Children rescued from often chaotic and abusive homes deserve more than the residential care system is offering
I know, from 10 years first-hand experience spent in the care system that being looked after can be safer and more secure than being at home. Was I lucky to have been rescued from an abusive childhood, managing to build a life free from the painful trauma that I experienced as a child?
This of course is the very question at the heart of social work practice – how will I know when to make the decision is made that a child will be better off living away from their family in a difficult and far from perfect care system?
As a nine-year-old, asking to be removed from the care of my parents, my sense of reality and normality was unrecognisable from that of children growing up in secure and stable homes. I could not eat with a knife and fork, had not used a toothbrush, had not been able to stop wetting the bed, and had not ever been told that I was loved. I needed nurturing, supportive, kind and compassionate "care". I was so desperate for the pain, fear and constant disappointment to end.
My future depended on getting "enough" emotional stability and resilience from the care system - and I got it, mostly. At the very least, this is what all looked after children deserve. They all tell us – that what they need is to be "held in someone's mind". To be the focus of concern for an adult that they trust and know well.
Before you can improve outcomes, you need to give children a sense of belonging. If you're giving a child a sense of belonging that child will flourish. More needs to be done to help looked after children in England thrive.
I've been visiting children's residential homes in Scotland and I've been impressed by their focus on recovery and healing. Staff encourage youngsters to develop a skillset and have aspirations. Many providers want young people who have left care to be able to return there, for example, for dinner, to see it as their home.
Take this example. A man in his 20s was due to get married but the wedding venue went bust. The staff at his former children's home donated money for him to book a new venue. They had never lost contact with him, that was his home.
The same provider has a Halloween party each year where all the people who have left the home come back with their own children. At another residential home in Scotland, I met a young social worker who had lived there for six years as a youngster, and was later given a work placement there.
Compare this with my experience. My residential social worker kept in contact with me, but did so in secret, afraid of getting into trouble.
Or the experience of a social worker, who told me:
"I recently comforted a 16-year-old boy who was visiting his dad's grave for the first time in six years. He was sobbing and kept saying 'I really miss him', so I put my arm around him and just kept saying 'I know you do'. He had his head on my shoulder until he felt a bit better. I'm 52 and have been qualified as social worker for 20 years but have been working with young people for 30. I feel no shame or guilt because it was a human thing to do. Not sure what the process driven robots back in my head office would say but to hell with them!"
It doesn't help that frontline staff are at the end of their tether with heavy workloads. Looked after children are at risk because of this and because the standards in the residential care system are too low. Why rescue these children from often chaotic and abusive homes, only to "caretake" them?
The children deserve so much more – society owes that to them and to itself – those children are tomorrow's adults and right now, too many are being failed.
Jenny Molloy is a looked after child adviser and trainer and has organised a conference in partnership with the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland to discuss how to improve outcomes for children in residential care homes. It takes place on Thursday 14 November in Edinburgh.
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