It’s late in the afternoon in Spring 2017. I’m sitting at the dining table of a children’s home in the south of England, helping John with his English homework when Lisa walks in. Lisa has lived in the home for about two months but has struggled to settle in. She asks one of the residential care workers for some washing powder. The care worker takes out a large set of keys, opens the two locks on the cupboard and proceeds to meticulously measure out a precise amount of powder into a plastic cup before securely locking the rest away. Explaining her actions to me later, she insists ‘if you don’t lock it away, they use too much and then management gets angry that we’re over the limit for the washing powder budget’.
It might seem like an insignificant detail, but this small example about the control of washing powder is a striking embodiment of how children’s homes can be run. Imagine amplifying that thought process and level of control to cover all aspects of the home, and you can see the issue.
There are about 82,000 children in state care in England, where the government legally acts as their parent. Children can come into care for a range of reasons, but for the vast majority, they are in care as a result of abuse, neglect and family dysfunction. Almost 90% of these children will be placed with foster parents. Some for a brief period, others until they reach adulthood. However, about 10% of children cannot be safely supported in a foster family. Children may have lived with more than six foster families before the decision to try a children’s home is taken.
Most people have no idea what a children’s home is, and neither did I before I began studying them. Whenever I mention my work, replies reference everything from large Victorian orphanages to Tracy Beaker – neither of which are particularly accurate. Children’s homes are places where children are looked after by professionals working in shifts. Adults do not live on site, but there will be people working a night shift to ensure they’re safe. The hope is that one day the children will be able to ‘step down’ and go back into foster care, go home to parents or leave when they are old enough to look after themselves.
Unfortunately, in many ways, our residential care system is broken. The outcomes for children who leave them are very poor. About 4% will get five or more GCSE’s, they are 17 times more likely to be criminalised than their peers, and half will be homeless within a few years of leaving care. Some may argue that this may be down to their experiences before entering the care system. Yet it’s worth looking at whether children’s homes are fit for purpose and doing everything possible to give these children the best shot possible. Currently, I don’t believe this is the case.
Firstly, we don’t employ the right professionals to look after children. Despite often having exceptionally high needs, residential care staff tend to have few, if any, qualifications when they enter the sector. Of all care professionals, they receive the least pay, the least training and tend to only work in children’s homes for brief periods before moving on to something else. Turnover is so high that if you visited a children’s home today, by the time you returned next year the home will most likely be staffed by an entirely new team of people. It’s completely understandable; the work is intense, and the training is often poor (if there is any at all). So why would you stay earning the minimum wage when you can get better pay elsewhere, for less stress?
Children’s homes are generally located in the wrong places. 73% of homes are run by private sector providers, and these companies tend to set up where property is cheap. London only has a third of the children’s homes it needs, but a quarter of all children’s homes are in the North East of England.
Children’s homes are typically residential properties, but they tend to feel institutional. Fire exit signs, locked doors, and employment information posters leap out at you. Regulations are adhered to in a blunt manner, eroding any feeling of homeliness.
Often education and therapy is an afterthought, and it can take months for a child moved into a home to be placed in a school. Most children in residential care have special educational needs, and the inability to meet them often results in high exclusion rates – 61% of children in residential care are in some form of alternative provision. Many homes provide on-site private tuition at great expense. This rarely works, which is unsurprising given that it is often delivered by unqualified teachers attempting to teach the entire national curriculum for 25 hours a week. Homes that claim to offer additional education and therapy can charge up to an additional £100,000 a year per child to deliver this, though there is no standard definition of what this might be. For example, some homes offering therapy simply provide access to a mental health professional once a month if requested. It’s not enough.
There is frustratingly little evidence about what works in residential care. Many homes may have an exciting model emblazoned on their website, but a brief conversation with staff can result in nothing but confused faces. Even where a model is followed, it can be difficult to find much evidence for its efficacy.
At Lighthouse, we recognise all of these issues, and we are setting up our first children’s home to overcome these hurdles, and give children in our care the best shot possible. We believe there is a different way to run children’s homes, which will lead to better outcomes.