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Criminal Care? · 23 Jul 2018

Good children’s homes have caring staff who want to work with children

Through the course of the research for our latest briefing, ‘Hearts and heads: good practice in children’s homes’, we have come across some truly inspiring children’s homes managers and care workers. We have seen how their commitment and emotional intelligence, always coupled with the support of the parent organisation which owns the home they are working in, have created real homes for children and protected them from criminalisation.

Unfortunately, the quality of staff working in children’s homes varies greatly and many children are not receiving the level of care they need and deserve. Children’s homes staff, children, police and others have told us about individuals working in children’s homes who have contributed to children being unnecessarily criminalised.

It is up to the owners of homes, the majority of which are private companies, to make sure that unsuitable and unskilled workers do not cause further harm to the vulnerable children in their ‘care’. All children’s homes should be staffed by well-trained, well-supported people who care about and want to work with children with complex needs. We support the recommendation of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (2018) that staff working in care roles in children’s homes should be required to register with an independent body that oversees standards within the profession.

“There’s low pay and low acknowledgement of the complex work staff are doing. You can practically walk in off the street and get a job as a residential worker.” – Manager, local authority youth justice services

Poor children’s homes workers police rather than parent children; they do not understand the impact of children’s backgrounds or recognise trauma responses; they are more likely to exacerbate than de-escalate difficult situations; they may take advantage of the power imbalance between staff and children; and they are more likely to use the police to deal with challenging behaviour a parent would not have called the police over and as a means of controlling children.

We have heard cases of children raging against outright cruelty inflicted upon them

We have heard of cases where children have been criminalised when they have responded to staff taunting and provoking them, when they have reacted to unnecessary and sometimes painful restraints and when they have raged against outright cruelty inflicted upon them. We have told some of these stories on this blog and in our first briefing.

We hear about how children’s reactions to these abuses and injustices can be met with an immediate call to the police and the child being criminalised. It is rare for any action to be taken against the staff involved – indeed it is often taken for granted that the children are the only ones at fault – and children may be further punished by being moved to another home or made to go through restorative justice processes. Understandably children feel very angry about these multiple injustices.

I gave the job up because of the staff I worked with. Too many of them saw how little they were making, so they came in and went home and that was it.” – Anne, former residential care worker (The Guardian, 2018)

There are many factors leading to poor quality staffing. The low salaries in the sector are undoubtedly an issue; over 10 per cent of children’s homes staff are paid at or below the Living Wage Rate (DfE, 2015) and we have heard of homes which operate zero hour contracts. Children’s homes are competing for staff with other low-paid, entry level work which may be less stressful and have more regular hours. In homes where staff are not trained, supported or valued there are high levels of sickness, absence, staff turnover and difficulties with recruitment.

What normal home has strangers coming in to look after the children?

Many children’s homes rely on agency staff to fill the gaps. We hear that the use of agency staff impacts on children’s well-being and behaviour and that it can contribute to criminalisation, particularly when the owners of homes do not have procedures in place for managing cover by agency workers. A manager of one outstanding Oftsed-rated children’s home told us that he never uses agency staff. As he said, “What normal home has strangers coming in to look after the children?” Instead he had a bank of casual staff, some of them former employees, who he could draw on as necessary. Another good children’s home manager told us that if he has to use agency staff he will brief and monitor them himself.

“One of the problems with the current placement is that there are often agency staff on duty who don’t know the child or his history and who don’t have the training to deal with what’s happening. It must be very intimidating when you have a 15 year old boy who’s quite strong being aggressive towards you. The staff respond by wanting to protect themselves.” – Social worker

Many of the incidents we hear about which lead to the criminalisation of children happen at night. In many children’s homes there are fewer staff on duty at night time, night-time staff are frequently paid below the minimum wage (The Guardian, 2018) meaning they are generally lower skilled and more likely to be untrained and there can be very little, if any support available to them. When staff are unskilled and unsupported they are much more likely to panic and call the police.

The owners of children’s homes need to address issues around staffing in homes if they are serious about preventing the unnecessary criminalisation of children. There is much that can be done by owners to improve staff recruitment, retention, training and support which could vastly improve the daily experiences and well-being of the children in their care.

Claire Sands

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