Closure of Childrens Homes
June 4, 2011
It comes as no surprise to me that in order to save money some councils in England are planning on closing down some of their childrens homes. But is it really about saving money, or is it more about making residential care the option of last resort for children who cannot live with their own families?
I recently read an article in Community Care where it was revealed that Essex Council is proposing the closure of 7 of its mainstream childrens homes with the view of reinvesting in early intervention services and specialist foster care. The decision by Essex to move away from the use of residential care for looked after children, comes only a few months after similar proposals were announced to cut the number of childrens homes in Skelmersdale from 15 to 10.
So, how come all of a sudden we are looking to close down childrens homes? Is it because they cost too much and have the potential to provide significant savings at a time when local authorities are under pressure to balance their books, or is it because the need for children to be placed in residential care has reduced? That, for me has become the burning question and one that needs answering.
Having grown up in residential care myself I am of the opinion that we all need to proceed with caution on this issue. My experience of residential care was good (not great), but good. While I didn’t find living in childrens homes easy I became familiar with the residential care system and where my long-term care was going to come from.
I read a report many years ago by Save the Children, which surveyed the views and experiences of children who had grown up in residential care in Scotland. Although the number of children surveyed were small it was found that children preferred residential care because provided them with greater stability, and continuity of their care and education, and prevented them from having to move from one foster placement to the next.
Many people find it hard to understand why children would want to live in residential care as opposed to a loving foster family. Yet, the reality for many kids is that some foster placements are provided on an emergency or short-term basis and because of this some kids find it hard to settle because they know at some stage they will have to leave their new family and move on.
I was moved by a letter written by one 16 year old child living in one of the childrens homes earmarked for closure in Essex to David Cameron. In the letter, the child says they fear their home is going to be taken away, and that this will result in yet another move (the 17th for this child). Within the letter the child states they have formed significant attachments with staff and the prospect of having to move to another placement would be extremely upsetting. The very fact, this child is confident enough to write to the Prime Minister speaks volumes, and I have no doubt this child will be a force to be reckoned in the future – which can only be a good thing!
So lets not get carried away and start closing down childrens homes. Rather, lets start consulting with the kids in them to see what it is they want. Some children might very well want to move into specialist foster care, others may not, and some children might not be clear about what it is they want because they have resigned themselves to the fact that their needs and views don’t matter. Other children are just not resilient enough to cope with another move and the disruption that goes along with it.
I am of the opinion that children in care need more than just a place to live – they need support, a role model and someone who cares enough about them to invest their time in making sure they do well. Most children will find this in foster care, but if a child feels settled and happy in residential care who has the right to take that away from them?
Investing in early intervention and family support is all well and good, but at a practical level it’s not working for the most vulnerable of families. I recently dealt with a young man, aged 29 who is looking after 3 of his nephews following the death of his sister from cancer. Despite my best efforts to contact Social Services to see if any support could be provided, particularly in light of the youngest child having been diagnosed with ADHD, 3 months later and I am still waiting for someone to ring me back. I visited this family last week, and things have reached crisis point. The young man is struggling and the kids are having problems coming to terms with their mum’s death, yet they aren’t considered high enough priority for social work support.
It strikes me, however, that if this man were to present to Social Services with the three children and say “I can’t cope anymore and you (Social Services) need to find a foster placement for the children” – Social Services would be falling over themselves to offer this family support. That shouldn’t be what preventative intervention and family support is about.
I think there needs to be a debate about what alternatives REALLY exist for children in care and children on the edge of care. We can talk about investing in early intervention til we’re blue in the face, but if it doesnt actually do the job it is supposed to do in terms of providing children with stability or helping struggling families cope then we are likely to contribute to a system where vulnerable children are left to fend for themselves.
A Sense of Purpose: Care Leavers Views & Experience of Growing Up’, Save the Children (2001).
Community Care – ‘Council Seeks to Close Down its Childrens Homes http://www.communitycare.co.uk/Articles/2011/05/25/116879/council-seeks-to-close-down-its-children-homes.htm