By Harald Stoelting
Date Posted: Monday, 13 December 2010
Harald Stoelting qualified as a social worker in Germany and when he came to work in England he worked as a senior residential child care worker and as a residential child care manager. He now works as a social worker.
Being a Residential Child Care Worker in England
I was born in Germany just after the end of the second world war. For a number of reasons I have moved around a great deal in my life but while I was still living in Germany I gained a training as a social worker. Some years ago I arrived in the United Kingdom and unable at that time to get a job as a field social worker here I worked both as a residential child care worker and as a manager in children’s homes. I had little knowledge and no experience of residential child care work when I embarked upon this path. This article is my attempt to make sense of what being a residential child care worker in England meant to me. This article is a personal view and I ask readers that they understand that it is biased by my experience and by my observations up to now but I hope that it contains matters to be questioned, pondered and discussed. Unless it was confusing to do so I have used the convention of describing children and young people as male and residential child care staff as female. To be sure this is used as a helpful writng convention and not because of any prejudices I may hold.
My observations about private children’s homes and local authority children’s homes
During my time living in the United Kingdom I have been employed as a residential child care worker in children’s homes which were in the private sector (profit making sector) and in children’s homes which were provided by the local authorities. My observations are that these are very different institutions. Whereas children’s homes managed by the local authority are technically responsible for taking in most of the children who are assessed as needing residential care, in practice I have found that the children perceived as the most troublesome are channelled very quickly towards the private sector. A social worker told me once that in her local authority, “ the most difficult cases, the most traumatised children are reserved for private children’s homes.”
This is interesting because my experience is that private homes are not always as well endowed with resources as local authority homes. Private homes are forced to work on a low budget because they are operating in what is ironically called the “free market.” It is of course ethically problematic that children are seen as commodities in a market in which the prices of servicing the commodity are forcefully driven down by the local authorities who purchase places at private children’s homes. It has been argued that in this “Dutch auction of children” the quality of care provided by the children’s homes who are involved in these price wars inevitably decreases (Sharpe, 2010).
Let me illustrate this from my experience. I applied for a job as a senior residential child care in a private children’s home, which I will call the “Willow Tree” and was appointed to the post. I was pleased because the home’s approach was therapeutic and was based on psychodynamic principles. The proprietors were innovative and committed and provided all their staff with graduate level training in child development and therapeutic child care. I took part in this training and found it valuable. During this time the morale of the children and the staff was excellent. I do not mean that each day was perfect but that the staff gave a great deal of themselves to make good relationships with the children.
After I had been at Willow Tree for about two years I noticed that even though we were often praised for our work by inspectors and social workers the rate of referrals of children to the home declined. Local authorities who had previously placed children in the home told us that though they wished to continue to place children at Willow Tree, our fees were too high. Fearful for their business the proprietors reluctantly did as they were bid and lowered their fees. Financial cuts had to be made. Naturally the children’s living conditions were maintained but staff training was cut. Even this did not suffice to reduce the fees sufficiently to attract referrals. It seemed that however many reductions were made to the fees, local authorities informed us that Willow Tree’s business competitors were prepared to reduce their fees further. With reduced training the quality of the care to the children could not be maintained at its previous high levels. When well trained experienced staff left, a consequence of the externally enforced financial restrictions was that they were replaced by less expensive and less experienced and less well trained staff. Eventually the proprietors decided to close the home because they could no longer make a profit and they were not prepared to further reduce the quality of care they provided. It is my opinion that this is a fundamental problem of residential child care if it is run as a private business. When times are good and local authorities have money to spend all is well but when times of financial restriction arrive there is a limit to how far costs can be reduced. Children in these homes should not be asked to eat the cheapest of food, use the cheapest toilet paper or wait longer for maintenance repairs in the home to be carried out. They should be treated with the same respect as children who are living healthily with their own families. The proprietors of the home I am telling of could not tolerate dropping their standards further. They were ethical people but I do hear of private homes where this attitude is not taken. It is also to be noted that it is not only the private sector which is capitalistically minded. The way that local authorities successfully drove down the fees at Willow Tree would have impressed even the toughest of commercial wheeler dealers ! For me the trouble was that in the final analysis it was the young people who suffered from this process.
As far as homes run by local authorities are concerned, I have implied that the children they accommodate have less complex difficulties, but I know when I have worked in local authority children’s homes that the young people accommodated there face difficulties too. Any young person who has to leave his family home is an unhappy child and so the children I met and worked with in local authority homes were needy as well. However I found that because of the local authority’s demands on workers to stick rigidly to their working hours and to follow administrative procedures to the letter, an inflexibility of approach developed which can acted as a barrier between staff and children. I am not saying that these procedural matters are not important but if they always take precedence over the young people’s need for intimacy and their need to be treated as individuals then I am certain that rigidly maintained procedures work against helpful therapeutic relationships being built between the young people and staff. Local authority homes I have worked in have usually been efficiently administered, have had excellent material resources but because of the need for staff to work “defensively” they can be more impersonal and less therapeutic places to be certainly than the private children’s home, Willow Tree, in which I mainly worked.
Therapeutic work with children
I should now say something about my experience of working “therapeutically” with children and young people at Willow Tree, that is before the financial restraints began to influence the nature of the residential child care there.
