively include parents, that parents feel excluded and show a limited willingness to be involved in “family sessions” or to maintain contact with their own child. The family model, or the roles and values associated with this model, so often present as “anti” rather than “pro” the natural family. (Ainsworth and Hansen 1985)
Ainsworth, F A. Time for Change. Australian Child and Family Welfare, 8 (3/4), 1983.
Ainsworth, F. Once More with Feeling. Australian Child and Family Welfare, 10 (1/2). 1985.
Hansen, P Family and Parenting Analogies in Australian Residential Care. A Time for Change Australian Child and Family Welfare, 8(3/4), 1983.
Harper, P. The Family Model of Care: Obsolete! The Child Care Worker Vol. 3, 1986.
Whittaker, J. K. and Triechman, A. E. Children Away from Home. A Source Book of Residential Treatment.
Government Publication: Report into the Inquiry into Certain Aspects of the Child Care Act, Pretoria, 1982.