“You’ve done nothing for me since I came here, all those promises were just words, I may as well be at home with my mum”

These words have stayed with me since I left my role working within residential homes, supporting children and young people who are looked after by the Local Authority. The reason I have never been able to forget these words is because of the feelings of guilt, frustration, sadness and disappointment at the many obstacles and barriers I faced in the everyday challenge of providing a sense of security and wellbeing, a stable home environment and sense of normality to the very vulnerable children residing within the unit.

Many of the children had experienced a very difficult start in life and as a result were emotionally traumatised by the time they reached us. Many had been moved around to various foster placements before arriving at the unit, mostly because of a breakdown in foster placements due to the challenging behaviour they often displayed towards others. Numerous changes to social workers and care staff led them to become very frustrated and unable to trust any adults caring for them as they had lost all confidence that those adults around them would not give up on them like many others had.

When I read the article “Children in Care Homes excessively criminalised”  it was with great sadness that I quickly realised  that while changes have most certainly been made since my departure, some things are still the same today and this was one of them. (Although it is important to note this article reports of incidents within private providers and my experience is within the local authority).The sad reality is that no matter how much care and compassion residential workers may hold for the vulnerable children and young people in their care, they are confined to the professional boundaries within which they work. For example, residential workers must act with great care and attention to safeguarding policies and procedures when giving a child or young person a hug or engage in physical contact, for fear of misinterpretation by the young person or indeed their colleagues and the worry of the potential risks of allegations made against them, potentially leaving the worker in a very vulnerable position. The consequence of what may appear at face value as a token of genuine sympathy or empathy towards the young person could be detrimental, particularly when there is a belief that those in such positions are effectively thought of as ‘guilty until proven innocent’. When showing children and young people care and affection, residential workers must therefore ensure they behave and act in a professional manner at all times, maintaining a professional ‘distance’ from the young person.

The article emphasises the “minor” incidents which are reported to the police by residential workers; incidents which they believe would most likely not reach police attention if these incidents were taking place within the family home. Of course they wouldn’t. Because those of us who are parents know that if we can see our children putting themselves potentially at risk or in a very vulnerable position, we would walk to the ends of the earth to avoid risky situations to keep them safe from harm. Similarly, if our own children displayed violence and aggression towards us or others, we would do everything in our power to resolve these issues and difficulties within the family home. Of course there are exceptions, this is not a generalisation, but my point is we cannot always do that for children in care, no matter how much we want to or feel we need to and the sad fact is that children in care know this. A child within the family home, cared for by their parents or guardians would be much less likely to find themselves being interviewed by the police about damaging property within the home or being physically violent to their caregivers. A thought needs to be given for the longer term effects and impacts of police intervention for children and young people in relation to minor incidents. The article refers to an incident reported to the police by a residential unit concerning a ‘broken cup.’ On first reading this may sound ridiculous, but a presumption must be made about the possibility that violence and aggression may have been the cause of property being damaged. Within the family home, it’s fair to say incidents such as this would be very unlikely to reach police hands. Since leaving my role in residential, the management of such issues have certainly changed within local authority care. Unless an emergency situation occurs, members of staff must contact senior service managers for authorisation before a call to the police can be made. This is due to the recognition of the detrimental impact police intervention can have on the young person, when incidents deemed not to be serious are put into perspective.

A great deal of care and attention is given by social workers when placing a child or young person and the decision on their placement is one which is made with the child at the centre, ensuring that whichever placement they are given is deemed the best for the child and can best meet that child’s needs. Children and young people arrive in residential units with a plan of care and goals and targets to be achieved during their time within the placements. However, despite this, the seemingly limited care and affection workers can offer children and young people in such placements may contribute to the child feeling the weight of the ‘substitute care’ they are being provided with. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that some young people may feel let down, as in my case as quoted at the beginning of this piece. Corporate parenting cannot and will never be the same as birth parenting.

The question then for professionals working in residential units is how they can perhaps deal with situations which would reflect that of the family home and offer the level of care and support that such vulnerable children and young people so desperately need. If residential care staff were able to deal with situations which show young people their genuine care for them without the constraints of being emotionally detached, perhaps there would be a significant reduction in these minor incidents being passed over to the police to deal with. The policies, procedures and legislation which care staff must work within will, in my view always present that professional obstruction, which will restrict private providers, local authorities and charities to completely move away from that ‘institutional’ feel in favour of providing a homely, nurturing and comfortable family environment which children and young people deserve.

Emma Cotton

MA Education Student, Newman University

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