When I started in Residential Child Care 40 years ago there were still a few young people who were spoken of a case of 'failure to thrive.' Once experienced it isn't forgotten, the way all of the life of the young person was drained, and draining further from them. It was physically obvious but it affected all of their development too, emotional, psychological, social. These children were affected, that is, until they became enfolded by the warmth of relationships within an environment created to provide the things they needed to grow healthily.
We knew what to do, richly nurture in every way, 'feed the greed' that inevitably happened when a developing, formerly deprived, child found the world was endowed with plenty and they could have their share. In fact once they experienced knowing they had an entitlement, they discovered what it was to have to enough to have a share, and enough to be able to share with others.
Mostly failure to thrive came from the child's home circumstances being unable to provide for their basic needs. For instance a child might be malnourished or underdeveloped for their age through lack of play or loving care.
So what is this to do with today's children's homes? I have been reflecting that inadvertently the circumstance today for children's home providers is akin to those that led to children's 'failure to thrive'. I can hear readers thinking, 'Isn't that quite a leap to make?'
Let's think this through using another idea from child care called Resilience. Fortunately using what we know about Resilience will tell us what we need to do to change the circumstances for children's homes too.
Resilience is a process. Robbie Gilligan, writing about the importance of resilience in child placement practice and planning describes it as the '... qualities which cushion a vulnerable child from the worst effects of adversity in whatever form it takes and which may help a child or young person to cope, survive and even thrive in the face of great hurt and disadvantage'. Brigid Daniel, a doyen of Resilience, tells us that for residential child care staff the key word is 'thrive'. Resilience is the ability to know where, how and when to use your energies to improve things for yourself and how to recruit help in that endeavour.
Think of all the negativity and blame that has been publicly projected on children's homes these past few years. What is taken as true is often the reverse of reality and unevidenced. This takes its toll on everyone working in children's homes. There have been few who have assisted in helping them 'cope, survive and even thrive in the face of great hurt and disadvantage'. In the face of this children's homes have not stopped from caring deeply for our most vulnerable young people, digging deeper into their resources and continually adapting to meet new challenges.
Can we say that our nations' children's homes feel they have a secure base, self-esteem and self-efficacy, as we would aim for any child to feel? They need these to do their job for society. These things bring a feeling of worth and competence. Children's homes know their limits and strengths and know they don't have influence or control over their future currently.
So what does Resilience tell us we should be doing?
Firstly we have to reduce children's homes vulnerability and risk. We need to see them as a positive option for young people and use them not as a last resort but the best option first time. We have many world class homes, let's use them properly.
Let's be real about the balance of risk and recovery that takes place each day in our children's homes. Taking a magnifying glass only to the risks is to present an unreal picture of children's homes today. It affects the sense of worth. We need to give our children's homes a sense of a hopeful future. Part of that is also telling today's stories of success are different from the past.
Having first created a sense of security, we can then take the second step, reducing the numbers of stressors and 'pile-up'. We need to create for our children's homes an environment for their work where they can use problem focussed approaches. To do so they need to feel very different than they do now, able to have an influence. When you've done all the emotion-focused approaches, changing the way one thinks and feels, when you've invested heavily and developed a great deal of positive practice and still you're not valued you'd have to be forgiven if you ask if everything that's said is really accurate?
We have to challenge and jettison old thinking, freeing ourselves up to invest in our nation's homes and increase the available resources available to workers, support and training being crucial.
The start though comes from getting properly protective about our homes. When something needs fixing, fix it. When something needs praising, praise it.
Finally don't keep children's homes locked out in the cold from all the other services for children. In fact looking at it another way couldn't it be that all the other services only are possible as long as you have residential options?
Failure to thrive should be a thing of the past - for every child, and everyone dedicated to caring for them.