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Criminal Care? · 12 Oct 2018

Experiences of a residential children’s home worker

I recently took up a post in a residential children’s home after many years of working with young people in community and education settings. My previous roles included some opportunities to work with young people in care, so these positive experiences inspired me to move full-time into children’s social care.

I met my first serious challenge in the role very soon into the job when one of the young people started behaving aggressively towards staff, smashing household items and threatening to cause more damage. I approached the problem in the trauma-informed way I had learned about in previous roles and through my own research, displaying empathy to the young person, listening to their concerns and getting them to listen to the concerns of the staff.

I managed to cool temperatures and resolve the situation without calling the police. This subsequently contributed to me being able to build a secure attachment with the young person which helped me support them more effectively with other areas of their life.

Systems to incentivise good behaviour cause conflict and prevent supportive relationships developing

Unfortunately, I quickly found that my trauma-informed approach was at odds with the behaviour incentivist system that was in place in the home. Under this system, children were incentivised to behave with money and activities. I found that the system caused conflict and disagreements between staff and young people, that young people were de-motivated rather than motivated by what they perceived to be bribery and that it actually led to an increase in arguments and challenging episodes. I felt the system prevented me from using my skills to develop supportive relationships with young people and that it was at odds with my trauma-informed approach.

One of the negative effects of the incentivist system was the criminalisation of young people living in the home. This happened for two reasons: firstly, as I said, it caused arguments and increased challenging behaviour; secondly, the system did not facilitate the development of supportive relationships between staff and young people which made it, in my opinion, more likely that the police would be called.

I am very sorry to say that I briefly became part of this process, calling the police out for two very minor incidents (one after a pillow was thrown at me and the other after a picture was smashed) which resulted in arrests on both occasions.

However, I’m determined to never be part of the unnecessary phoning of the police again. I feel very strongly that if we’re going to avoid criminalisation we need to be approaching our work in a trauma-informed way. I want to build positive relationships with young people, support their aspirations, and help them heal from trauma. Behaviour incentivist schemes are the old way; a trauma-informed approach is the way forward.

Susan (not her real name), residential children’s home worker

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