Rethinking Residential Child Care : Positive perspectives by Mark Smith : Book Review

By Charles Sharpe

Date Posted: Monday, 15 June 2009


 Rethinking Residential Child Care : Positive perspectives by Mark Smith. : Bristol: Policy Press, 2009. pp 209. £18.39 ISBN 9781861349088 

Book Review
It is rare these days to find a book written about residential child care that is not at best apologetic about it. Mark Smith has given us an exceptional gift : a book that will help new residential child care workers see, and remind more experienced workers that, residential child care, properly thought about and carried out, is the best way to care for and to meet the needs of the many troubled children for whom other forms of care carry an unbearable threat. Anyone reading this book will be immediately aware that it is the work of an ‘insider’. Before entering academia Mark Smith was, for twenty years, a residential child care worker, and this book speaks for, and to, the residential child care worker as much as it does the theorist, and the policy maker. It is rich in ideas and the evidence it presents is drawn from young people, practitioners and academic research. I do not agree with everything that is written in this book and yet my review cannot do justice to the wisdom and learning contained within it. I think for some it may be controversial but I am certain that everyone with an interest in residential child care should read it.

In Rethinking Residential Child Care  Mark Smith has become the first to examine critically how residential child care in the United Kingdom has come to be the way it is. He achieves this by putting before the reader a narrative and analysis of the historic, philosophic, religious, psychological, social, economic, ethical, practical and political issues which have influenced, and continue to influence, the provision and status of residential child care.
In the introductory chapters  the reader, whether practitioner, senior manager, academic or politician is given an opportunity to think what life in a children’s home could be like if it were not imprisoned by modern managerialism which governs by targets, regulation, formal risk assessment and its concomitant tick box mentality. Smith rues what has seemed the unstoppable onwards march of  this movement.  While he maintains that ‘it is right to be concerned with good management,’ he adds ‘that good management and managerialism are not necessarily synonymous’ (p8). Managerialism may appeal to a common sense point of view but its,

 ‘linear and predictable view of human nature..’   [and its] …setting of externally imposed targets….. can lead to workers exerting most of their energies meeting targets, irrespective of whether these actually add anything to caring for children’ (p8).

All residential child care workers will be familiar with this process. For too long, managerialism has muffled their practice as well as their cries of frustration.

Smith demonstrates that it is not practitioners advocating the development of  warm sincere relationships between children and carers who are at the unhelpful extremes of residential child care but those at the core of policy making who have sought to control residential child care by imposing bureaucratic solutions on the  emotionally complex, fragile and unique predicaments of individual children. For Smith these imposed solutions have become enmeshed in the complexity of the overall task to the extent that the process of care grinds to a halt leaving children and practitioners feeling disempowered and confused.

In the chapter, ‘Inquiries and their impact’  the author considers the influence of the numerous national inquiries about residential child care. Here and in the ensuing chapter ‘Trends and policy directions’ Smith begins to address some of the shibboleths  that have dominated residential child care in recent decades. These include ‘child abuse’, ‘children’s rights’, and  ‘child protection’. Smith is qualified in his endorsement of the language of children’s rights and child protection but in my view his is the voice of moderation, sensitivity and sense. He understands how some of these ideas can make workers feel it is impossible to be the kind of adult that children need if they are to be brought up properly. I have little doubt he will be challenged on this but we should welcome the ensuing debate.

On the issue of child abuse in residential child care Smith is clear that the evidence that it occurred in residential settings is unambiguous. Equally he suggests that there has been a less direct more widespread form of abuse in residential child care often evidenced by  a ‘poverty of aspiration, a lack of affection, and a failure to meet emotional needs’ (p49). However, he goes on to say,

‘that the assumption of more widespread abuse… is likely to be accounted for by changing ways of thinking about children…  [and]….the widening of the net of what is considered child abuse.’

Practices which were considered commonplace in previous decades are  –  from the perspective of the present –   now viewed as child abuse though they were not considered so at the time. Smith is concerned that residential child care alone has borne the brunt of  this retrospective condemnation rather than other professional disciplines who work with children. This has  meant that residential child care has come to be viewed with antipathy and that even those who are proponents of residential care can seem at best only apologists for it. Smith concludes that the obstinate and predominant view that child abuse is endemic in residential child care has led to practice which has,

‘sanitised the very essence of care, making it increasingly difficult to offer children the kind of affection and control they need… [and has] …contributed to a trend in locating the locus of knowledge about residential care in sets of abstract principles and standards and in an array of external managers rather than in the expertise of those who do the job’  (p50).