Our work had a psychodynamic base and distanced itself from a behaviourist approach in the sense that we did not understand our primary function as behaviour management. Our approach took into account past trauma that the young people had encountered and in particular their experience of separation and loss. To explain this better I will provide these heavily disguised descriptions of three young people who might be described as representative of residents at the children’s home.
Alfred, who is 15 years old, has been in the children’s home for one year. His family immigrated to this country from Asia when he was an infant. When he was twelve years old his father expelled him from the family because he thought Alfred had betrayed his cultural roots because he was taking a full part in all the activities which the other boys from his school were engaged in. By the time Alfred came to us he had been placed in and rejected by three foster families and he had not attended school for over a year.
Rudolph is 14 years old and was placed in the care of the local authority when the consequences of his mother’s drug and alcohol abuse made it impossible for her to look after him. He has never known his father. He has had many placements in care in both foster homes and children’s homes. All these placements have failed. He was placed with us because he had attempted to burn down his last children’s home. Rudolph has been excluded from several schools and he has not attended school for over a year.
Catlin is 15 years old, and she grew up living with her grandmother on a Carribean island. When she arrived in the United Kingdom at the age of 12, she was thrown in to live with her mother, a stranger to her. With no bond with her mother,for the next two years Catlin took to roaming the streets of the metropolitan borough where her mother lived, not returning to the house of the stranger who was her mother until late at night and increasingly she did not return at all. It was feared that she was prostituting herself and so she was taken into care because she was in need of protection.
At Willow Tree we tried to look after and help young people like Alfred, Rudolf and Catlin. The social workers who referred them to our children’s home asked us to provide them with “therapeutic care.” My own personal interpretation of our therapeutic approach at this home was that we would consider not that we were working with a child’s memory of a past unhappy or traumatic event but more with the child’s re-experience or displacement of the past event as if it were in the present. Psychodynamic theorists call this phenomenon transference. The past event seems so significant that the child cannot place it in the past as he does with other less significant events. It keeps returning. Our therapeutic task was to help the child, without denying the memory, to place it properly in the past.
For example with Alfred whenever an opportunity naturally arose in our informal every day discussions I tried to bring him in touch with himself in the context of his family. Together, but slowly we began to reach an understanding that his life with his family was then and what he was experiencing with us was in the present. My colleagues and I reinforced this by offering him frequent and consistently good experiences. In this way I was able to begin to have a relationship with him which survived, even though at the start both he and I had times when we thought it could collapse at any moment. When Alfred left our children’’s home at the age of 16 he was placed in a project which provided young people who were leaving care with their own accommodation and with intensive support. He was able to sustain this placement but more importantly he established contact with his family again. That he was able to do this was a measure of how far he had overcame the insecurities of his past. I am not saying that all is now going excellently for Alfred and indeed, as I have suggested, on many occasions during the period when we were trying to develop a relationship I feel sure both he and I felt we had taken one step forward and two steps back. It was as if he still felt in the same danger as he did just before he had to leave his family. At this time I felt there were often occasions when I was certain he hated me. When I thought back about these reverses I could see that Alfred’s resistances to me could be understood as defence mechanisms. These defence mechanisms were what Anna Freud described as repression and denial. I think it is important for me to mention this because there were times when I thought that Alfred should not continue to live with us. I seemed to be re-enacting the feelings his father had when Alfred was ejected from his family. I was fortunate in having colleagues who could see what was happening when I was feeling in despair. They could see that not only was Alfred repressing and denying his past memories but that I too was denying my failing part in our relationship. Sharpe (2006) has suggested that all young people tend to externalise their inner conflicts in the form of battles with their environment. It seems easier for them to seek environmental changes rather than internal change. When this defence predominates the young person may show an extreme unwillingness to cooperate with an adult who is trying to engage him emotionally.
The most important time for a residential child care worker
For me when a worker begins to feel resistance to a child it is important that the residential child care worker recognises it. It is at this time when she feels she can’t go on any longer, when she can’t give this young person any more than she have already given, when, in spite of the young person’s most primitive insults and what seems his complete rejection of her, that she must stick with him. To do otherwise will confirm for him his feeling that he is worthless. Unlike those therapists who provide one to one formal therapy in time limited sessions the residential child care worker faces “clients” who have not agreed upon a working therapeutic alliance with her. A residential child care worker as therapist faces many difficult situations which tax her tolerance and her capacity to love to the limit. She is working with a young person who did not choose to be with be her and so she must understand the child’s resistance rather than mirror it.
I think this is something residential workers should not only understand but that we should respect. If we do not it is unlikely that residential child care will be able to help the child.
Freud, A. (1936) “The Ego and Mechanisms of Defence” in Selected Writings : Anna Freud London, Penguin Books 1998
Freud, S. (1912) “The Dynamics of Transference” in Standard Edition 12 London, Hogarth
Sharpe,C. (2009) “The Dutch auction of children in residential child care” accessed on June 13th, 2010 at http://goodenoughcaring.blogspot.com/2010/06/dutch-auction-of-children-in.html
goodenoughcaring editor’s note
Other articles relating to issues raised in this piece include :
Greendale : the running and working of children’s homes by John Burton which can be found at
Residential Care Do We Still Need It? by John Stein which can be found at