Lost In Care

14 years working in residential children's homes. 5 years training foster carers and care staff. Trainee child therapist. 14 years in care as a child. Diary, anecdotes and rants about the good, bad and mediocre. Anonymised but all true.

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An Insecure Base

I said goodbye to Scarlett yesterday – tomorrow she moves to her fifth placement in the 18 months she has been “looked-after”.   She has been with us since Christmas Eve.  I will discuss why in a moment, but first:

What a cold, clinical and straight-out horrible word, it has just occurred to me, “placement” is.  There is a reason we use words like this as professionals – it’s a defence.  It protects us from having to confront the full reality of what is happening.  “Placement” doesn’t have quite the same emotional resonance as “home” does it?

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Loss and abandonment…

It’s hard to be precise but, as I count them now, I reckon there were 18 adults who at different times across my childhood were responsible for my day-to-day care.  I have only seen one of them, my father, since I turned 16 (I’m nearly 40 now).

Each of these 18 adults represents a loss.  An ungrieved loss.  Of course not all losses are equal – as I have discussed elsewhere, not all these adults looked after me very well and I was glad to see the back of them.

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The fruits of my labors…


In the kids home I work in there is a fake chalk board hanging on the wall with a recipe for happiness printed on it.  You may have seen the kind of thing, “1 cup of kindness, a pinch of understanding…” etc.   Suffice to say – I hate it.

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What is a therapeutic carer?

It is probably worth saying that I write this from the perspective of my background in residential children’s homes.  My knowledge of the experiences of foster carers and adopters is limited to some work as a freelance trainer for a few IFA’s.   That said, it is pretty obvious that many of the issues faced are the same.  And many of the attributes, skills and so on required for these roles will be similar.  It is definitely true that many of the  people I have met during my time in residential care and as a trainer did not have enough of these skills and attributes to undertake their roles successfully.

You will not find many children’s homes nowadays that do not market themselves as “therapeutic” (and presumably, by extension, this means the staff are therapeutically trained, right?).  Likewise, I notice the terms “therapeutic foster carer” and “therapeutic parent” are becoming common.

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They need to trust, not like you…

It is very common to hear relationships between staff and young people in care discussed in terms of whether the young person “likes” a particular adult or not.  Comments such as, “James doesn’t like Sue [staff]” are often heard in staff meetings and handovers.  Or even worse, “Billy and Sue [still staff] don’t get on”.  As if it is a relationship of equals and there is nothing more to think about here than a straightforward personality clash.

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Some things I remember…

Naturally, given my age, I do not remember much about living at home with my mum and dad or my early years in care. Of course, this lack of cognitive memory does not mean there is not an emotional one. Nothing makes me rock with anger more than when I hear someone describe an obviously traumatic experience in a child’s life and then make light of it with anodyne phrases like: ‘It’s ok, she was far too young to remember.”

Still, I have a few memories – flashes really. They are mine – not things that I was told later and incorporated into my own narrative. I can be certain because they are not those kinds of events.

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The cost/value of good experiences…

The children’s home I work in now charges £2995 per child per week.  It seems like a lot of money I guess.  I am back working for the same children’s home where I started my career in children’s social care in 2004.  At that time the cost of a placement was £2995 per week.  They have not been able to put up their fees in 12 years.   Allowing for inflation the equivilent amount today would be £4230.

Imagine if schools and hospitals had not been given budget increases for 12 years.  There would rightly be an outrage.   I guess most people don’t use children’s homes and those that do don’t vote.

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Lying to children…

In the old days (the mid-eighties) when I was in a kids home, they were often run by married couples who had a team of care staff underneath them.  In the home I was in, these staff were called aunties and uncles.  My main memory of them, probably unfairly, is they were a group of middle-aged women who used to sit around, watch TV and darn socks (yes really).

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They’re my family…

Obviously the word “family” is complicated and painful for all children in care because, irrespective of the circumstances, all of them are united by one simple truth – they are not living with theirs.

Images of “perfect” families abound in popular culture – films, books, even TV adverts, constantly bombard these kids (and, let’s face it, all of us) with idealised versions of what a family “should” be like.  Sure, siblings may argue but they make up in the end, or come together when they need each other – blood is thicker than water and blah, cliche, blah.

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Knowing what happened…

Obviously, as a professional, I have had to write stuff about the children I look after.  In fact,  I have done so everyday of my working life for the past 12 years.   This can be anything from what they have had to eat, daily observations and phone calls with parents to reports for LAC reviews and so on.

Now, of course, everything I write is meant to be “objective” and “non-judgemental” and so on.  But, of course, that isn’t really what happens – short of straightforward statements of fact such as: “he watched a film on TV” everything is coloured by how I experience the child or young person, and what I think is happening for him or her (in some reports I will be discussing their internal emotional world as much as their outward behaviour).  This will be influenced by my experience, knowledge, training, world view and personal insight.  It is certainly, to a large degree, subjective.

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After the outrage – let’s think about what happened at Medway Secure

OK…let me be clear from the get go…I’m pretty jaded and did not expect to be shocked by the content of last night’s Panorama: Teenage Prison Abuse – but I was…

I thought I would see some excessive and inappropriate use of restraint, some swearing at the kids and that kind of thing.  I did not expect to see staff openly engaging in a culture of thuggery and sadism.  It was appalling, cruel, disturbing, a genuine outrage and so on and so forth.

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