There is an understanding belief that young people in residential care are further along the continuum of care (and therefore of need/difficulties) than those in foster placements. Such a belief may be well founded. Indeed it is accepted that residential staff are managing young people with complex needs (Bilson & Barker, 1995). While this has openly been acknowledged in terms of the work undertaken with individual young people, it has rarely been researched or acknowledged with regard to the resident groups within establishments. In other words, if young people are seen at an individual level as being more ‘damaged’ or involved in riskier activities, then it follows that such individuals coming together as a group become an even greater concern.
Adults’ fear of the residents coming together has a long history within group care practices for children, and arguably stems from large numbers of children being cared for by relatively few members of staff (Abrams, 1998). This has more recently been coupled with high rates of emergency admission to residential provision and growing concern over the resultant lack of relationship with and commitment to the staff or the unit (Rowe et al, 1989).
While much of the literature on residential care for children has limited discussion on the resident group, those who do frame it within a discourse of abuse or harm. Kahan (1994), for example, examines the peer group under the heading ‘The Contemporary Hazards of Growing Up’. Here young people are discussed in terms of peer pressure, bullying and intimidation. However, the majority of studies which have examined bullying amongst young people in institutions have concerned themselves with units for young offenders or large residential schools (Little, 1990; Browne & Falshaw, 1996) rather than children’s homes. Notable exceptions, such as Sinclair and Gibbs (1998) and Farmer and Pollock (1998), have explicitly explored the extent of bullying and of sexual harassment within children’s homes. However, far more frequent is a discussion of such activities supported by limited empirical evidence. Regardless, such works are central to our understanding of the residential experience and make clear that the resident group will have a significant impact on the day to day lives of young people in residential care.
There has been very little research undertaken on the whole group experience, the perception of the group held by young people, and how we as practitioners should best manage the group. One of the few writers to look systematically at the structure of young people’s groups in residential settings is Howard Polsky (1962). Polsky spent time as a participant observer in a large therapeutic institution for boys in the USA. His research concentrated on the experiences of a group of boys living in one unit within the institution: Cottage Six. Polsky clearly took the position that the boys in his study were ‘deviant’ and set out to explore how this manifested itself in the group. With this in mind, he portrays a group which is rigid in structure and where position is longstanding and achieved through deviant means (namely violence, intimidation, teasing and trickery).
More recently, Hudson (2000) has attempted to explore in more depth the significance of the peer group to both young people and to residential staff. He has long argued that the group should be regarded as a resource for residential practitioners. Such a position is based on child development notions that interaction with peers has a significant impact on cognitive, emotional and social development (see, for example, Erwin, 1993; Coleman, 1974). He suggests that in adult care there is a recognition of the significance for individuals of sharing experiences with those in similar positions, but that this has not been willingly transposed to provision for children.
It may also be argued that the prominence given to adult intervention, as opposed to that given by peers, has much to do with the way in which children and childhood are regarded more generally. Childhood is seen as a time of innocence and there is a belief that children should be protected from ‘adult concerns (Games et al, 1998). This is highly significant in the field of residential care where often children and young people have experienced violence and abuse within the family home as well as having caring responsibilities for siblings and/or parents. There is a tacit understanding that residential care should remove children from these dangers and equally from these responsibilities. This then leads to the belief that because their own experiences have been ‘damaged’, young people will be unable to provide the correct information or advice to their fellow residents.
Over recent years research has begun thoroughly to assess and explore the complexity of group living (Whitaker et al, 1998; Chakrabarti & Hill, 2000). However, less consideration continues to be given to what may be one of the most significant factors in how young people experience this form of care, i.e. the group. There are the beginnings of an awareness of the role of peers in child development more generally (James et al, 1998; Valentine, 1997), and a move within social work practice to the importance of maintaining positive friendships for young people (this push to consider the role of friendships and peer relationships when planning care for children has much to do with the acceptance of resilience models of practice). However, this has yet to be translated in any comprehensive way to the residential setting.
Edmond, R. (2002) Understanding the Resident Group. Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care. August/September. pp. 30-32
Abrams, L. (1998) The Orphan Country. Children of Scotland’s Broken Homes from 1845 to the Present Day, Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd.
Bilson, A. and Barker, R. (1995) Parental contact with children fostered and in residential care after the Children Act 1989, British Journal of Social Work, 25(3), 367-38 1.
Chakrabarti, M. and Hill, M. (2000) Residential Child Care: International Perspectives on Links with Families and Peers, London: Jessica Kingsley.
Coleman, J.C. (1974) Relations in Adolescence London: Routledge.
Erwin, P. (1993) Friendship and Peer Relations in Children. Chichester: Wiley.
Farmer, E. and Pollock, 5. (1998) Sexually Abused and Abusing Children in Substitute Care, Chichester: John Wiley.
Hudson, J. (2000) ‘Peer groups: a neglected resource’, in Chakrabarti, M. and Hill, M. (eds) Residential Child Care: International Perspectives on Links with Families and Peers, London: Jessica Kingsley, ppl4l-155.
James, A., Jenks, C. and Prout, A. (1998) Theorizing Childhood, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kahan, B. (1994) Growing up in Groups, London: HMSO.
Little, M. (1990) Young Men in Prison: The Criminal Identity Explored through Rules of Behaviour, Dartmouth: Aldershot
Polsky, H. (1962) Cottage Six: The Social System of Delinquent Boys in Residential Treatment, New York: John Wiley.
Sinclair, I. and Gibbs, 1(1998) Children's Homes: A Study in Diversity, Chichester: John Wiley
Valentine, C. (1997) "Oh yes I can". "Oh no you can’t": Children and parents understanding of kids’ competence to negotiate public spaces safely, Antipode, 29(1), 65-89.
Whitaker, D., Archer, L. and Hicks, L. (1998) Working in Children's Homes: Challenges and Complexities, Chichester: John Wiley.