Those who, in the name of child protection would oppose Smith’s conclusion might helpfully take time to reflect on their position.  Winnicott, Bowlby amongst many theorists, and indeed all good enough parenting figures as practitioners, have worked out that children need affection and also that children will not grow to be resilient if adults do not allow them some autonomy and provide an emotionally caring and containing environment which also offers them the opportunity  for growth through developmentally necessary risk taking.

The two chapters, ‘Theorising Residential Care’ and ‘The Residential Environment’  provide an analysis of the theories and ideas which have informed, exercised and influenced students and practitioners of residential child care. These include an evaluation of psychodynamic,  behaviourist, social learning, developmental and cognitive approaches to residential work with children. There is an the emphasis on Fritz Redl’s concepts of life space work. Together with Redl’s notion of the ‘life space interview’, life space is the concept which  defines the difference between residential work and other forms of support for troubled children. The ‘formal’ work of the residential child care worker often takes place in what is for the child ‘informal’ time and space.  Residential child carers work where children live. They make helping relationships with children which may be engaged upon on a bus going to school or  in a bedroom at three o’clock in the morning when a child’s past terrors may have come to the surface. Residential workers may be timetabled to work until 1pm but sometimes may not finish until midnight because what is going on in the life space of a child demands that. Smith points out later that the structure of working hours is one of a number of dilemmas which face residential child care and those who operate and manage it.  Employment regulations reasonably demand that the working hours of staff should be limited.

The discussion about the residential environment also considers the impact of the milieu, gender issues, minority ethnic issues, the resident group and the staff on the overall work setting.  Smith points out that the use of the group as a vehicle for therapeutic gain – as exampled by the work of therapeutic communities –  has diminished in residential care. As an aside, some years ago I was in a staff meeting at a children’s home and I suggested that it was important to consider how the group might be used to help the individuals in it. The manager of the team  responded, ‘How original, I had never thought about these children as a group’. He wasn’t being ironic. Smith suggests that in recent times staff have become less confident about working with groups of children. He argues that this may have come about because these groups have become more difficult since residential care has become a residual service for children who are hard to place, and who are poorly integrated. My own view is that we should not place children in a group living setting if they do not have the potential to flourish in a group,but then I believe the critical issue here is how committed the staff group is in engaging in real and intense relationships with a child when he or she first comes to the home.  In the following paragraph it becomes  clear why I  feel certain Smith would agree with this.

Exploring the wide field of ‘Assessment, Care Planning and Programming’ the author concludes that as ‘residential child care has become more professional’ – and by professional I believe he means managerially driven  –  ‘the tendency has been to impose ever more systematic demands on it’(p118). This he suggests may  bring a sense of purpose to the worker in understanding and meeting the needs of children but it brings with it the risk,

‘that the processes of residential care can lead to overly procedural approaches to everyday practice. This redefines the job away from direct caring and leads to practitioners spending more time writing about children than being with them’ (p118).

This is the crux of this book : an examination of the relationship between child and residential care worker. The theme is developed in the chapter  ‘Working at the boundaries : the personal- professional relationship’. Smith tracks the course of theories  about  relationships in residential child care citing amongst others,  Uri Bronfennbrenner, Henry Maier, Thomas Garfat, Mia Kellmer-Pringle, John Macmurray and Paulo Freire.  He considers  the characteristics of an effective caring relationship  as well as the significance of touch, love,sexuality and physical restraint in such a relationship. This discussion is best  exemplified when Smith concludes after  talking about the ‘re-personalising of ethics’ and ‘embracing complexity’  that,

‘caring needs a rethink of what it means to be professional in the human services. In the current discourse, to be professional is to be objective, rational and unengaged at any emotional level… [but]…This version of professional confuses professional with professionalisation. …. [whereas] …being professional is about getting the job done, competently and ethically. So any proper consideration of what is professional needs to start with what the job is. If the job is to make intimate human connections with those we work with to help them grow and develop then conceptions of the professional ought to support this. Assumptions that inhibit such relationships can be argued to be unprofessional ; they get in the way of what we should be doing when we care for children’ (p136).

