The Lioncare Group has supported children and young people through the fostering process for over 28 years. Our experience has shown that some children first need the benefit of specialised residential therapeutic support if they are to find the missing pieces of the jigsaw of their lives, and successfully achieve a sustainable foster care placement.
According to Roger Clough, Roger Bullock, and Adrian Ward in their paper titled: ‘What Works in Residential Child Care?’;
“the number of looked after children placed in residential care has fallen over the past 30 years and is now quite small”.
This is in part due to the promotion of foster care as the most appropriate care setting for all looked after children, an idea perpetuated by the inaccurate assumption that foster care can meet the needs of all looked after children, and which leaves residential care being often viewed in a rather negative and unhelpful way as being ‘the provision of last resort’.
In her report titled ‘Handle with Care! Harriet Sergeant states, “The social service manager insisted, ‘Price does come into it but it is not the deciding factor’. The young people have disrupted so many places, it is more a case ‘of who will take them.’ For many young people in care, Children’s Homes are their last chance before secure accommodation”.(Sergeant. H. ‘Handle with Care: An investigation into the care system’ 2006)
‘We don’t support foster carers. We put children into a placement knowing it’s not right for the carers or the child. But we have not got anywhere else. We set them up for failure. But what else can we do with that child?’ (Sergeant. H. ‘Handle with Care: An investigation into the care system’ 2006)
There is currently a dangerous pressure from many local authorities to move children from residential care to foster placement in order to save money. It is clear that massive government under-funding of social services departments is driving much of this reactivity.
Foster care is the cheaper option, but not always the right option for all children. As highlighted by the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care;
“Some young people may have little support from their families, yet their family connections remain important and they have no desire to be fostered or adopted, even if that option was available”.
For too many children and young people, financial and budgeting constraints have taken priority over proper assessment of need, open and unbiased long-term planning for the best interest of the child, and best practice. Children and young people are are often forced to move back to the foster system well before they are ready or willing to return, and before they have managed to sufficiently resolve in themselves the issues that originally led to the need for a residential placement. For some, the moment they appear to be settled they are told they have to move in to a family.
The reality, as concluded by Whitaker, D, Archer, L and Hicks, L (1998) in their article titled ‘Working in Children’s Homes: Challenges and complexities’ and cited in ‘What works in residential child care?;
“there are occasions when residential care could be helpful in meeting the needs of children with specific needs:
when there was a deficit in attachment-forming capacity and a young person could benefit from having available a range of carers
when a young person had a history of having abused other children
when a young person felt threatened by the prospect of living in a family or needed respite from it
when multiple potential adult attachment figures might forestall a young person from emotionally abandoning his or her own parents
when the emotional load of caring for a very disturbed or chaotic young person was best distributed among a number of carers
when the young person preferred residential care to any form of family care, and would sabotage family care if it was provided.”
We know from experience that quality therapeutic residential care, delivered in a planned, informed and considered manner is for a small but important group of Looked After Children the provision of positive choice. There is an increasing body of research that supports this;
“Too frequently, rather than looking at the needs of a child, staff will try various options in sequence, starting with less specialist foster care. If this fails, then a series of moves are likely through different types of foster care before different types of residential care are tried. We argue that assessment should be used to plan for a
child, which might lead to some children being placed, appropriately, in a residential home at an earlier stage” (Clough, R., Bullock, R., and Ward. A, ‘What Works in Residential Child Care?’ 2006)
“The best Care Homes have the potential to transform lives. The proof is in the difference between new arrivals and those young people who have been resident for some months. They had relaxed, were able to concentrate on their work and enjoy
activities. They had learned to control themselves, most of the time, and develop a rapport with adults”. (Sergeant. H. ‘Handle with Care: An investigation into the care system’ 2006)
Our longitudinal analysis of outcomes indicates that children placed with us before they begin the transition to puberty (i.e. prior to age 10) have a better prognosis and higher probability of gaining and sustaining a future foster care placement than those placed at a later age.
We have achieved great success over the years in supporting children and young people coping with their mixed emotions when leaving our care and moving to a foster placement. Many of our children and young people have painful memories of previous failed foster placements, and are understandably concerned that this will be repeated. Whilst social care professionals may wish to promote foster care as being the desired outcome for all looked after children, the reality is that for many children and young people, the prospect of living in someone else’s’ house and with someone else’s family often causes them extreme anxiety, a perceived pressure to “be good” so their new family likes them, a real fear of being rejected again, and the pain of separating from people, friends, places, and, events that have become familiar and reliable during their time with us.
What often seems to be lacking is an appreciation of the huge task faced by children and young people, and by those caring for them in the residential setting, in finding effective ways to learn to live with the experiences that were forced upon them in the past, regain sufficient trust in others and the world around them to make fundamental changes in the way they perceive themselves and the world around them, whilst also trying to continue moving forwards with their lives in the present.
Recent research by leading figures in the field of child care states; “Too often staff in residential establishments have been castigated for failing to remedy long-standing problems….The children who move into residential homes and schools as a consequence of social services intervention are likely to face pervasive problems that have not been easy to manage in other settings”. (Clough, R., Bullock, R., and Ward. A, ‘What Works in Residential Child Care?’ 2006)
In other words, this process takes time to complete and cannot be rushed. The therapeutic task must occur at the pace and speed that is comfortable to the child, otherwise there is a real risk of the child or young person suffering further psychological distress and damage that will affect them in to their adult lives.
“The primary objective of reform must be to provide secure, stable, long-term and loving care for difficult children. This must be provided for as long as it takes for them to be able to move successfully into society”. (Sergeant. H. ‘Handle with Care: An investigation into the care system’ 2006)
Don’t get us wrong – The Lioncare Group promotes the benefit of foster placements for children who are ready for this, as evidenced through our close working partnerships with foster carers and fostering agencies. Indeed, when the time comes for a child or young person to make the transition from Seafields or Springfields and return to live in a family setting, the whole organisation joins together to celebrate the occasion, holding a leaving party in honour of the child’s achievement.
What we do expect is that placing authorities recognise the expert knowledge and experience we have in assessing the potential ability of a child or young person to manage and thrive in a foster family environment. We expect placing authorities to give serious consideration to our assessments during the decision making process to ensure the child or young person is protected from the trauma of a failed foster placement and multiple breakdowns after they leave our care.