I've always thought that there are particular children and young people with difficulties for whom residential group care is a better option than foster care. A few among a number of "for instances" immediately spring to mind.
1. Some children who are experiencing family difficulties and cannot for the time being stay with their own families nevertheless feel that they do not want to live in a substitute family setting because despite their problems they still feel that they have a family and hope soon to return to it. For them accepting a placement with a foster family may seem an act of disloyalty.
2. Others may have had such a poor experience of family life that to live with another family may feel too threatening for them.
3. Others may already have experienced a number of family and foster family breakdowns.
Or am I just kidding myself that residential child is a helpful resource because I have spent so many years doing it and don't want to think I have wasted my working life ? These are doubts I sometimes have as I grow older and no longer work directly with youngsters.
Is residential child care really necessary ?
My research on group homes for young people has documented some of the differences between residential and foster care, and through interviews with youth, staff and foster carers, offers support for the need for residential care as part of a system of care for young people, at least in jurisdictions of the world where young people are removed from home when own families are unable to provide adequate care. Residential care is usually best used as a transition resource, seeking to support and equip young people to re-integrate into more intimate settings.
Please see Pain, Normality and the Struggle for Congruence: Reinterpreting Residential Care for Children and Youth, Haworth Press, 2002 (J.P. Anglin).
Yes it is, until such time that we eradicate child
poverty, provide opportunity and quality of life that can provide a greater
attraction than chaotic drug and alcohol misuse, treat women and children
with respect and true equality of status and reclaim the spaces for children
to have childhoods. Sadly you can put your doubts to rest for the time being
and focus on promoting the best opportunities for healing and growth in the
residential sector as you do so well.
Charles I totally agree with you. I'm working in residential care for the past 20 years. Off course this is not the ideal but it's in certain cases necessary. Everything that you said is true plus the contact between the child and his parents whilst in residential care is much easier because staff members can monitor the visits. Staff can also help them with problems that they experience as a family. Staff aren't so involved because of their professional relationship with the child.
Charles...in my opinion you did not waste your working life. There is a time and a place for everything, including residential care. Not all children who are in the foster care system are the same and you are right, foster care is not a suitable environment for all of them. And example comes from my own experience; I had a teenage boy and his sister come in to my home after several foster home breakdowns. He had a lot of developmental / social / behavioral issues and although we tried for well over a year he just needed more...he needed 24 hr supervision, the change of staff, complete and total structure, one-on-one attention and he needed the lock-down atmosphere which was next to impossible with two other teens in the house (locked cupboards, fridge, tv, computer, etc). He was a great kid and brought lots of joy to my life but he needed more than I could give him. After he moved in to residential care I continued to be a part of his life by attending his planning meetings, taking him on outings and being invited to his accomplishment dinners...it became a good situation for all of us and he thrived in the residential environment.
Hope this helps you feel better about it,
In response to your concern about having wasted your life working in residential care, I would have to say no! I have worked in a residential treatment centre for almost 26 yrs. The young people we deal with often have no family, they have been through foster care and in several group homes.
Their maladaptive behaviors are often so extreme;
cutting (excessively), suicidal, sexual predators, extremely physically
violent, oppositional to everything, etc. The foster homes will not or
cannot take them, the group homes were not able to control them (staff were
consistently assaulted). We are the only option that the Ministry has as a
place for these kids. With consistent routines, rules, behavioral
interventions (and I don't mean always physical), highly trained staff with
proper staff to kid ratio, access to psychologists, psychiatrists and
specialized school services, we have success with some of our kids. They may
not go on to be brain surgeons but they are taught how to control their
anger, deal with loss, how to cope with conflict, job skills, etc., plus
they get to see that not all adults are bad. Sometimes we become the family
these kids lack and they come back to visit when they are older, they call
us to keep in touch or if they need a pep talk. Having worked in this field
long enough, I know there are some kids even we can't help. They need to
figure it out on their own or they move on to the justice system or mental
health system. If you've ever had a really tough kid come back or call to
tell you they are still alive and not doing to bad (far and few between but
it's success), you have not wasted your life, you have made a difference in
that young person's life and that in my opinion makes it worth it!
