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136 JUNE 2010
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Normalisation or systemalisation? How children looked after in children's homes are depersonalised by the processes and procedures of a public child care system

Jane Kenny

In this the second of two articles about institutionalisation in residential child care, Jane argues tellingly about the way strict adherence to procedures and age limits (often notionally in place to protect children and young people) can make them more vulnerable. In our view this article written by a residential child care worker engaging directly with children and young people should be read by everyone involved professionally, economically, or politically with the public child care system. It reminds us that even when we are asked to think organisationally or governmentally that we should be concerned with and concerned about real children and not notional ones. You can read the first article in our April issue HERE

In this second article about a residential child care service which publically declares its intention to normalise the life experience of the young people it wishes to serve, I have selected some current aspects of residential child care which demonstrate that processes within the child care system, nominally intended to protect children, only serve to further de-normalise their life experience. I argue that these procedures do not free residential child care workers to provide the concerned care provided by a good enough parent. I come to the conclusion that the problems I highlight, as well as many others, can be overcome firstly by exercising professional flexibility in order to provide a more sensitive concern for the young people and secondly by an increase in the staffing complement of children's homes.

Documentation and written records
The documentation and the records which have to be maintained for each child who is looked after in a children's home is voluminous and I often wonder who reads them. I am aware that the reason for keeping all these records is aimed at the protection of the children though it seems to me its main purpose is either to inform an investigation after a complaint is made or it is a method of reinforcing child care practice which is professionally defensive rather than practice which is focussed on children's needs for individual care. In order to carry out my work I am required to complete Looked After Children documentation, record the giving out of pocket money, record the administration of medicines, maintain the home’s daily log, keep an individual record of each child's activities for the day, keep records of expenditure on clothing, record all meetings with each child, prepare reports for case review meetings, record complaints, write a record of any investigation I have made about a complaint, write out a written record of risk assessments I am required to make of even quite mundane activities the children may be involved with. Staff are often required to seek permission and to record that this permission has been given for often quite trivial purchases. This is not an exhaustive list but just what comes to mind as I list this. Many of these records might on the face of it seem important but they are certainly not records which parents might have to carry out in the “normal” family home.

Young people living in a children's home are expected to tolerate a wide number of visitors which those living in a family setting do not. These visitors include inspectors, commissioning officers from local authorities as well as social workers. These visits may be seen as necessary in terms of child protection but they hardly “normalise” a child in residential care’s experience of life and neither do they respect the child's right to privacy. Because of their previous experiences young people in our care often have little cause to trust adults and yet we require these young people to “trust” adults “and a larger number of strange as well as familiar adults “much more than any child living in a family would.

Unlike young people who live with their families, those who come to live in a children's home have at first to tolerate living with and being cared for by strangers. In a sense this is unavoidable when a young person is placed in a children's home and the task of residential child care staff is to begin to form a relationship with a new member of the group and I have found that in most cases young people soon build relationships with the others in the resident group. Having overcome this period of being a stranger, a child in residential care encounters procedures which though developed with his protection in mind differentiates him from his peers in the wider community. These procedures also prevent the residential child care worker from exercising the kind of discretion that a sensitive, caring and loving parent would.

Living together
Even when relationships with staff are formed and when friendships have developed there are child protection procedures in place for the young people which means they cannot experience their relationships with their friends in the home and their friends from outside the home in the way they might if they were living in a family. In the interests of “keeping children safe” and the financial restrictions which limit the number of staff a children's home, residential child care workers are required to encourage the young people living in a children's home not to go into each other’s bedroom, or to visit each other’s family homes . These are two things which are possible for children who are not in care. Often young people in a children's home want to do activities together in their rooms – to play games, to talk to each other about things – which in a normal family would not be questioned. These restrictions are difficult for children to understand. They feel they are unfair and children often comment that they are expected to trust staff but that staff don’t trust them.

