Not Just a Job

By John Burton

Date Posted: June 15th 2013 Date


John Burton is an independent social care consultant, a widely published author on matters to do with social care and a generous contributor of articles to the goodenoughcaring Journal. John’s website can be found at


Not Just a Job


By John Burton


Two events prompted me to write this article: first, receiving a postcard from someone I worked with forty years ago, and, second, the conviction of another gang of child abusers.

Theresa (not her real name) arrived at Frogmore (the children’s home where I was deputy “superintendent”) late in 1972. She was fourteen and in trouble at home and in school. Her mother was mentally ill and her father permanently absent. She was an avid Arsenal fan, and, with another girl of the same age, racketed around the home shouting “You’re going to get your fucking heads kicked in”, and went off to matches whether we (the care workers) liked it or not. She was a heavy smoker and could sometimes be physically threatening. Theresa was also a very intelligent girl and loved to talk, discuss, and argue. She was into music and politics, and a regular attender of the local Young Socialists’ discos and meetings. Yes, a very interesting and lively young woman!

Like many . . . no, most teenagers, she wished to keep different hours from the mainstream adult population: late nights and late mornings. She would draw workers – usually the men – into late-night discussions sitting at the kitchen table, or standing on Wandsworth Bridge overlooking the Thames when someone had gone out to look for her and bring her home at midnight. This was the decade of “blues parties”. The council flats surrounding Frogmore enticed the teenage residents with their booze, pot, and sound systems thudding into the early hours every weekend.

I remember many small episodes of Theresa’s relatively short stay at Frogmore: tipping her out of bed at 7 a.m. when she’d kept me up half the night refusing to go to bed; kissing her feet (still in her shoes), a forfeit she demanded to allow me to watch the cricket on TV for ten minutes. I pick these two incidents because of their apparent bad-practice / sackable offence shock value. My colleagues would remember many other incidents and so does she.

Within a year, Theresa moved to a girls’ hostel run by the same local authority, but she stayed very closely in touch with Frogmore. She was very difficult at the hostel as well and eventually moved to a community in Essex where she also made strong and lasting relationships, and won a place to read sociology at university.

Unfortunately, an unlikely marriage and recurring schizophrenic illness intervened in her academic career and she never graduated. Her illness has meant many admissions to hospital including long periods during which she was anorexic. She has made several attempts to take her own life. She goes in and out of addiction to prescribed medication and alcohol. She hears voices, and becomes fixated with public figures especially TV news readers, politicians, and Bob Dylan. Her mother, whom Theresa visited daily, was so overweight that she was unable to leave her third-floor flat. Her younger half-brother has been in and out of prison most of his life. ≤/p≥

When Theresa lived in residential communities she got the support she needed, but much of her life as an adult has been on her own. She is given a flat and apart from visits from agency carers and support workers, she is left to fend for herself. Occasionally she has a support worker who is persistent enough to get access, but this is not the usual pattern. She fills the flat with junk and huge ash trays . . . then the tables, then the floors . . . with half-smoked cigarette ends. The mail piles up at the door and when someone visits she may or, more often, may not open the door.

Throughout the forty years that I’ve known her, Theresa has kept in touch . . . until about three years ago when in spite of cards, visits and phone calls there was no response. I assumed that she was dead although I had no way of finding out because she has always been adamant that I should be a friend rather than an ex-worker connected with the care system that has failed to support her.

I recall one occasion when she visited us in Brixton. She was probably in her mid-twenties. We had a friend staying on the sofa-bed in our front room. At around 10 p.m. she began to behave in the way she would have done ten years before. It was time she made her way back to Fulham. We were working the next day and the children had to get up for school. Theresa was attempting to pull me into one of those late night wrangles that would defer her separation – then, to go to bed and be on her own with her thoughts, and on this particular evening to leave friends and be on her own again with her voices. As the “discussion” began to escalate with me telling her that she had to go home (“home”?) and our visitor anxiously peering out of the front room (he didn’t visit again for a while!), I remember saying “I am not your worker”. Eventually, I took her back by car, feeling as if I was “her worker” and that if I was truly her friend I would have stayed up most of the night talking, and find her the next day still sleeping at midday. But, of course, that is just one of the uncomfortable – but perfectly proper – common dilemmas of this work and the relationships that endure from it.

Theresa is remarkably resilient. I admire her spirit and I’m very fond of her, as I think she is of me and two or three other longstanding friends who knew her (and were committed workers with her) when she was younger. She used to come camping with us (the Frogmore group) in Devon and stayed several times at my mother’s house. Later, when visiting her on the psychiatric ward, taking her back after a walk and meal out, or seeing her in her dirty junk-filled flat, I feel so angry that Theresa’s care in the community amounts to no care, no community and no relationships to sustain her.

It’s ironic that care in “the” community has failed her, yet care in a community – a residential therapeutic community – would suit her so well. The costs for her of community care are crippling, and the cost to the public purse – health and social services – must be considerable . . . and for such a poor outcome.

In protecting children from the dangers inherent in committed relationships with care workers, we expose them to the horrific dangers of exploitation by adults who appear (to the children) to offer caring relationships. While I certainly would not recommend tipping a teenage girl out of bed in the morning, it was the action of someone (me) who cared and had established a strong, authentic relationship that endures and sustains. Yet, such behaviour on the part of a current children’s care worker would undoubtedly be regarded as abusive and potentially a sackable offence. Without such relationships in our lives – and particularly early in our lives – none of us can survive; so, how would we expect children in care to survive? It is clear that while the declared purpose of safeguarding policies and procedures is to protect children, their underlying purpose is to protect organisations and allocate blame to individuals. Their effect is to limit the capacity and capability of care workers to establish the sort of inherently risky personal commitment in relationships that leads to workers searching for absent children in the middle of the night, or standing in their way and refusing to allow them to leave the building. Instead, a culture of “it’s only a job” and “follow the procedure” takes over whereby children are reported missing night after night, the paperwork is all in order, and no one can be accused of abuse.