Charles, thanks for this,
As always your contribution to this discussion forum is thoughtful, stimulating, and often moving. This one for me is all 3. I think your description of kids who need residential care answers your question. There is now, and I believe always will be a need for good residential care. I would further suggest that it is undoubtedly the place where the essential skills of our field are best learned and honed.
I would strongly discourage you from thinking your years in it were wasted. I'm sure they're not. As a 32 yr vet of this work I know the places that my work has had the biggest impact on me and the children, youth and families I've known were residential. The milieu, and the relationships that are formed from the time and interactions that are shared in the milieu, these cannot be known anywhere so much as they can be in residential treatment.
For me the underlying issue of your post though is that those of us who have done this for 25 years or more have (at least here in Ontario Canada) seen it change immensely. How do us older ones feel about this? How do we make meaning of it, and ourselves in it? How much cynicism is healthy?
Sometimes the whole marketing thing It feels like I have
less and less control in the unfolding of this Child youth work thing? While
working in it full time, I've also had the good fortune to be a very part
time educators of those coming into it. Thier interest in, and passion for
what we've done is at times humbling. I am challenged to share what was and
make it relevant to what is.
At whatever level you're still involved in, I encourage you to keep on keepin' on. Again Charles thanks for this
It would be hard to imagine our society without either resource for children. I understand your dilemma ... what would things be like without these resources; the people like yourself who have dedicated a life time to helping children. In either system children can be helped. Is one system of care better for some children? How could we determine this. You have posed a good question. I look forward to more discussion.
Trying to save the world one child at a time,
In response to the question of the need for quality residential child care services, there is an extensive literature on this subject, and on the relative merits of RCC and fostering and other forms of care.
Jim Anglin's book Pain, normality and the struggle for congruence: reinterpreting residential care for children and youth (2002) has been mentioned.
There are two studies relating to UK local authorities which embarked on a policy of no RCC for their kids:
Cliffe, David and Berridge, David: Closing Children's Homes: an end to
residential childcare?, NCB, London, 1991
Kearney, Brian and Mapstone, Elizabeth L G: Report of the Inquiry into Child care Policies in Fife: Return of an Address of the Honourable the House of Commons, HMSO, House of Commons Papers 191, London, 1992
Anyone reading them will quickly realize that time spent working in RCC is not wasted.
I read the replies here with a degree of pessimism. So, let me place my cards on the table from the start. Having worked in residential child care for many years I have seen many youngsters grow and thrive. Unlike Jim Anglin, I have found that residential child care is not best suited as a vehicle for transition to other care environments, maybe because I experience the placements in my programme to last for many years. After care ends our workers continue to remain closely involved with y/p and their families, providing long term support in independence. I continue to have involvement with y/p and their families 10 years after they left the physical care of the resource.
Whilst in our care we work on the attachment experiences of our y/p and use relationships to facilitate and support development. My experience is that residential care does work when it has a clear purpose, function and philosophy of care. Over many years we have focused our interventions with y/p on their growth needs not their behaviour.
Consequently we don't try to fix kids, we help them developmentally grow in an environment that nurtures and cares and supports even when times are very tough. Our resource has proved itself time and time again and has sometimes been the difference between life and death, no melodrama intended.
So as you will gather, I don't apologize for our sector. It is vibrant and moving forward.
To you Charles, no your efforts for all these years have not been wasted, but we need to continue to build the sector and to stamp our own identity upon it, not leaving it to the vagaries of politicians or politics to decide what we are and what we do.
In direct answer to the question – yes residential child care is necessary. So let's get off our knees and report the good we do, instead of perpetually battering ourselves.
I am grateful for the encouraging responses to the question I posed about the necessity of residential child care. Residential child care, too often the Cinderella of child and youth care services, never invited to the ball, yet expected not only to cope with her very difficult work but also to absorb a great deal of usually unfair criticism from the ugly sisters of the media. I won't extend this metaphor further for I'm not a great believer in Prince Charmings (actually I'm not too big a fan of the notion of "ugly sisters" either !) but I did find solace as well as "reasons to be cheerful" from the responses to the thread.
As I see it, Residential Care has always been (and
probably always will be) at the core of child and youth care practice.