Inviting friends to the home
Other procedures principally laid down to protect children exist in children's homes which do not help to encourage children to invite their friends to the children's home. This further differentiates the life experience of a young person in the children's home from that of a young person living with his or her family. The friends of young people living in a children's home have to “sign in” and may only be allowed in the communal areas of the home which are occupied by other residents and so no privacy is afforded for a friend's visit because visitors may not go to a young person's bedroom. This aspect of life in a children's home discourages a child from inviting friends to the home and so can isolate some children even more from their home community. In my experience it can also encourage other vulnerable children to live their entire social life out on the street. It seems to me this would not be tolerable for caring parents who like to know where their children are and as much as possible who their children's friends are. Children who go out every night are not available to build healthy and necessary relationships with caring parental adults.

Friends and overnight visits
While most teenagers can occasionally have friends to stay overnight at their home this is not possible in a children's home. Equally, allowing young people who live in a children's home to stay overnight with friends is also for procedural reasons problematic. In order to allow a child in a children's home to stay overnight at a friend's house it is necessary for the residential worker to make contact with the friend's family and to build a rapport with them in order to judge that the situation is safe for the child. Over and above this permission for an overnight stay will have to be sought from the child's parents and social worker. If any concerns are raised then it may be necessary for further checks to be made concerning a friend's family before a visit can take place. There may be good reasons for these procedures or “risk assessments” but in my experience it is possible for these checks to take weeks to complete. This process is not sensitive to a child's right to privacy and their right to a normal social life. It can be acutely embarrassing for a child who may be keen for others not to be aware that he or she is in care.

Immediate independence
Most of us stay in our family home until we are 18 years and I left mine at the age of 24 years and even then I still needed the emotional support of my parents. I don’t think I was exceptional in this. How extraordinary then that children in residential care “who are quite frequently but unfairly criticised for their immaturity “as if by magic at the age of 16 years are considered to be ready for living in a “semi-independent” or “independent” setting. I have never been clear what the terms “independent” and “semi-independent” mean, not only in relation to young people who live in the care system but in relation to all young people. I have indicated already that I do not consider myself either “independent” or “semi-independent” but I am if anything “interdependent”. I depend on other people and other people depend on me. I intend that to be the case for the rest of my life. I thought that reaching this conclusion was what growing up was all about. I may be wrong but surely this is what being a “normal” member of a community or a society means. Yet at 16 years of age so many young people in residential child care are moved from their children's home to a placement which offers much less support. They are required to do this at a time when they are in the throes of adolescence and all the insecurities which that brings along with it, when they are moving out into the world of work and all the changes that entails or when they are beginning vocational training or preparing for higher educational study. I don’t think “good enough” parents would ask their 16 years old children to move out of their home at this time. It is a difficult enough period for any young person but so much more so for a young person who has struggled emotionally and consequently often developmentally. Our work with the young people is based on our concerned and caring relationship – one that often has years of history – with a young person. For me it seems cruel and certainly damaging to a young person to be expected to break off from a supportive and powerful attachment relationship like this in such an arbitrary way. It only confirms for a young person what they have experienced earlier in their lives. Adults let you down. I also think it is damaging to the carers and robs them of their personal and professional esteem.

In this article I have highlighted some of the ways in which professional procedures if not used flexibly, imaginatively and creatively can stunt the possibilities of residential child care. I believe that residential care if provided in a flexible, imaginative and creative way with sincere concern and thought for each young person can be successful for those young people who cannot live in or manage a family setting. In my view rigid adherence to procedure in order to protect the institution and the system “institututionalises” and “systematises” the very young people the system claims to be “normalising”. I am not advocating that there should be no procedures but that we should be giving due consideration to how procedures if implemented to the letter of the law have a tendency to de-personalise a young person. I also feel we should always be thinking of ways to reduce procedure in order that the milieu of a children's home is more natural and dynamic.

I am aware that the kind of intensity of care such flexibility will call for requires more and better trained staff but if we believe these children are worth our concern then we should be happy to pay the price. If we do not wish to do this, then as a society we should at least be honest enough to admit it.

Those of us who have influence in the field of child care cannot pretend that living in a children's home can ever be a “normal” experience but we can do a much better job of it by making it a more warm human experience.


Department of Health (2002) Children's Homes : National Minimal Standards : Children's Homes Regulations. London Department of Health. pp. 31-32.

Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums. Harmondsworth. Pelican

This feature: Kenny, J. (2008). Caring Times, 4. Republished here with permission from