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Criminal Care? · 14 Feb 2019

My story from child in care to social worker

It was interesting to read of the Howard League’s work on challenging the criminalisation of children in the residential care system, bringing back many childhood memories as a child in care in the ’50s and ’60s and during many years as a social worker.

I recall spending several years as a small child in a children’s home with five other boys, all but one older and bigger than me. Discipline in the home was harsh and any behaviour which upset the staff would result in a good hiding. Complaints were out of the question. I was once told “You tell them if you want, who do you think they’d believe, me or you?”. Nobody ever complained. Also, if we were to get moved from the home, we knew would be sent to the notorious remand home for ‘naughty boys’ and the tales of what happened to boys there were enough to keep us on the straight and narrow. Or at least … to stop us getting caught. As small kids in care, we were not averse to the odd bit of shoplifting and petty theft. Most of us stopped as we grew older. Most of us did not get caught. Those who did risked being moved to the ‘remand home’ where the discipline was ever harsher and the risk of getting involved in more serious crime in later life was increased.

I learned two lessons in that children’s home. One was that the difference between some kids whose care career led them into the criminal justice system and the rest of us was that they got caught – we didn’t. Once labelled as criminal, the system nudged you towards becoming more involved in crime.

The other lesson was that harsh, indeed abusive, discipline did not prevent the kids becoming involved in criminal behaviour. It just made them craftier to ensure they weren’t caught.

Decades later, my work involved me visiting children’s homes across the country. Most were homes that accommodated teenagers. Although many of the homes I visited were deep in rural England, young people all appeared to come from the big cities many miles away. Few if any of the kids I spoke with had chosen to come to the homes from a choice of options or been able to visit before admission. Contact with important others, loved ones, friends and their own community suddenly became very difficult to maintain, and social workers could be very difficult to contact. This could be an immediate source of stress to young people.

For many young people, starting at a new school in a strange environment, where most children knew each other already, and where they are easily identified by their different accent or appearance, and unfamiliar with the curriculum, could be a daunting isolating experience even if they could gain a place, so many might go to the children’s home’s own school instead, further separating them from community life. These stresses are potentially built in by the circumstances before the child has even begun to navigate their new placement.

The cost of not having positive relationships with children can be very high

Residential work can be deeply fulfilling, but it is not given appropriate status, recognition or reward, and many staff rely on sleeping in payments to improve their low wages. Long hours can easily result in exhausted staff. Unless extra payments can be negotiated to improve staffing to support individual children, staffing levels tend to reflect the minimum staffing levels required by Ofsted.

The need for staff to develop positive relationships with children very quickly is one of the unsung residential skills and many staff can do this remarkably well. However, the cost of not having such positive relationships with children can be very high. Managing incidents of angry and potentially aggressive behaviour from young people towards staff or each other call for highly developed interpersonal skills and control of the immediate environment. Such skills take time and training to develop, a luxury that many inexperienced staff do not have.

The use of restraint on a child by staff must be a last resort when there is an immediate threat to the safety of the child or others. By any recognised methods of safe restraint for an adolescent, the minimum number of staff required to restrain safely would be three. If there were other children in the house at the time, they would need to be supported and supervised. That would require four staff to be available on site at the point at which restraint was required.

However, it would be unusual to have four staff on duty in a small children’s home. More likely there would be a more senior member of staff on call from home or another establishment. In the event of a crisis, a member of staff would need to remove themselves from child contact and phone the “on call” support. This could conceivably result in only one member of staff supervising children at a time of crisis.

We need a fundamental review of how care is delivered

So, we potentially have a cocktail of disaffected young people who are living in a place where they don’t wish to be and who feel potentially alienated and ignored. Add to that staff who are ill-equipped and under-supported to manage challenging situations without immediate on-site management support. Result? Staff feel unsafe in situations that would not raise an eyebrow in a domestic situation and call the police when they feel threatened. It is only a matter of time until young people are charged with an offence by police – and criminalisation begins.

It is not enough to have protocols with the local police and providers to avoid criminalisation of children in care. We need a fundamental review of how care is delivered that reflects the needs and well-being of the young people and those who care for them.

Ian Dickson is a retired care experienced social worker with a background in residential care with adolescent young people and regulation. He is a member of the team organising the conference for care experienced people (“CareExpConf”) in Liverpool this year.


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