But, like all other approaches, its effectiveness lies in the quality of
relationships rather than the particular modality. In this regard,
residential workers have a unique and privileged opportunity to make a
difference. May the force be with them.
What a great question from Charles Sharpe, and what interesting responses and discussion.
I think competent residential programs are a most necessary component of any child care system. In my experience, in both residential and community mental health settings, there are reasons for this.
When courts choose to remove children from their homes because of problems with their behavior in the home, school, or community, the hope is that the children will eventually return to their homes. Just my opinion, but I think placing children with other families in such cases can further compromise relationships between children and their families that are already stressed. It sends a message to families that they are not good enough to meet the needs of their children, that some other family can do it better. It sends a similar message to the children.
In cases where courts remove children from their families because of problems with the family (abuse, neglect, abandonment, incarceration, death), placement with a new family may be appropriate. It is said that all children deserve to grow up in a loving family who can provide for their needs. One of the most important needs for children is a stable place in which to grow up. When another family can provide this--great. But in my experience, many of these children are quite damaged, often with multiple needs beyond the capabilities of many families. Families often ask to have such children removed. They go to a shelter until another family is found. Then they get thrown out again.
After only a few such moves, these children begin to engage in what some call testing behavior. The belief is that they are testing to see what the limits are in order to see how much they can get away with. I think it's more serious than that. I think they are testing to see how safe they are.
They need to know whether their new family (or any other placement) will stick with them when they have serious problems with their behavior. They need to find that line where, if they cross it, they will get thrown out again. Only when they know exactly where that line is can they feel safe.
The closer they get to the line, the more anxious they become. They can't know exactly where that line is until they cross it--and get thrown out again. And I think a few children decifde to misbehave their way out of a family or other placement when things get a little unpleasant, hoping that the next placement will be better.
In both such cases, these children become experts at finding whatever it is that a family (or other placement) cannot tolerate. Destruction of cherished property, threatening other children in the home, violating 'inviolate' norms of the home. For these children, residential treatment may be the only resource that can reasonably be expected interrupt the cycle of multiple placements and provide them with a stable environment in which to grow up. How can we expect children to commit to their futures when they don't know where they will be living next year, or next month, or next week.
How can we expect them to invest in their education when they don't know what school they will be going to next year, next month, next week?
I recognize that the only children in foster care with whom I worked were those who failed in foster care. I have never seen or heard about their successes. But I have seen too many children seriously damaged by repeated attempts to place them with families in the mistaken belief that anything is better than residential care. For some children, residential settings may be the only settings that can withstand and treat their testing behaviors.
E.g., when you attack my coworker, it's one thing; when you attack my wife, it's an entirely different matter.
Just a few of my thoughts. It merits a chapter, or perhaps even a book.
This age-old debate will have many pros and many cons yet every answer should be contextual to the individual needs of the child. There will always be a place for Residential Care if it is in the best interest of the individual child.
Residential care must not be confused with the old... "long term, indefinite care"... Residential care can be short term and goal directed and can serve the purpose for "that child at that time". However, the dangers of using the "achievements of children" to validate the issue of long term care is something that we should be careful of.
There is a fundamental difference between paying lip service to community based care like FSP in some areas and believing in the fundamentals of Residential care. FSP in South Africa is far more successful under the SOS banner than, I assume, in other parts of Africa. For the record "keeping children in communities" is not a new concept but more accurately put it is a concept that SOS has only recently embraced. My understanding of the 2009 – 2016 SOS International Strategy is that more money and effort will be spent on keeping children in communities and supporting community based projects, which is very encouraging but there will always be a place for residential child care...
Hi Charles, you are pretty much spot on with your analysis of the current situation regarding the obstacles to the nurturing experience that would best meet children's needs. In my evaluation I would say that even if one or two elements are missing children are still more safe and offered opportunity for growth that would be absent in the neglectful/abusive environment that they have been removed from. It is from this pragmatic baseline that we need to build. Educators and leaders in the field, such as yourself, speak out and engage the workforce in considering other possible worlds. They model relational approaches and affirm staffs intuitive belief that loving unconditional relationships are the way forward. This offers hope and hopefully gives people the strength to resist new managerial containment and pseudo therapeutic interventions.
