Caring for princes and other kids

Growing up in Groups
February 24, 1995

Think of children's homes and the image conjured up is unlikely to resemble the kind of home life most of us would want for our children. And until recently, childcare policy tended to reinforce this attitude, with residential care being seen as a last resort or a stop-gap until children could either return to their birth families or be found a permanent substitute family. During the 1960s, both residential care and long-term fostering fell into disfavour as options for children who had to live away from their parents; "permanence" became the watchword for social workers - and permanence increasingly came to mean adoption. Thus, when Rowe and Lambert's major research study of children in care, Children Who Wait, was published in 1973, showing that children who had been in care for six months or more had only a one-in-four chance of returning to their own families, the official response was neither to get more children back to their parents nor to concentrate on making those children's experience of care a productive one, but to go all out in the search for permanent substitute families.

Barbara Kahan's book invites the reader to reappraise this position, to consider the value of residential care as a service to children in its own right, and to value the skills it calls on. It considers the children's home as one end of a continuum of residential childcare provision, the other end of which is that apparently desirable establishment - the public school. This immediately suggests that there is more to group care of children than first appears.

Kahan's exposition draws together the deliberations of a large, multidisciplinary group drawn mainly from social services, education and health which tried to define some basic principles to safeguard and promote the welfare of children living away from home, and identify a common core of good practice to support them. The settings examined include children's homes, boarding schools (maintained and independent), boarding special schools, therapeutic communities, and medical and other health settings (which include psychiatric hospitals and units). In looking at "good practice" Kahan suggests that there is a surprising amount in common across these very diverse placements beyond the fact that they provide the setting in which groups of young people grow up, away from their families.

The heart of the book is the discussion of this "common core" of good practice. The focus of this long chapter is on children's homes, but the point is repeatedly made that what works here will also work elsewhere, and vice versa. While acknowledging the differences between, say, a long-stay hospital ward and a therapeutic community, the message is that there is more to unite them in terms of good practice than to divide them.

So what do the good establishments share? The process of looking after, working and living with children and young people is examined along three dimensions: care, behaviour, and the contemporary hazards of growing up. The emphasis throughout is on sensitive and constructive engagement with the young residents, with their families (wherever possible), friends, other professionals, and with the wider "outside" community. Kahan's conclusion highlights a number of themes that run through the book. These include openness; participation; conitinuity of care; children's rights and responsibilities; the commonality of children's and young people's developmental needs, regardless of where they live; the importance of needs-led care that responds to the particular circumstances and requirements of the individual rather than imposing a standard regime; the value of sharing care wherever possible with the child's "significant others"; and the role and value of "good parenting care" - which is not the same as trying to act as substitute parents - in the worker/resident relationship.

These themes add up to a compendium of good advice and practical guidance. Most if not all of the people Kahan identifies as potential readers will find something to learn from here. She suggests which parts of the book will interest which readers, acknowledging that not everyone will want to read all of it. A comprehensive contents page allows the reader to pick out appropriate sections with some precision - presumably making up for the absence of any kind of index. For more scholarly use, the book is a curious mixture: it clearly draws on a wide range of publications and literature relating to the different care settings, but the referencing system seems deliberately ad hoc. Publications referred to in the main text are listed in an appendix - but alphabetically by title, which makes them hard to find when they are referred to in the text by author. Footnotes appear without any apparent pattern, and on one occasion the same publication is mentioned on consecutive pages, referenced separately on each occasion, once within the text and once as a footnote. Such variety in referencing is distracting.

On a more substantive level, a book devoted to serious consideration of good practice with children and young people needs to ensure that issues of race and class are prominently addressed. Both significantly influence the life chances of the children and their families and have implications for care staff, as the book identifies but does not discuss in great detail. Kahan tells us that there are no national statistics on the ethnic composition of the child residential population, but it is known that the number of black British and Asian children in independent boarding schools is small, while black and mixed-parentage children are over-represented in local authority care. Working to develop anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice is a major concern for Diploma in Social Work students - one of the groups at whom this book is aimed - as well as for any staff group. Its presence in the text does not reflect this. The working group Kahan draws on clearly rejects the "colour-blind" approach that affects not to notice race, and no definition of "good practice" would condone racism in staff, residents or institutions. But this assumption remains largely implicit in the text, where specific attention to race and ethnicity is limited to a few pages.

A final reservation concerns the book's consideration of the financial climate (and therefore also the political framework) within which decisions about group care are made. The text remains curiously untouched by the economic language - the purchaser/provider split, service level agreements and so on - that increasingly dominates social services's budgeting and planning. To some extent, good practice issues transcend cash limits. But it is clearly easier to operate in an open, relaxed and creative way if you are not worried about your job being cut or your unit's budget being slashed. Kahan rightly argues for the provision of a range of activities and experiences that will enrich the lives of children and young people living away from home, and for training and career development opportunities for care staff - but it is perhaps easier to preserve such activities in a fee-charging institution than in one bound by government spending strategies.

The "common core" identified by Kahan collects together, rather than creates a new definition of, good practice. In a sense, there are no new ideas. So we might expect these principles and skills to be taken for granted. Where, then, does the problem lie? It isn't just money. The logic of Growing Up in Groups is that all children, however damaged or disruptive, deserve respect, and have a right to take an informed part in their care, management and upbringing. But there is a continuing ambivalence at the national policy-making level where ideas like Michael Howard's "boot camps" still enjoy some political mileage.

Institutional care still has a long way to go to shake off its associations with the out of control and the hopeless, with containment rather than care. So for the time being, public schools will continue to be more eagerly sought after than local authority care. And the reasons are not all to do with the care being offered and the degree to which it conforms to the guidelines set out here. Gordonstoun would still not be equivalent to a children's home even if it adopted these care principles unreservedly - but Prince Charles might have been a happier man.

Danielle Turney is a lecturer in social work, Goldsmiths Col- lege, London.

Growing up in Groups

Author - Barbara Kahan
ISBN - 0 11 701843 0
Publisher - HMSO
Price - £11.50
Pages - 374pp

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