The previous papers in Learning to Live have illuminated very clearly the depth of understanding and subtlety of skills which are needed by residential workers caring for children. With the publication of the Children's Bill, which seeks to implement the recommendations of the White Paper Children in Trouble, the need for understanding and skill has been brought into sharp focus, and this gives us a powerful reason for looking afresh at the basic principles and aims of residential care.
Much of our thinking about residential care practice in this country has centred on the concepts of parenting, therapy and training. We are a little uneasy about all these ideas “for instance the concept of substitute parenthood has been knocked pretty severely on the head, to be replaced by supplementary parenthood – but in general we do not seem to doubt that these are the right tools to work with in our assessment of the residential task. It seems to most of us that it is still relevant to ask such questions as the following:
How can I become a better supplementary parent?
What skills do I need to treat and cure maladjustment, emotional disturbance and deprivation?
Why do I so often fail in my efforts to mould delinquent children into law abiding young citizens?
These questions presuppose that we in residential care are properly concerned (in some sense) to be supplementary parents, to be healers of the sick, to be moulders of character.
While I do not suggest that these presuppositions are altogether false, I do believe that they provide inadequate models for looking at the fundamental aims of our work; I believe further that this is the principal reason why residential care as a whole still suffers from a gigantic and crippling sense of inferiority “why growth towards a true feeling of strong and valid professional identity has been so slow. (This is not, of course, to ignore the many other reasons for the sense of inferiority under which residential child care still labours : low status, poor pay, poor working conditions).
My main reason for believing that the presuppositions mentioned above provide inadequate models of residential child care, are that they raise such hopelessly invidious comparisons, – for example :
How can I hope to be as good a parent as those real parents who are coping effectively with their tasks?
How can I hope to be as good a therapist as the physician or the psychiatrist?
How can I hope to be as good a moulder as the sculptor?
The residential worker is not a parent
It does not seem to me to be ultimately very helpful to envisage the residential worker as a
parent : certainly not a substitute parent, but not even a supplementary, an alternative, or a quasi-parent.
A child may be very fond of her Aunt Mary, may spend lengthy periods staying at her house, and may be offered by Aunt Mary a very similar kind of care to that given by a good parent. But, however competent and loving a person Aunt Mary is, the child will not see or feel Aunt Mary to be her mother. Still less will the child see a housemother in this way, though the housemother may well be to Mary extremely important as a professional, mature adult. It seems to me more real, both for child and houseparent, to explore this aspect of the residential worker’s role in terms of adulthood rather than parenthood.
The residential worker is not a doctor
Children who are in emotional turmoil are not for that reason alone clinically sick; (though neurotic and psychotic children may indeed need specialized therapy from those competent to provide it).
The unhappy, the deprived, the withdrawn are telling us something of what it feels like to be less than a complete person – something about the quality of their entire being. To reach such children, to release them from the prisons of compulsion or solitude, to help them to feel more complete, is of vital importance : parallel with, and no less difficult than, what the field worker seeks to do with a family; but these skills are not happily described, save by a distant metaphor, as medical skills.
The residential worker is not a sculptor
Children are not lumps of material – not even behavioural material to be manipulated according to a person's moral code – or even society’s moral code, (if such a thing can be said to exist). Of course, children have to learn to live in societies; but such learning does not result from any process resembling the thumps, bashes and glancing blows of the sculptor’s mallet. (Is there any more disgusting metaphor in the whole of our vocabulary about the upbringing of children than that of “licking the child into shape”?) Yet, despite the overwhelming contrary evidence, our penal establishments continue to flail about them with a right royal will, (by words, by institutional procedures, by appeals to better nature, by example-setting, by moral precept, more often than by crude physical violence). To pursue the sculptural metaphor, these devices are, in every sense of the word, varieties of chiselling.
A concept which, I believe, offers us a better model than any of the above for residential child care is that of liberator of potential. The aim of liberation is one that is shared with the field worker – and ideally with the teacher – but the specific professional implication of the “liberator” role is of course very different for the residential worker than for either of the other two.
For the residential worker the sphere of liberation is what Henry Maier calls “the primary living experience” in a shared group setting, in the context of the immediate neighbourhood and of the wider world. This is of supreme importance, because one of the conditions of setting free people to be truly themselves is that they should be capable of relationships of a certain quality and intensity with people who are emotionally important to them. The isolated child is not a free child.
The concept of liberation has two other important aspects; the negative aspect of setting the child free from all the shackles that hinder his personal development in the context of reciprocal relationships; and the positive aspect of setting the child free to cope competently in the world outside the residential setting.
There are thus five dimensions for the “liberator” in residential child care to take into account – and we neglect any one of these dimensions at our peril :
The unique individual child.
The living group in the residential community (valid in its own right, not simply as a copy of the family).
The child's family (or field of vital relationships outside the residential home).
The wider world.
Since our aim must be to restore the child to his family, or enable him to enter into free and constructive relationships with the community, the world of work, the world of friendship, fun and marriage – ultimately the world of his own choosing – then family, neighbourhood, a slice of the child's potential future world, must enter into the child's residential life to feed and nourish it. In the end a “therapeutic” community must be a liberating community – and therefore an open community. Of course there must be boundaries – but in principle these should be almost infinitely elastic; and the elastic should fit the child, not the residential staff.
Each of the members of the residential team, therefore, needs to develop basic skills as professional adults caring for people in three main areas :
Community integration, in its three aspects – the child's family, the immediate neighbourhood, the wider society.
If these skills are to be acquired and used with the fundamental objective of liberating the child “both from whatever disabilities he brings with him into the residential setting, and towards the realization of his maximum potential – there must be a sensitive recognition on the part of all concerned that progress towards liberation can never be smooth and easy, and that constant evaluation and revaluation of the work in hand must be undertaken if the objectives are to be achieved. Moreover, the acquisition of liberating skills of this kind will depend in large degree on the extent to which members of the residential staff are themselves liberated people. It is hard to see how qualities of personality alone – important as these are – can suffice to ensure this. Careful selection and training are vital, at a level and depth considerably beyond what is available at the present time. But the way in which training could be developed to help suitable staff grow into their roles as liberators must be the subject of another paper.
This feature: Righton, P. (1968). The Need for Training. In Lennhoff, F.G. and Lampen, J.C. (eds.). Learning to Live: A Sketchbook of Residential Work with Children. Shrewsbury: Shotton Hall, pp. A: 13- A: 16