I work with a group of young people who have experienced a range of care settings, some of which nurtured and supported and others that they 'survived', but all are of the opinion that residential care was the best thing that happened to them. They have produced in conjunction with SIRCC a photo project that gives moving insights into their lives. Send me an address and I'll post a copy off. You will be uplifted.
I am in agreement with your statement that what is needed most in child and youth residential care is a solid committed and Nurturing relationship. Too often administrators forget this or take it for granted and do not support the groundwork for making these relationships blossom. We expect it but we do not prepare for it. And then when the workers fall down or the relationship falls apart we blame and shame and hold the worker accountable.
This is not the world I want to live in, where those in power dictate to those without power what the standards are but do nothing to train or support or nurture those frontline workers, those foster parents. In my line of work, foster care, we are creating intentional families. Families. Not group homes or residential treatment centers. In this country, the USA, we espouse family values but what does this really mean? It is a extrapolation of rugged individualism; families are just supposed to know how to care for severely damaged kids or they are to seek out their own support. The ethic of "It takes a village" does not inform how we do institutional child care. Adoption is the only permanency, which may work for most kids but certainly not all. And when the relationship begins to crumble we so quickly call for the kid to be removed and placed elsewhere into another family which can do the work. We would never think about investing in the relationship as it exists.
I too cynical. Social workers who are afraid to get dirty in relationships should go be button pushers elsewhere. Too many rules in this field and not enough risk takers and family makers. Too easy to cut and run. There needs to be accountability for the managers and te bureaucrats.
Does anyone remember an article published by the Dulwich Center back in the 1990's called Partnership Accountability? It was based on their work on how to hold workers accountable for sexist or racist behavior of privileged persons. I implemented it once in a team I worked in where the power was being wielded by a small group of the team to the detriment of the entire team's cohesiveness. I wish I had a copy of it. Does anyone know how I can get another? I tried their website.
While in the ideal world no child should grow up in an institution, the reality is that many institutions still provide children with a better chance in life than they would have had in the community. Many children have special needs, and communities (and society) marginalises these children. For example, in South Africa, the government spends substantially more money on each of its prisoners than on disabled children. No matter how you look at it, disabled children represent a vulnerable group that is further deprived of opportunities or care "because they are just not important enough". The same goes for children with mental disorders, children in trouble with the law, children who have been abused, traumatised, traumatically sexualised, etc etc. In many ways we represent the last "line of defense" for many children who would have no other opportunities.
Even as organisations who work primarily with providing residential care, we also work very hard to prevent residential/institutional care, but we are realistic enough to admit that while we do not represent the ideal in society, we still represent the best of what is available to some children.
And anyway, I think the child care profession and residential organisations are doing pretty well considering how little support we sometimes receive.
Werner van der Westhuizen
I live and work as a child protection social worker in BC Canada. In this province we do have residential child care but do not have secure care facilities. Group homes and foster homes serve the purpose for many kids, secure care would also be an assett for some of the kids we work with.
We do not have institutions, as it were, but have had in the past. I think each country and community needs to fill the need for its kids the best way it can and we have no right to think our way is better than theirs. The only thing we need to keep in mind is the best interests of the children and how to make that happen the best way we can.
A very interesting discussion. With the changing
society, it is indeed necessary. Perhaps the many young people who have
passed through can affirm. For some, experiences have never been good!
Indeed others will share good experiences. The undeniable fact remains that
children belong in families. Unfortunately, today, many of the families are
not ready to receive them, let alone share their hurt and frustrations.
In this age, how do we doubt the calibre of men and women working in these settings! The phenomenon of the professionalization of child care, why does it remain a concern or challenge to others! The 30 years of the professionalization of the Child Care in South Africa is one example.
The issue should not be whether residential child care is necessary, but it is a temporary placement and makes a difference in the life of the young person. The staff are equally competent to respond to the needs of the children.
From: John Stein [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: 10 November 2010 04:53 AM
A tough question with really great responses. And now my two cents. Although responses have been superior, this question merits an article, a chapter, perhaps even a book. It is complex on many different levels.
