EDITORIAL 11: Residential Child Care

By Mark Smith

June 14th, 2012

This issue of the journal focuses on residential child care. These are inauspicious times for the field. I know that it can feel, over the past 20 years at least, to have been ever thus. But something more deeply unsettling seems to be happening at the moment. In England, following the Rochdale case, where nine men were convicted of sexually exploiting girls, the moral entrepreneurs of large children’s charities, on the basis of somewhat flimsy evidence, identify residential child care as being prey to those who would sexually groom youngsters. Increasingly, I am concerned that ‘corporate’ children’s charities skew and inhibit the kind of debate we need to have about children and how best to care for them.

In Scotland, on Sunday 4 October 2009, two girls, aged 14 and 15 in care at the Good Shepherd Centre, in Bishopton to the west of Glasgow threw themselves off the Erskine Bridge to their deaths in the River Clyde. The Fatal Accident Inquiry published its findings recently. The case has caused much soul searching. An online current affairs journal ‘The Scottish Review’ published a three-piece investigation into the circumstances of the case. The articles prompted a number of responses, one of which, from Angus Skinner the former chief inspector of social work in Scotland, caught my eye. I quote

 I have been to Bishopton many times and one of my great early professional friends, Sister Consolata – a nun – led it for several years, and led it well. Latterly, in my view, but I have no evidence to quote for this, it became managerialist and lacked empathy. Link

I, too, have no evidence to pass comment on the regime in the Good Shepherd and would not want to be party to the blame game that invariably comes in the wake of such tragedies. That tendency to identify failure and to point the finger has only contributed to the sorry state of residential child care today. If Good Shepherd had become managerialist and lacking in empathy then it merely reflected trends that have engulfed the sector and indeed social services more generally in recent times.

Angus Skinner’s remarks struck a chord with me for another reason, too, in the sense that his sentiments echo my own developing thinking that we have been victims of a con trick over the course of the past twenty years. We have been led to believe that a brave new world of regulation would herald improved and modernized care delivered by a competent and confident workforce. If you don’t know what managerialism is then the above empty and banal buzzwords might provide some clues. Fluffy exhortations to improve and be modern, however, merely provide the gloss for managerialism’s real aim of economy; what matters is the bottom line. A healthy bottom line requires a cheap, poorly qualified, transient and ultimately expendable labour force, kept in line through hyper regulation. And, as for the kids …

To illustrate just how ensnared within capitalism’s tentacles residential child care has become I turn to another publication, this time ‘Private Eye’, which reveals that


… it can be hard to find out who’s actually behind (children’s homes) at any given time. The home of one of the victims (in Rochdale) was owned by a company within the Continuum Care and Education Group, which was itself owned by a raft of investment funds run by private equity group 3i, the organisation set up in 1945 to provide finance to industry but now a standard private equity outfit run by the last government’s PFI guru, Sir Adrian Montague.

After the standard few years in 3i’s hands, Continuum was recently parcelled off to another company called Advanced Child Care Ltd. Can this firm be trusted to make the improvements required? It in turn is owned, via an offshore company, by funds managed by a US private equity outfit called GI Partners, whose aspiration “to achieve superior returns by unlocking value obscured by complexity and market dislocations” seems some way off the arduous task of providing decent homes for troubled children (‘Private Eye’ No. 1314, May 2012).



This is neoliberal capitalism’s unbearable lightness of being. The irony of calling a firm ‘Continuum’ in such a context is, no doubt, lost on its shareholders. The company’s children’s homes may even have claimed to operate attachment promoting models, until, that is, it suited it to accede to the advances of its next suitor and to sacrifice any notions of attachment or continuity to the capricious hand of ‘the market’.

The marketization of residential child care has happened, to a large extent under the radar, in Scotland at least, where we have been slower to succumb to capitalism’s embrace. But succumb we have. Forget attachment, upbringing, care, treatment, guidance, control, love … the latest big idea in residential child care seems to be, wait for it, ‘commissioning’. It fairly sets the pulse racing. Care as a moral task? Forget it!

In my more conspiratorial moments (and these are becoming ever more common) I detect a sleight of hand. The establishment (by which I include politicians, civil servants, children’s charities and the press) seeks to point the finger of blame when things go wrong at the odd bad apple, to hide from us the fact that the whole bloody orchard is rotten. Despite this widespread blight at the heart of the system individual agencies and workers do their best to make a difference in the lives of the children they work with. Some are even emboldened to ask searching questions. The contributions to this edition of the journal reflect much of what is good and what is questioning in residential child care.

Claire Cooper who works at the Mulberry Bush School writes about her special relationship with a child; Kevin Ellis who also works at the Mulberry Bush School offers a grounded account of what he describes as “high impact” children; John Burton offers a much needed critique of the compliance demands of inspection regimes and gives reasons why it is important to be defiant rather than compliant with edicts from on high and he calms us down with a more practical article about finance and budgeting in children’s homes; Evelyn Daniel writes about the current situation in private sector residential child care. It is of particular pleasure for me to include Mark Hardy’s writing on recording in residential child care. Mark is a recent student at The University of Edinburgh and this piece is a shortened version of an essay that won the Jo Campling Prize for the best ethics essay in the social welfare field, published in the journal ‘Ethics and Social Welfare’; John Cross has provided us with a short paper he presented in the 1970s about planned environment therapy, hopefully as a prelude to a major work on the therapeutic community approach to residential child care. John Stein, with part memoir and part practice advice writes about managing the milieu in residential child care ; Shamsiya Ashurmamadova, a PhD student at the Institute of Education, has provided an article about residential child care in Tajikistan and Jeremy Millar provides the concluding part of his review of Chris Beedell’s Residential life with children.

I commend each of them to you.

Mark Smith June 2012