Thoughts from the storage boxes

The lockdown has not been a very productive writing time for me. A shame, as suddenly there was time on hand but between cottage renovation and moving my mind was otherwise occupied. However two things this week have left me “reviewing the situation ” to quote Fagin ( I loved that character). The first was a visit to Gressenhall Workhouse museum here in Norfolk to discuss a piece of work about the children boarded out from the workhouse. Who knew the origins of fostering were in the workhouse system, not me. I suppose I could have worked it out as our welfare structures today owe much to the Poor Law. It is  a piece of work I hope also to share with the social work archive that BASW (British Association of Social Workers )are doing for their 50th anniversary. The second was clearing out boxes of reports from my outhouse the majority of which were about improving the residential care of children and young people.

Clearing of course requires some reading too before dispatch and I was struck by the depth and wealth of research, advice, guidance, and working tools that were produced during the period between the 1970 and 1990’s. It covers every aspect of residential care, from management and staff support, daily routines, administration, admission policy, recruitment, children’s rights, discipline and control measures and all the aspects of direct work and daily care. Produced by some of the most eminent thinkers, writers, academics and practitioners of the period it should have meant that residential care was, to use a currently overused expression, world beating. A huge success in terms of its outcomes at every level for the young people, for the staff , the purses of the political masters and society. And yet we closed and cut and closed again. Counties like Warwickshire closing all residential facilities. The prevailing political dogma was that fostering and possibly adoption were the best option and significantly easier on the purse strings. Both are easy seductive arguments, saving money a no brainer and of course children will do better in a family environment. Indeed the Parish Officers responsible for orphaned and destitute children back as far as the mid 1700’s knew this to be the case and looked for local Christian families to take the younger workhouse parentless children. The Poor Law Commissioners and Guardians gave us the first Boarding Out regulations. And yet we largely rejected the residential group living option…why?

Of course there are many complex reasons but most of the work done during this period does not tackle the underlying belief systems brought forward from the earlier periods in history and still prevalent in our thinking and our welfare structures. They should have examined the history more closely and it would I think be helpful to teach welfare ,social and industrial history in some depth to social work students today. The historical context is one of the philanthropy of the upper class towards the unfortunate poor, ill and vulnerable at best, and of the punishment of the indolent, criminal, feckless, classes by the wealthy and the Churches at worst. This is still underpinning much of our thinking today.  So if residential  care of the largely working class children who cannot be cared for by their own families ,for all  the reasons we commonly understand and certainly not of their own making or choosing, is expensive to do well then why would this be the favoured option.

Sir William Utting in a report titled People Like Us in 1997  said ,”Everything that goes on in organisations with that objective….(the primary objective of promoting the welfare of the child)….should be put to the test of whether it serves the interests of children. If it does not….it is likely to harm their interests either directly or indirectly. The capacity to apply such a test depends on the organisations understanding of what constitutes welfare.” And so concepts of welfare are coloured by our individual belief systems, experience, societal norms, political thinking and dogma etc. Perhaps both understanding the roots of these and being open to self challenge and possibilities of  variation in that understanding might help us all to avoid the pitfalls of an historically driven belief system.

To be positive. Let us imagine for one moment that as one report suggests we view residential care/ group living as a distinct specialism within the social work profession. Could we then train those choosing that route differently? Offer placements in a range of institutional settings so that staff have a working  and theoretic knowledge of how institutions function. Institutions are extraordinary places and whatever their primary function there are similarities in how they exist. They have a life which does not easily transpose from our usual family based experience. In my early career many of us trained in group work and this would be a necessary part of the training of residential carers. One of the things that in my experience is so hard about group care is how the individual worker can experience their working relationships both with staff and young people, this is very different from that experienced in field work. Sorry that’s an old expression! I am not designing a course here but you understand the drift of the argument for a specialism.

It would have a knock on to recruitment , salaries, conditions of service of course. In another of the reports from the boxes it was suggested that workers in the residential specialism should undergo assessment in line with that of prospective foster carers . The suggestion was made in the basis that they too have 24 hour care of vulnerable young people and though more checks are made today than many years ago they may not be stringent enough particularly in the areas of personality, beliefs, internal strengths and weaknesses, the potential effects of individual life experiences etc. Our standardised interviewing techniques certainly do not allow exploration of many of these issues. I have long since held that residential workers should have a high level of education and academic ability as well as all the other attributes one would associate with a caring role. Salaries would of course have to reflect both these levels of achievement and training as well as the complexity of the work. They are living and working alongside some of the most damaged and vulnerable young people in our care.

I cannot redesign the whole system in detail in a blog so forgive me if the arguments are somewhat brief and therefore thin. I am floating an ideal and some ideas from the boxes, none of which ever really saw the light of day in the last century. A very respected manager of mine and latterly a Director of Social Services once told me that residential care was very scary to manage. Maybe as decisions are made by politicians who don’t understand or want to spend money on these difficult to like or love working class young people and managers who find it all scary these ideas will never see the light of day in this century but I can hope.


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