First, if 'care' means providing for the basic needs of children, what is basic? Is it food, shelter, clothing, and a bit of supervision and guidance? That's what many professionals in my part of the world (Louisiana, USA) seem to think it is. Well heck, anyone can do that. Don't need much training, if any. So if all a kid needs is a bit of care since his family can't provide it for some reason, then all we need to do is find him another home, like with foster care (or her – I'm going to use 'her' from here on). No need for residential care if we can find foster homes for these kids.
But I think one of the basic needs of kids is stability. They need a foundation. They need to know where they will be living next week, next month, next year, and even further. Otherwise, how can they commit to their schooling, their education? If they don't know what school they will be attending next year. Or next month. Or next week. Residential care can provide that stability. Too often, foster care cannot and does not.
Then how about the kid who has a stable home, but who is having so many problems that her parents cannot provide for her needs? We have all seen these kids. Do we put these kids with another family instead of in residential care while we get treatment for them and for their parents with some therapist? If so, what is the message to the parents – and the child? "You are so bad as parents that your kid needs another home?" "Your parents are so bad you would be better off with another family?" Seems to me that only adds to the problems, the damage to the family. Isn't it easier to promote the idea that these serious problems may be no one's fault and that some professional help is required? I mean, I just hate the idea of having a kid conclude that she would be better off with another family, or a family conclude that their kid would be better off with other parents.
But that's the simple stuff. In reality, we have children with serious multiple problems. Children who have not learned (for whatever reasons) things they should have learned – academically for sure, but also socially, such as values and beliefs and skills and behaviors and attitudes and empathy and respect. And then we have children who have learned things they should not have learned, such as beliefs in retaliation and revenge and all the attitudes and skills and behaviors that go along with that. And the children who have screwed up feelings and emotions and ... well, we've got some kids with lots of problems. And then these kids also have normal developmental needs in addition to their special needs. Sometimes these normal needs seem to get neglected with all the attention to their special needs. A comprehensive treatment program can address all these things – c24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Putting such kids with a foster family and providing a bit of time with a therapist on Tuesdays – well, too often that just isn't enough. And the foster family gets overwhelmed and says 'Get her out, let us try another kid.'
Like Charles Sharpe, I lament the lack of recognition that residential 'care' receives (I much prefer to talk about residential treatment). In the early 90's, I was talking with a professor of social work about a book I was writing on residential treatment and advocating for a bit more training in residential treatment for social workers – they usually end up directing our programs here in Louisiana yet have no vision for residential treatment and no training in the field. Her response – "Residential treatment will never amount to more than a chapter in an introductory social work text." Her concept – a place for kids to live while they go to therapy sessions with a 'trained professional.' Residential treatment can and should be so much more!
I know what 'care' means to those in the field of child and youth care. It encompasses all these things. I also know what the term means to others, to professionals outside the field and to the public and the politicians who provide funding. They think of it as baby-sitting.
Can't help but wonder whether we need to work on our terminology, emphasizing treatment instead of care. And how about 'beds,' as in "We are licensed for 12 beds," or "We have a bed open for an adolescent female." Or my favorite from state workers looking for placement for a difficult child with multiple needs, "I need a bed for a 12-year-old female." Really. Go to the Salvation Army. They have beds for sale, cheap. Beds that don't discriminate in terms of age, sex, race, or anything else. Tell me. What do you really need? What does the kid really need? I just bet it's more than a bed. But if a bed is all you ask for, that just might be all you get.
Perhaps we should be talking about child development specialists instead of child care workers. That is, after all, what we are. And comprehensive residential treatment instead of residential care.
A very interesting discussion indeed.
I would like to add to the point that John made regarding the process that a family endures when they are no longer capable of 'caring' for their child.
I have been working in residential homes for the last
four years and have worked closely with a number of different youth. All of
the children and youth I have worked with are individuals who are dealing
with a wide range of developmental and behavioral disabilities and they all
have one thing in common; that is that they have all gone through the
traumatic experience of being taken away from their family homes. Almost
every child I have worked with does not understand why their parents "don't
want them" and have guilt complexes about being "bad". To put it simply,
children who must leave their family homes to receive treatment in a
different home whether it is foster care or staffed residential care go
through a traumatic experience that results in attachment issues ranging
from mild to severe and my question is: Why are we adding a challenge before
we start any treatment? Is this really the most effective way to begin
treatment? It seems to me that we are dealing with the wrong problem. The
child already has a home, why do they need a new one?
