A Penny for Your Thoughts Jen: Surviving and Thriving in Residential Care Homes

By Simon P. Hammond

Date Posted: Sunday, 14 December 2008

Simon Hammond, B.A. (Hons), MSc.
Correspondence to: Mr Simon Hammond, PhD Researcher, School of Social Work and Psychology, University of East Anglia, Norwich. NR4 7JT.

Email: S.Hammond@uea.ac.uk

Telephone: +44 (0) 1603 593632



A penny for your thoughts Jen: Surviving and Thriving in Residential Care Homes.



Based on my experience of working as a member of a residential staff team, there seemed to be a number of my colleagues who had spent time in care as young people and who were now employed within it as residential workers. The following single case study explored this perspective with one such colleague, giving her a platform from which her voice could be heard.

The term ‘looked-after children’ refers to young people who grow up in local authority or public care. When a young person is taken into care the underlying aim is to protect them from further physical and/or psychological harm (Jackson & McParlin, 2006). There are numerous types of placement used within this field, but most can be grouped into three broad placement types, Adoption, Fostering and Residential. A common feature of research findings and professional social work practice is the comparative problems of residential provision within the English care system compared to alternative care arrangements (Jackson, 2002; Meltzer, Lader, Goodman & Ford, 2003; Holland, Faulkner & Perez-del-Aguila, 2005; Petrie & Simon, 2006; Munro & Hardy, 2007; Sinclair, Baker, Lee, & Gibbs, 2007). Residential Care Homes are seen by many as representing a short-term care arrangement (Munro & Hardy, 2007; Sinclair et al, 2007), and as the placement of last choice (Jackson, 2002; Sinclair et al, 2007). Reasons for this perspective include the traditional family model being regarded as more beneficial, (Schofield & Beek, 2006). the higher cost of such provision (Simon & Owen, 2006) and the poor outcomes for the majority of young people living in this environment (Petrie & Simon, 2006). However this is not a view seen across Europe. In their review, Petrie and Simon (2006) highlighted that in comparison to it’s European neighbours, England’s uses of this placement differs greatly to those of Denmark and Germany. Illustrating not only stark contrasts in the qualifications required by residential staff in such countries, but also in the relationships of the staff and young people.

The failings of any ‘system’ need to be attended to, and improvements made. Especially when the ‘system’ concerned is attempting to protect vulnerable young people who could have already suffered significant hardship in their lives. In attempting to make improvements within this ‘system’ the success of the resilient minority has tended to be shaded from view (Chase, Simon & Jackson, 2006). Young people that have ‘survived and thrived’ after enduring first-hand the placement of last choice (Jackson, 2002) may provide insights into the reportedly worst aspect of the care system. Crucially highlighting the aspects that ‘made a difference’ for them.

Based on my experience as a member of a residential team, it is clear that some of those who ‘survived and thrived’ are working within the same environment in which they once lived. Having experienced both sides of this ‘system’ the views and experiences of such people in my view can provide a pivotal guide to the future of this placement provision.

I first met ‘Jen’ in the spring of 2005, whilst working in a children’s residential care home. She had grown up in care and after finishing college at 21; had started to do some relief work as a residential worker. Soon she became a full time member of staff continuing and being promoted to the position of unit manager at the age of 27. I always found Jen to be popular with both staff and young people alike and I would often say to her after a ‘kick off’ or supervision “A penny for your thoughts Jen”. She was always approachable and of particular importance to this case study, open and honest about her experiences in care. As such her personal attributes, status as manager and our strong working relationship made Jen the ideal advocate to provide this population with a voice.

To ensure the clarity of this voice Jen took on the roll of fully self-reflexive co-researcher (Smith, 1994). This meant that themes created via the Thematic Analysis in the three interviews which took place could be discussed and changed if she did not agree with the labels assigned. This allowed Jen to raise any key issues that from her vantage point had been missed. The paragraph titles utilised within the following analysis and discussion section were extracted as themes from the three interviews undertaken. Labels that emerged from the Jen’s interviews were pieced together through an ongoing two-way dialogue, to form what represents an insight into her experiences and current perspective.


Analysis and Discussion 

The analysis was intended to allow Jen to express herself freely. This was achieved through allowing Jen to share her experiences and memories of growing up in care.  Subsequently, this enabled her to reflect upon her current role in relation to her own time in care.


Theme 1: Institutionalised Protectionism 

Discussions within this theme focused upon the changes to the care system, and how Jen viewed these changes both within her current role as manager and as a former care home resident. In Extract 1, Jen shares her views as to how the English approach to residential care homes and the environment which they create have changed.

Extract 1:
“It, it makes it more institutionalised I think, than homely….Cos, there is so many more restrictions and rules and things like that, that weren’t there when I was growing up..”

Jen uses her experiences to illustrate the extent to which the ‘professionalisation’ of the care system has impacted upon those whom the restrictions were employed to protect. Findings cited by Petire, Boddy, Cameron, Simon, and Wigfall (2005), would seem to support Jen’s view of a more institutionalised atmosphere in English residential settings. Petire et al (2005) suggested that English workers tend to adopt a more procedural approach in comparison to those workers in German and Denmark. Conceivably this could be attributed to the demands of stricter Safe Guarding legislation developed to protect the more vulnerable nature of England’s residential population, in the wake of societal influences overtime. The extent which societal influences have led to this institutionalised protectionist atmosphere and the requirements this places upon residential staff can be seen in Extract 2.

Extract 2:

“…if your daughter, say went out and they come back with a…new cap or something, and they said their mate had given it them. You probably wouldn’t think twice..”

