Although there has been a decline in the number of children's homes, residential placements continue to be the most common option for teenagers looked after away from home, particularly those who are described as presenting 'challenging behaviour' or are labelled in some other way as `difficult to manage' (Rowe and others 1989, Kendrick 1995, Triseliotis and others 1995, DH 1996, Sinclair and Gibbs 1996). There are limited options for matching children's needs with the most appropriate provision, and homes will frequently accommodate boys and girls, children who abuse with the victims of abuse and different categories of offender with non-offenders, despite recommendations that some groups should not be accommodated together (DH 1991, Green and Masson 2002). For many young people, such placements not only fail to meet their needs or provide the required protection but also expose them to the risks of further violence, sexual abuse, involvement in offending and drug use which can result in their incarceration. Some residential homes have been found to have a criminal peer culture increasing the risk of offending (Wade and others 1998): a recent study found that 40% of young people admitted to residential care without any previous caution or conviction received one if they stayed in the home for six months or more (Sinclair and Gibbs 1998). Peer violence, bullying and exploitation have been found to be serious problems (Berridge and Brodie 1998, Farmer and Pollock 1998, Sinclair and Gibbs 1998, Cawson and others 2004) and residential care presents a high risk of sexual violence, particularly for girls by male peers, and initiation into prostitution by peers within and outside the residential home and by paedophiles, drug dealers and pimps (O'Neill and others 1995, Shaw and Butler 1998, Farmer and Pollock 1998, Green and Masson 2002, Cawson and others 2004). A matter of particular concern is the normalization and acceptance of peer sexual abuse within residential settings with 'denial and invisibilization' (Green and Masson 2002: 156) the most common staff response to sexuality with disastrous consequences in terms of sexual abuse. Staff uncertainty about what constitutes `peer sexual abuse' and what is normal sexual experimentation compounds the problem and leaves children, particularly girls highly vulnerable and confused, and young sexual abusers continuing to present a risk to others.
Issues of sexuality in residential care have been found consistently to be mishandled and staff responses to be reactive and punitive, 'dictated by ignorance, fear, embarrassment and the staff's own moral values, including their views around gender and sexuality' (Green and Parkin 1999: 181). Both male and female staff blame girls for any sexual activity, colluding with the myths about girls' provocativeness (Green and Masson 2002) and reflecting the widespread use of the double standard in relation to sexuality. While boys' sexuality is invisible and boys are not seen either as potentially abusive or at risk of abuse, girls' sexuality is punished and controlled (Parkin and Green 1997) and in the predominantly masculine cultures of some residential homes girls are subjected to male sexual aggression and exploitation (Berridge and Brodie 1998).
O'Neill, T. (2006). Children 'at risk' in secure accommodation. International Journal of Child and Family Welfare, 9, 4. pp.241-242.
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Sinclair, L. and GIBBS, I. (1998). Children's Homes: A study in diversity. Chichester: John Wiley.
Triseliotis, J., Borland, M., Hill, M. & Lambert, L. (1995). Teenagers and the Social Work Services. London. HMSO.
Wade, J., Biehal, N., Clayden, J., & Stein, M. (1998). Going Missing: Young People Absent from Care. Chichester. John Wiley.