Now here is my idealistic proposal: What if when a family was having difficulty caring for their youth instead of putting all of our resources into building a new home if we could staff the already existing home? This is what it would look like:
1) The family would be referred to this new resource.
2) A professional would have appointments with the family to assess the needs of the family as a whole (here we are using the ecological system).
3) The professional would arrange for qualified staff to come work in the home offering support and respite while at the same time making changes to the home that would be the same changes we (qualified residential staff) would make to the group home. Instead of training new staff to come work in the home (like we already do any time there is a staff turn around) we would be training the parents.
4) Eventually the home would be set up to meet the needs of the parents and youth. The youth would be involved in a number of programs both therapeutic and recreational, the parents would have the skills needed to properly deal with difficult behaviors the youth presents and the qualified staff would begin the process of moving out of the home.
5) On-going support for parents and youth would follow.
In this idealistic option we get to skip the part where the youth (who is already dealing with enough issues) is put through a traumatic experience of being taken from their families that they sometimes never recover from. In this option the treatment starts immediately and is also more holistic involving the entire family. I was taught that it is most important to keep the family system intact, after all a youth is not their own entity but part of a bigger system. It does not make sense to take a part of a broken system out and fix it then return it to the broken system and expect the system to work.
Obviously this would not work in every situation, I am speaking specifically about the children and youth who are already in a family home that is just overwhelmed by the youth because they do not have the tools to properly 'care' for the youth. I often feel frustrated by the lack of effectiveness I can offer in my position as a residential care worker and see that myself as a resource could be so much more useful. In residential homes, I am picking up the pieces of a broken home instead of working on the problem that broke the home in the first place.
Thanks for listening to my two cents. I appreciate a forum that enables me to vent and share ideas with other caring professionals. Thank you,
I am supposed to be getting on with finalising the December 15th issue of the goodenoughcaring Journal (I'm sure no one noticed that subliminally communicated commercial) when I read Amanda's contribution to this thread and it got me enthusiastic for her new ideas and, saddened by my own past failures. Like Lynne and John, I support Amanda's proposals and indeed in the early 1980s the late Martin Wigg, then the Principal of Sparrows Herne Observation and Assessment Centre in Hertfordshire, England, developed a service of care in the family supported by residential workers from Sparrows Herne and this proved so successful that the the local authority social services department – which was then headed by Herbert Laming – closed many of their residential centres in order to focus on what came to be known across all client groups from child care through to care for elderly adults as "care in the community" or "community care".
This became a country wide movement and as an approach it proved successful and to an extent it is still evident as a caring approach with adults but it did not flourish with youngsters in their families because the latter often required intensive resourcing and so many local public authorities regarded it as either too expensive or, more frequently, interpreted it as a money saving exercise which led to a superficial service whose only merit was that it was cheaper than residential child care.
I was involved in similarly professionally successful public, private and voluntary sector initiaitves to provide residentially backed family support in the north midlands of England in the late 80s, in the south west of England in the early nineties and in the last decade in the private sector in the London area. All were thwarted – despite their widely acknowledged efficacy - because of a lack of political and financial commitment to the family support approach.
I also think that field social workers, who referred children to residential homes found themselves in the unhappy position of being reduced to being mere purchasers of services and envious that they were not given the time to do direct support work with families and so perhaps did not support these projects as well as they might. Of course offering the kind of intensive support that a residential worker can provide within the family home falls well within the umbrella of the role of the social pedagogue in Europe.
Social pedagogues have traditionally worked in the life space in residential homes and in families I would also say that there are children who for a short time at least are safer outside of the family and are best helped in a residential group care setting. These tend to be children who though wishing eventually to return to living with their families find the notion temporarily unbearable. There are also children who have suffered so much from family life that even foster family care is in the long term too threatening for them.
I hope Amanda you will continue to develop and promote
your own original ideas about support for families. They will work but they
require a lot of political, professional and financial commitment.
If you can persuade those who purchase child care services to provide this
kind of resource you will have done a great service for the many children
who would benefit from it. Don't give up on this.