Here Jen demonstrates the protectionism element of professional practice legislation and the necessity of residential workers to question the motives of others. This is difficult since staff must rely upon their own perceptions of the level of rapport they have with the young person and an awareness of their chronology, whilst maintaining the dignity and welfare of the young person. Furthermore there is a need to do this, whilst ensuring that the young person is given opportunities for personal growth in the long-term. From our conversations it would appear that professionally, Jen accepted the necessity for this legislation within her professional life. Yet her reflections of how these more stringent guidelines would have impacted upon her as a young person were alarming, as shown in Extract 3:
Extract 3:
“… I always say now, that if I was growing up in care now, I wouldn’t be the (pauses), the way I am now…… Cos, there is so many more restrictions and rules and things like that now, that weren’t there when I was growing up. (pauses)…. Now I would have been a little twat.”

Coming from an individual in Jen’s professional position and baring in mind her care background, these comments should surely be a major concern. Whilst it is plausible that Jen’s, more favourable perspective towards the older, less institutionalised care system could be as a result of reflecting through ‘rose tinted glasses’ (Walker, Skowronski & Thompson, 2003),  what can be said with more certainty is that, societal influences have changed the face of the care profession forever. Hence, in a more institutionalised environment, staff must provide a buffer between the young people and a more rigid care system. Concurrently, this underlines the need for properly trained and highly proficient workers to dilute this institutionalised environment into one which can provide: “..the young people with a warm and redeeming relationship..” (Stein, 2008: p.289).


Theme 2: Role Models

The chronical difference that the staff team members can make  to young people in their care is now discussed under the labelled theme of Role Models. In this theme Jen’s role and experiences allowed her to reflect upon a role model from her own time in care and how she may now be a role model for the young people living in a similar environment to what she once had. The influence of such role models Jen reported as making a real difference during her own time in care.

Extract 4.
“..the manager of the unit that I was in. She was called “Becky” ..she was off her rocker!…. she was, crazy. She’d just like give you like fags and money and like.. Do you know what I mean? And do other things, and I’d get round her! (laughs). But when she said no, no meant no…I just got on well with her.. I respected her.”

The above extract denotes a genuine affection between Jen and Becky. As Jen stated she respected her and had built up a strong relationship based on mutuality of affection. Jen spent around 4 years in this her final placement and she judged this long-term relationship as of huge importance to her personal development. In Extract 5 Jen highlights the chronic nature of the placement and reflects upon how this allowed for her to grow and take on a role which is seen here as being more than a resident.
Extract 5.
“I was in the place a long time, and I did have good friends and sort of, the staff knew my friends mums and dads and stuff like that. That makes a difference…I used to have the key to the house…”

This undoubtedly supports the need for a reduction in placement moves, whilst also supporting a point made by Martin and Jackson (2002) regarding the importance and possible merit for, long term “guardian angels”, referred to here as being similar to role models in this context (Martin & Jackson, 2002: p.121). Perhaps the care system should seek to involve more individuals who have themselves grown up, or at least spent sometime in the care system and have flourished despite their difficult early start in life, those who ‘survived and thrived’. Psychological literature would seem to support this suggestion, with research highlighting that people tend to respond better to others with whom they identify (Kelmans, 1958; 2006). The potential influence of this point seems to be something that Jen herself is fairly familiar with. In the extract below Jen’s approach seems to be to utilise her own care history as a strategy that she can be employ within her professional life when working with hard to reach adolescents.

Extract 6:
“I think it influenced the teenagers more….it’s a good thing in a way and it does sort of influence…and set them thinking.. it’s nice to put ideas in their heads, and get ‘em to look a bit further..”

Jen’s ability to be open and effectively use her past experiences to influence the young people under her care are highly commendable, yet also demonstrating a confidence in herself as a professional. This ability to think and act as a well informed staff member was seen to be unlikely to be gleamed solely from the seemingly ineffective Level Three National Vocational Qualification currently sought after (Whittaker, Archer & Hicks, 1998; Petrie & Simon, 2006). Jen’s ability to influence the young people she works with is not a trait specific to an individual with her previous care experience, but was adjudged in part to her commendable commitment to her profession.

This long-term commitment appears to be somewhat of a rarity within English residential care homes and their staff teams. Low pre-employment training, comparatively low wages and the highly demanding nature of the role leads to many workers to see their job, not as an actual career path and fundamentally as not: “… being conducive to long term employment” (Moses, 2000b: p.113). I write these words not as a criticism of those workers but as an observation. In comparison to their counterparts in Denmark and Germany, who go through courses ranging from three to four-year (Petrie & Simon, 2006), residential workers within England seem to learn have to ‘on the job’, adding to the short-term nature of the role. Working within an English residential care home can be more physically and psychological demanding in comparison to those in Denmark and Germany, due to English residents exhibiting severe behaviours more frequently (Petrie & Simon, 2006). As such there needs to be an emphasis on attracting people to this role as a specific career path. Ultimately, the high staff turnover rate witnessed in English residential care homes usually leads to the continuity of care of the young person being disrupted, meaning that since the affinity and subsequent trust between the young person and member of staff is lost, the young person’s behaviour are likely to worsen as a consequence of another rejection (Moses, 2000a).



In line with the conclusions of Petrie and Simon (2006) this article suggests that the demands of the role, require residential staff in the longer term to have more professional confidence and competence to provide an additional personal and holistic service to young people. Furthermore, that this necessitates the need for academic and vocational courses to be created on par with the qualification levels currently witnessed in Danish and German workers, to cater for this training deficit. Clearly there is much scope for sharing good practice with colleagues from Germany and Denmark, especially in terms of the types of educational courses workers undertake prior to their employment. Finally this article would also like to highlight the usefulness of the perspective of individuals with experiences such as Jen’s, there voice and expertise should to be heard, and more importantly listened to.



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