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Criminal Care? · 3 Oct 2018

Good care workers do not label and stigmatise children

Research shows that children in care feel very conscious of and stigmatised by negative labelling and stereotyping (Hadley Centre and Coram Voice, 2015). Children’s homes staff can contribute to negative labelling by writing careless or malicious notes about children which will stay on their files affecting them throughout their childhood and beyond. The detrimental impact, both emotional and practical, on children of this form of labelling is something that has been raised with us often by children, children’s homes owners and staff and by youth justice lawyers.

Solomon, a care-experienced 23-year-old who has posted about his experiences on this blog, told us about how he was unfairly labelled on a key document which still affects him as a care leaver.

“For a few weeks I had been following the children’s home’s in-house education routine which involved me sitting in a tiny, claustrophobic room which passed for a classroom, reading through textbooks and occasionally being visited by a care worker who was supposed to be educating me. I’d learned that asking any questions of my so-called teacher invariably resulted in them telling me to look the answers up in the text book, so I’d stopped asking. One day, I couldn’t stand it anymore; the deep sense of frustration I felt about my situation came out in an argument with the care worker. I vented about the futility of the situation and the lack of education I was receiving. The care worker seemed amused by my outburst and laughed at me.

To add insult to injury they added, ‘you need to learn to cook pasta before you go to school.’ I felt a huge swell of anger and picked up the plastic cup of water next to me on the table and threw it into the corner of the room, splashing me and the care worker with water. The care worker called the police and a few hours later I was arrested for assault. The care worker recorded on my file, ‘Solomon is known to be violent to keyworkers and carers, having assaulted staff in the care home’. These words are now indelibly recorded on my Core Assessment and over the years they will have been read by many people and affected their views of me.”

Children’s homes owners and managers often relate to us their frustrations and concerns about the records they receive about children. They say that the children they meet rarely match the information written down about them in referral documentation. One manager said that they never take referral forms at face value and they always challenge labels. She told us about a five year-old child who had recently moved into her home and who had been described in her records as ‘aggressive’ and ‘attacking’. When the manager looked into what had happened she found out that this young child had had a tantrum and kicked a foster carer on the shins. The manager was very concerned that this record would label that child and affect professionals’ views of her and the support she might receive for many years to come. She felt that sometimes it was easier to put a label on children rather than deal with the root cause of their behaviour, a view that is supported by research (Day, 2017).

“One incident can really label a child. We try to start with an open mind and take some time to get to know the young person.” Children’s home provider, London

One children’s homes manager said that she tried to overcome some of the negative language that can be used on children’s records by keeping a photo of the child when they first came into care at the front of their file. She felt it made a big difference to staff’s perceptions of children, helping them remember that the teenager they were now dealing with was still a child who had needed to be brought into care.

Children at one children’s home reported that they were fed up with the staff reading negative things about them that painted a false picture of who they were. They were supported by a participation worker using co-production techniques to create a template file note for describing themselves in their own words, their good points and their likes and dislikes. They also made a section for what a bad day looked like for them with some pointers for staff on how to deal with that. Their work was placed at the front of the file so that it was the first thing to be read by anyone who picked up the file.

Labelling children can seriously damage life chances

Lawyers we have spoken to have told us how written records can affect children who come into the youth justice system. Reports written by children’s homes staff, social workers and other professionals may be disclosable in criminal proceedings. Labels attributed to children at a young age or years previously can paint a picture of a child which may be very unfair, adversely affecting the outcomes of cases and seriously damaging that child’s life chances.

The owners of children’s homes need to educate their staff about the impact the records they keep can have on children. Staff should be trained to write objectively and using non-stigmatising language so that they do not contribute to negative labelling of vulnerable children.

Claire Sands and Solomon Alexandera

References

Day, A-M. (2017) Hearing the voice of looked after children: challenging current assumptions and knowledge about pathways into offending. Safer Communities, Vol. 16 Issue: 3, pp.122-133.

Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies and Coram Voice (2015) Children and Young People’s Views on Being in Care. A Literature Review. Bristol and London: Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies and Coram Voice

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