The Blog

Reconnecting Residential Child Care 2013

We must challenge conventional but inaccurate thinking about our children's homes. The unremittingly negative image of children's homes just isn't found in real life.

In 2013 let's make it an entitlement that every child looked after by the corporate parent, that's you and me not just local authorities and government, has the emotional, physical and legal conditions necessary to experience security, continuity, and commitment, developing a freely chosen identity.

Supporting adoption and fostering means we must also actively set about recovering and reaffirming that residential options are necessary, desired and desirable for some young people. If we are to be parents for all of the nation's children we must set about this task with our heads, hearts and hands. We must get real.

Over most of last year it was impossible to get any positive media stories about children's homes; even asking for balance was rejected. 'Facts' were presented in the media that did not stand up to scrutiny. When later discovering the reality, there was little, if any, correcting coverage.

We must challenge conventional but inaccurate thinking about our children's homes. The unremittingly negative image of children's homes just isn't found in real life. Being real means knowing children's homes are no different from any other household. They are not always perfect but life can be good, fun, happy, safe. Some children need and prefer life in a children's home to family-based options. Being real means knowing there's some serious work going on as children face their previous life experiences.

Thorough assessment must mean that every placement is made at the right time for the right reasons. And, yes, the right cost, meeting the right standards, and in the right place. We will achieve this through a strategy that plans for homes to offer care locally, regionally and nationally according to need. 2012 saw a picture of distance as solely being about 'a long way from home.' Sometimes local is helpful. Yet research and experience tells us that distance can also be a positive factor offering a child the new experience of safety, or of accessing specialist care.

The former children's minister, Tim Loughton stated there was no hierarchy over placement options. In reality the 'most appropriate placement' of the Children Act isn't always made as cost outweighs care considerations. Official statistics show most young people arrive at a children's home at nearly 16 years old often following many failed fostering placements. Being real means understanding that this is one reason why outcomes from children's homes are not always as good as for other placement options. Being real means we understand as a nation that we must sometimes use our children's homes not as a last resort option but for some young people as the first and foremost option.

So we must prepare ourselves to challenge long and often. With some tenacity, the residential sector has survived the shock and awe of the 2012 onslaught of unreality. We must challenge artificial distinctions between care options as though all options were right for all young people no matter their needs. Family based options may well be right for many, many young people but not all, and not all of the time.

Anyway, part of the getting real is a new appreciation that the separation of family and 'other' doesn't stand up in an age where we have a wide range of families and many young people live in 'created families.' Adopted children may become part of a family which has step-children. This is not that different from a children's home today of four children or fewer, often behaving as a 'family' where young people experience love and have a real sense of belonging.

If we are successful in our task in reconnecting residential child care by the end of the year we will all view children's homes differently.

We will have overcome the worries we feel when we found out that children's homes were disoriented and disconnected by the rest of the children's services system. We will have recovered from the realisation that last year's discussions were too often 'about' but not 'with' a crucial sector, perspectives and practicalities omitted.

As a result of the re-found inclusiveness children's homes will have an improving status in our choices regarding care. We will have a new network of meaning in which children's homes feel accepted and seen as a valued resource.

We will have started with our appreciation that the use of children's homes is always a social construction. So much of the life of a children's home is determined by what happens before and outside. The task is whole system reform: systems, values and ethics. Here's a question that highlights the problem - "what would children's services look like if children's homes were seen as a positive?'

We have much we can remember, review and renew. We need to reclaim and recover the English tradition of residential child care.