First impressions are important and children’s homes have traditionally been renowned for their outwardly stigmatising features. Encouragingly however, there were relatively few of these to be found and it proved quite difficult to ‘spot the children’s home’. One clue was usually the large number of staff cars outside, a problem caused by improved staffing ratios. Another give-away feature was often the scratched and battered front door. Where buildings were more stigmatising, such as a home which was part of a social services building, or where the location was very inappropriate, staff and young people were acutely aware of this. Staff in particular felt that a building and the external environment could have a negative effect on morale, and in three homes were therefore keen to move to new locations.
However, children’s homes come in all shapes and sizes and it would be difficult to generalise regarding most of their physical features. Any lingering notions of large and gloomy Victorian institutions were soon dashed. We found instead terraced houses in residential neighbourhoods, council houses on large estates and a large villa which had previously functioned as a girls’ school.
Buildings were usually in relatively good physical repair and the majority had gardens. Most outwardly attractive was a large farmhouse, located amidst rolling fields. Only three homes were clearly purpose-built and two of these contrived to be relatively pleasant buildings in spite of this. Nine of the 12 homes were in urban areas, two in small towns and one close to a small viI1age; this urban bias is consistent with the Children Act 1989 principle that children be accommodated as far as possible within or close to their own communities. Occasionally we found ironies in location, most notably a home which looked after a number of adolescents with impressive criminal records situated directly opposite the police station.
Interiors can also be stigmatising. Goffman, in his discussion of ‘total institutions’, commented that stigma could be ‘built into’ the fabric of a building (Goffman 1968, p.1). This may result from what might be termed ‘institutional’ furniture or decoration, such as industrial-type kitchen or washing equipment, or alternatively from the way in which space is organised and allocated. In the 1985 study such institutional features included the ringing of the telephone being amplified throughout the building and oversize aluminium teapots that one could barely lift. Noticeable or even excessive damage to the fabric can also be stigmatising. To find oneself in a bedroom where the walls are covered in graffiti undoubtedly highlights the contrast between living with one’s family and living in a children’s home.
The smaller size of the majority of homes greatly reduced the potential for institutionalisation. Only one borne had room for more than ten children and, as we have seen, the average number of residents was six. These small numbers inevitably had implications for the way in which life within the home was experienced and provided scope for a much more ‘family-like’ atmosphere.
However, some vestiges of the institution remained. Three homes, for example, had entrance lobbies with office-type hatches, which gave the impression of a bureaucratic institution rather than a home and seemed rather unwelcoming. In all homes – interestingly apart from the two short breaks facilities – there were to be found staff carrying large, jangling bunches of keys. The locking and unlocking of doors and cupboards was thus a regular topic of conversation. The significance attributed to these rituals was suitably captured by one member of staff, who wryly commented that without keys it was impossible to work in the home. The use of keys sometimes seemed to become the essence of the work rather than an incidental feature. Sonic adolescents even seemed to see staff as synonymous with their keys. But in many homes we also encountered interior decoration and furnishing which helped create a homely atmosphere. Some units would not have been entirely out of place as large family homes, with soft furnishings, lots of photographs and pleasant decoration. This was especially true of’ the two homes for younger children, where toys, games, pictures, bowls of’ fruit and cut flowers helped create bright and cheerful environments in which to live.
Adolescent homes tended to incorporate some rather more incongruous features. The video player bolted to the floor with a massive chain is particularly memorable. One home was almost devoid of furniture and lacked television, video and stereo following a spate of damage and theft by residents. In this home, despite the services of a handyman, it was proving difficult to keep up with even everyday repairs: the task was likened to ‘painting the Forth Bridge’. Fifty windows had been broken in the month preceding our visit, necessitating special arrangements with a local, prosperous glazier to enable immediate repair. In this home, workmen insisted staff accompany them to ensure their safety Damage was not, however, always due to vandalism – in one of the short breaks homes wheelchairs quickly led to damaged paintwork. Other homes struggled with the internal design of their buildings, such as one built for 24 residents, which now catered for only six. Chairs and settee stood stranded as an island in the middle of a cavernous living area, and both staff and residents likened this to ‘living in a goldfish bowl’.
Upstairs in a children’s home the environment was sometimes more institutional, with long rows of doors presenting a forbidding appearance. In research examining the experiences of children living in residential care, issues of privacy have often been prominent (Berridge et al 1995) and bedrooms are obviously important in providing individual space. Indeed, the majority of children now had their own bedrooms and where these were shared this usually involved siblings. Most homes made arrangements for young people to have keys to their rooms. Of course this may not be any guarantee of security: on the first day of our fieldwork, young people had made a copy of a key providing access to the researcher’s room and also his wallet.
Most bedrooms were fairly small, with the exception of one private home where the rooms were quite vast. This home was also notable for the fact that each child had a television and stereo in his or her own bedroom. In homes for adolescents, bedrooms were more likely to be damaged and even to be covered with graffiti. The rapid throughput, one suspects, discourages a more responsible approach. However, many bedrooms were pleasant and had been individually decorated with posters and photographs. Some adolescent girls had created almost replicas of the cosmetics counter at Boots, shrines to self-improvement. Unfortunately, however, the majority of bedrooms did not contain the desk, chair, bookcase and lamp which have been recommended to enable young people to carry out schoolwork (Jackson 1989), although the notion of studying alone was often unpopular.
Goffman, E. (1968) Asylums. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Berridge, D., Barret, D., Brodie, I., Henderson, B. and Wenman, H. (1995) Cautious Optimism? Changing Residential Care in a Local Authority. Warwick: University of Warwick/ Social Care Association.
Jackson, S. (1989) Residential care and education. Children and society 2,4, 335-350
Berridge, D & Brodie, I. (1998) Children's home revisited. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. pp. 87-89