My experience of moving from outreach work with young adults to residential care work with children and young people

By Douglas Cameron

Date Posted: Monday, 15 June 2009


Douglas Cameron’s childhood was spent in Nairn in the north of Scotland. After leaving school he had a number of jobs including a period as a chef and another as a security guard. While he was working for a private youth custodial service he decided he wanted to work with young people in a different way. He enrolled at the West Lothian College in Scotland and gained a qualification in social care. After this Dougas worked as a volunteer befriender before moving to London to take up a post working with young people preparing to leave the care system. He now works as a residential child care worker in a children’s home in the southeast of England.


My experience of moving from outreach work with young adults to residential care work with children and young people


I have only been working with children,young people and young adults for 3 years. For over two years of this time I was as an outreach worker in a project which supported young adults aged between 16 and 19 years  who had just left foster care or residential care. I gained a great deal during this time. I had never worked with teenagers before. As an experience it was excellent for my professional development as well as my own  personal development.  Thinking about the adolescent needs of the young adults I was supporting helped me to come to terms with difficult aspects of my own adolescence.

To gain wider experience, I took the decision to apply for a job as a residential support worker. I got the job and felt some trepidation. This was a new world for me. I had never worked in any form of residential care before and I was unsure how I would manage the transition from outreach work with young adults to residential work with children and young people. The job I took was with a local authority in the south-east of England and the children’s home I was to work in was for children and young people  both male or female aged between 12 and 16 years. I remember arriving at the home. It seemed so big. There were several communal rooms and seven single bedrooms for the young people. I felt quite lost and  I remember on that first day  wondering what I had let myself in for, and wished myself back at the outreach project where at any one time I was only working with one young adult in his or her apartment. Now it seemed I could be working with seven different young people whose names I had been told but had instantly forgotten. This also made me realise how confusing arriving at the home for the first time must be for the children.

It was difficult at first to change the way I worked as I had not been used to working with young people who lived in a group setting and I had to learn to work in a way that was not only just right for me but also for the young peoplle and my colleagues. Gradually I found that in a number of ways how you worked in a residential setting was not as different from outreach work as I had first thought. To begin with I told myself that I had to keep in mind that I was not only working on a one to one basis with the young people but also working with them as part of a group. I found this difficult because I was dealing with up to seven different personal situations which were equally as important to each of the children. The children often did not appreciate that you understood that their individual situations were just as important as the others’ were. Trying to manage this to the children’s and my own satisfaction seemed to be a cause of frustration and annoyance for everyone. At this stage I discovered that children and young people will join together and form sub-groups to attempt to get what they wanted and of course what they wanted was not always good for them. This left others feeling that their position within the overall group had become weak and  that I had not supported them enough or that I did not care about them. After some days I decided that I would fall back on the one to one technique I had developed as an outreach worker and though I was working in a group situation I was determined to make each young person realise that when I was  listening to them and responding to them I was at that moment dealing directly with them and no one else even if there were competing factions. Working this way seemed to help. It did not mean that I have solved all the problems of my work overnight. I am working with children who have very deep-seated problems so I would be foolish to feel complacent particularly since anyone watching me work would soon see that any self-satisfaction on my part would be a serious misjudgment! I do feel though that the young people have gained some understanding that I will make a conscious and conscientious effort to deal with the frustrations of each of them even though they may have to be patient and take turns. This does not stop sub-groups of young people forming in order to exert pressure but I have found that by focusing on children as individuals and not as a group of merged individuals these sub-groups can’t sustain themselves for very long.

Although I have fallen back on skills I developed in my outreach work, as I have explained I had to adapt and develop them for working in residential child care. I have also gained and developed other skills. For instance I have found that in my new work setting managing my time can be extremely difficult. Engaging with the informal activities of the group, facilitating formal group meetings, making sure that I have arranged the day for the young people, making sure children have all they need to go to school, supporting those who are out of school with their education, preparing meals, taking part in formal recreation and activities, meeting individually with my key children, going out shopping, remembering the children’s, their parents’ and their siblings’ birthdays and anniversaries,communicating with external agencies, attending review meetings, training, staff meetings and supervision sessions all have to be squeezed in the working week. This can be very trying. My colleagues have shown me that the effective organisation and carrying out  of these tasks can be managed  if there is week-to- week, day-to-day, minute-to-minute cooperation and flexibility within the staff team.  I have learnt this can only be done if my colleagues always have a thought for me and I have a thought for them. Working in a children’s home is much more obviously a team effort than my outreach work where I was often operating alone.

When I look back on my first day of working in a children’s home and think about how nervous I was and how uncertain I was about being able to cope with this kind of work I am so pleased that I now feel I can cope with it. Working in a children’s home has been a very positive experience for me. I have broadened my knowledge about the way children and young people can be looked after and I have gained new skills. I still have a great deal to learn.  I would say to those who were thinking of  becoming a residential child care worker to go ahead and find out if it is the job for you. Yes, you will have to learn a lot about yourself which can be painful ; yes the hours can be hard and long ; no, you will not earn a fortune, but the personal reward for the work truly outweighs all of that.




17 Jun 2009,    Nancy Mohindra observes
Douglas Cameron’s paper about his experience working with children and young people in a residential setting conveys humility and hard work. It is as well a very good example of what working with children and young people is about “estabishing trusting relationships” despite the setting in which the work is carried out.