In ‘Residential care in a continuum of care’ Smith  looks at the place of residential care in the wider matrix of a child’s life : parents (including the involvement of fathers), family, social networks and the newly formed integrated services. Smith argues that a good residential placement can de-fuse fraught family relationships. The experience of structure and routine, he argues, can allow the behaviour of a child to settle sufficiently to take the heat out of family tensions. While I agree with this it seems to me that it is the emotional containment that a good children’s home can offer to both child and family which is the most significant factor in easing these tensions.

The author approaches the new integrated services cautiously. He can accept them at a rational level but is suspicious of a politically imposed system.  He warns against the assumption that the integrated services will automatically bring better outcomes for children.  The effects of competing disciplines, some given higher status than others in the decision making process can have a negative effect on outcomes and Smith argues this is particularly significant for residential child care because residential workers do not  have as positive a view of themselves in relation to others. Indirectly, but powerfully, this is what the author addresses in his two final chapters.

In ‘Other traditions of practice’  Smith surveys in detail the professional development of workers from other countries whose work is closely related to the role of residential child care worker. One of his principal focuses is the role of social pedagogue. I first heard about social pedagogy from Haydn Davies Jones  who from the late 1960s was probably the first to advocate social pedagogy as a possible model for residential child care workers in this country.  I mention this not only to trot out a personal hobby horse but because since the 1980s others have intermittently picked up and dropped social pedagogy’s baton claiming it as the brand new remedy for all residential child care’s ills. These temporary and uncommitted flirtations with social pedagogy  –  and I note a recent announcement of an intention to pilot a social pedagogy programme in Essex, England in the near future   –  have for different reasons done residential child care and social pedagogy in the United Kingdom a disservice.  There is an  absence of any concerted drive by everyone with a role to play in the provision of residential child care to decide here and now  to acknowledge the skills needed to become an effective residential child care worker. There is no insistence that all residential workers should be properly trained now to do their jobs.  We are left with the consolation that as our legislation seems increasingly influenced by Europe that social pedagogy holds out hope for residential child care workers in this country. At the same time it shows that residential child care workers enjoy a higher  status in other European countries, that the residential child care worker’s role is taken much more  seriously and is respected as  different from but is as equally valued as other professional roles like social work and teaching. This is demonstrated by the level of training provided for those who wish to become social pedagogues. I think it important to say that training courses at a similar level, for instance like  that offered by the Caldecott College/Exeter University course  in the Care of Children and Young People, have in the past been available in this country but they have failed to flourish because a number of  those who are now carrying the social pedagogue flag chose to ignore them in the face of the political imperative for National Vocational Qualifications.  In a different way Smith comes to this conclusion too. For him, the principles of social pedagogy, including : focusing on the child as a whole person ;  providing support for the child’s overall development and the practitioner seeing herself as a person in relationship with the child,

‘speak….. of what residential workers perhaps used to do and might still do were they not so overburdened by bureaucracy and constrained by a protectionist discourse. Social pedagogy is essentially a practical task , not just describing and explaining social phenomena but acting on it’ (p153).

The final chapter is an invitation for those involved with residential care not to limit their potential to help young people have access to a ‘good life’ by falling back on the language of rights, protection and outcome but to maintain residential care as both a planned and spontaneous activity and to see it as parent-like in being involved in a child’s upbringing.  Smith focuses on the word ‘upbringing’ . ‘Upbringing’ is about being involved in a real gritty relationship not an ideal one. It is about showing that the nurture and care of children is about,

‘pestering them, setting limits, saying “No” to them when the occasion demands,….[as well as]….. ‘sharing their stories and their hopes and fears’ (p172).

Smith cites Garfat’s notion that residential child care is about ‘hanging out and hanging in’ and that it is as important to be with children as it is to do something for or to them,  while ‘hanging in’ speaks of the tenacity required to be there when things seem intolerable.  This all seems straightforward but residential workers know that it is easier said than done. Without regular opportunity to reflect on our practice our own fears and intolerance can get in the way, never mind regulation and procedure ! Yet it is necessary to stay emotionally in touch with a child if our relationship is to be of help. This calls for insightful and relevantly trained staff and that call is the  underlying legend of this book. In his final sentence Smith, in rethinking residential child care insists there is a need for everyone involved with residential child care to assert

‘the centrality of the personal relationship and the need for well-qualified, reflective and reflexive practitioners’ (p175).

It is difficult to disagree with this.




04 Apr 2011,    Matt Wareham comments
This book completely encapsulated what great residential child care should be about. As a residential care worker I cannot recommend it highly enough. It was profoundly interesting.