Some observations about being a residential child care worker

Lesley Morrison

Lesley Morrison is a residential child care worker in a children’s home in England


I was asked to write about residential child care as I have experienced it as a care worker. I’m not sure I have a great deal to say, but I have been assured that my voice is as valid as anyone else’s, so here goes.

‘The children’s homes sector is without hope that whatever it does or says will be recognised as positive. We have tried; we have had the almost unanimous views of those doing the job dismissed, excluded. We are holding on, waiting for better times but with a deep dread that they will not be coming – knowing there are yet more reforms to be proposed, probably imposed, soon.’
Jonathan Stanley Chief Executive Independent Children’s Homes Association in The Guardian, 25th September, 2014.

When a colleague read Jonathan Stanley’s comments words to me I could not say they came as a shock to me. I’ve been involved in residential child care in the private sector for over 10 years. I have watched while children’s homes have tried to adapt to the increasing squeeze on their funding and I have seen training budgets for staff disappear. I still believe residential child care provided in the right way should be the first choice of care for a number of young people. I have sometimes felt uncomfortable about what I do when I read, hear and watch reports in the media which seem to demonise my colleagues and me. I am not underestimating the importance of children being safe from harm but I am sure the vast majority of residential child care workers are passionately committed to that. I hope there is a future for residential child care while there are young people who would benefit from it.

I have never held a management post, maybe because people do not see me as a manager or because I’ve never been much interested in becoming a manager. I think we are all managers any way. It may sound corny but I think I have always felt the work is about being an adult among children and young people think I prefer being with the young people and though they make noises to resist it, I think that’s what the young people prefer anyway.

I’ve selected three areas of residential child care which are important to me, but they are certainly not the only ones. They are tiny minority of many.

My part in my work in residential child care

I am clear that I came into residential child care because it was there and gave me an occupation rather than satisfying a vocational desire to look after deprived children.
In a way I think this was healthy for at the age 22, I was still dealing with issues of my own childhood, my own continuing adolescence, I had no more to offer in the way of advice to children and young people who had been separated from their families than my presence. I could offer sincere care but I had no developed ideas about how to help them in any psychological way. I still don’t. I try to have good helpful relationships with other human beings.
What I found and still find is that different children affect me in different ways and often put me in touch with my own difficulties. I think I gradually developed a way of dealing with this by expressing my own frustrations not in a way that would directly or indirectly blame the children and young people. I wouldn’t say now that I have resolved all my own issues, if you are engaged with the difficulties the young people have, it brings back old feelings in yourself but maybe by dealing with them better now I can be more helpful to the young people.

Growing Good relationships

As a residential child carer some times deliberately but more often because it just happens, my colleagues and I have helped children and young people discover that good relationships are not founded on power and neither can they be bought. I’m not trying to make this sound straightforward, it takes time and committed concern during difficult times for children. Children who in the past have been bullied as well as children who feel they can only be valued by bullying find it difficult to trust that they do not have to fight someone in order to assert the status that they seem to insist should be their right. Getting them to believe they do not need to be so threatened that they fear their life will fall apart unless they control things by the threat of physical or emotional abuse. I think we can make fairly educated guesses as to where these anxieties come from but persuading a child that it need not be so and that catastrophes won’t happen if they don’t use unhelpful defences can take a long time to achieve and I think in residential care this can be done by the group – children and adults – as the examples set by the adults and other young people in the group. This is not a synthetic procedure governed by strict rules. The commitment to this organic process is what grows trusting relationships.

Leadership and Management

I have never been involved in any senior official role as a leader and manager in residential care and I suppose I can tolerate the idea that the wider organisation may need leaders and managers but I believes that managers who work in the children’s home should be working with the children along with their other colleagues. For me leadership and management in residential child care for young people should not only be concerned with management in the sense of the staff group structure. All residential child care workers lead and manage in the care and support for children and young people. The only difference perhaps between the management of staff and the management of young people by staff is that initially there is no expectation that the young people will have the insight, or emotional resources to cope with their difficulties without intensive support. That is not to say that staff do not need regular support to help them cope with the difficulties which arise from their responsibilities. How any institution ( and this of course includes children’s homes and other child care projects) helps the vulnerable young people entrusted to its care depends on its regime which of course shapes its style of management. Managers who just hand down instructions and make sure the staff and children obey the rules are not in a caring relationship with the young people or the other adults.

Conclusion : why we should have residential child care.

I am aware how many other things I could have written about but I will conclude by saying that I think one of the reasons we should have residential child care now is that there are children who following disruption in their own families do not seem to be able to settle into the family care for children after a series of failed placements in foster care, only then is it accepted that the child cannot cope with life in another family, and the general anxiety this creates leads to the consideration of another kind of provision at the end of a long troublesome and painful trail. This sadly, is when residential care is considered.



Charlie Forbes  writes : I like your democratic attitude towards residential child care, Lesley. It’s very refreshing.

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