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The needs of children in residential care

P.D. Brennan

Residential Care in its essence is about undoing the tangled knots of emotion, about the lifting of pathological depression, about revitalising the annihilated, about uncovering the unspeakable, about containing those with no boundaries and of giving horizons to those who have been rushed.

Residential Child Care is a highly specialised service to children and young people, who before birth, at birth, or subsequent to birth, experienced panic or terror, loss or grief to such a degree that they cannot function to their full potential or whose experiences have made them so neurotic that likewise they cannot function appropriately. The baby knows that to be left alone means to die. Any lack of real appropriate response to the baby in need is an approximation of one degree or another, to that experience of abandonment.

Residential Care then is fundamentally about the Rights of Children not only to life, but to be a self in their own right. They are not the ‘possessions of anyone, nor are they the objects of adults care and compassion. Their selfhood is to be autonomous self-reflecting rather than being the ‘reflection of someone else.

This is why no matter how good the resources nor how sophisticated the Family Services, there will always be a group of young people who require Residential Care. The early attempts at bonding and of separating-out were ineffectual and/or inappropriate. Such children are so far back that they cannot relate with parents or parent figures. They require an all containing environment which strategically seeks to enable them to begin again. It is not about alternative ‘family’ living, rather it is about sophisticated in-depth ‘Meeting’ of quite traumatised young people.

This requires of staff a sophisticated and insightful understanding of the inner world and reality of the child, and the recognition that in these contexts, behaviour is but a language. It is a language that has to be read as the means of ‘meeting’ the child in his inner reality and of deciphering it to understand the significance to the child as to how he responds to that ‘reality’.

As in the beginning so now, the needs of the child are about the responses of the adults. Residential Care then is essentially about the adults reversing the child’s previous experiences of its familial and neighbourhood persons in its life.

The main tool in caring for the young people is the self of the worker. No matter his education or training, he must first have applied such learning and insight to himself. This active internalised knowledge informs his own person and highlights his own growth and development which he draws upon, enabling him to overcome mistakes, live constructively and positively with his own limits and frailties. In this way, personal qualities of sensitivity, empathy, intuitive understanding, stability and integrity are developed. His own vulnerability can then be made available to those in distress, without him being manipulated or overwhelmed.

Brennan, P.D. (1995). The needs of children in residential care. Child in Care: Northern Ireland journal of multi-disciplinary child care. Vol.2 (2) p.69

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