I’m guessing, but the children’s homes in Oxford where some of the girls who were so cruelly exploited lived, were not up to the job – even if it was “just a job”. I guess they were staffed by agency workers and there was little sense of purpose, cohesion and commitment. Yet they were inspected and had not been closed; local authorities placed children in them and paid thousands of pounds a week for their care; social workers visited; staff filled in the missing person forms and the police came and collected them. I guess – again – that what mattered most to the people running the homes was that they got through inspections and kept the money rolling in.

Amazingly, there are still children’s homes where committed workers put themselves “on the line”, where they do go out at midnight looking for children who may be in great danger, who do stand by them and stay in touch, and who do put themselves at risk of attack from those who would abuse children, and even from the same children who may well accuse them of abuse because the expression of their commitment is so strong. There are adults who made strong relationships and were well cared for and protected in children’s homes, who will carry with them, remember, and keep in touch with the committed grown-ups who sometimes went through hell with them but never gave up. And, not so amazingly, there are plenty of other old child care workers like me who remain friends with the people they worked with as children (and their children and grandchildren) many years ago.

No, residential child care is not just a job and following procedures doesn’t protect children.


John Burton, 16th May, 2013



Noel Howard writes.

“What though the field be lost? All is not lost…“(Milton)

Spent a good deal of my Saturday afternoon (aided and abetted by miserable Irish summer weather) reading the latest Journal articles. A varied, challenging and reflective bag rounded off by the terrific George Orwell story. Well done to Charles Sharpe and the editorial team for such an eclectic mix. I am aware of the subsequent lines to the Milton quote but use the lines to put the following in some context. John Burton’s article, Not Just a Job, struck a particular chord and it’s refreshing that goodenoughcaring and other online magazines and publications keep coming back to what I call the “baby and bathwater” question.

John’s references here and there to what he quite rightly calls “sackable” offences is really at the heart of the matter. Our current obsession with believing that increasing regulation is the answer to the ills of the past has gained so much currency in recent years (as with politics, banking and the like) that no longer are personalities of character and empathy with a predisposition toward working with children in the care system seen as an answer but rather as a problem. They just don’t seem to fit, or rather what they might do does not fit our new, highly regulated system ostensibly and quite convincingly putting itself forward as being in the best interests of children with various levels of bureaucracy in place to prove that.

I recently attended a lovely, inspiring occasion to mark the retirement of a nun who had spent 38 years as a residential worker. She may well be part of history as it was mentioned on the occasion that she may well be the last member of an Irish religious order to work in residential care. That alone, for many reasons, marks her retirement as significant in an Irish context especially. So many were the stories about her that were she to do some of the things, vide John’s article, she did over 15, 20 or 25 years ago now she would certainly be sacked. Yet, no one there would disagree that, to use a much abused phrase, she always acted in the best interests of the child, as subsequent events proved. It was her sense of vocation ( a term often sneered at now), her empathy, her humanity, her gut instincts that guided her. These were her “risk assessment” tools and while she was forced to modify them over time by our new, wonderful “sophisticated risk assessments” – as I’ve heard one inspector indicate should now be what we aim for, as if things like sophisticated pregnancies are everyday events- few would argue, hopefully, that the modern systems’ gain may in many instances be the vulnerable child’s loss.

One of the hidden, seldom mentioned consequences to the redress scheme here in Ireland was again brought to mind by John’s article. The redress scheme, set up by the Irish government in the wake of an epidemic of child abuse scandals, granted compensation on an incremental scale to those who could prove they had been abused in residential care. In other words the worse the abuse the more the compensation. I don’t have to explain where that concept led to but one thing does deserve mention. Many excellent, productive, precious and enabling relationships built up by ex residents in care and maintained with individual staff members over many years were sadly fractured, denied and in some cases ultimately died on the altar of Mammon. I believe a similar scheme may be called for in Scotland and in Northern Ireland where past abuse is being examined ( with the Irish system referenced)and would urge that much thought be given to what will become the ultimate process for redress. John Burton’s final, encouraging paragraph brings me back to the Milton quote and maybe the battle has not been lost. Furthermore, Charles Sharpe in his reference to page 9 of the Smith,Fulcher and Doran book (which I’m currently reading) where the Munro suggestion of moving away from the procedural to the relational is mentioned, strikes an encouraging note and hopefully one that is not lost at levels where it should matter.

I’ll finish with a true story from many years ago when I worked in a detention centre in Dublin. The route from the swimming pool to the unit for the bedtime “milk, biscuits, smoke” scenario allowed an opportunity for a particularly high profile boy to abscond. He ran across some fields intent on making his way home. About an hour later one of the staff, cycling home in the same direction as the boy had taken came upon him and the boy let the staff member know that whatever happened he was not returning to the unit. Discretion? Best interests of the child? Consequences? What will the court think? What will the boss think?What will the staff think? Should I go the police? The staff member in question pondered all options and decided the best option was to suggest to the boy that he would be home far more quickly if he took a “crossbar” on the bike. The boy agreed and was duly dropped home courtesy of the staff member’s trusty bicycle. If that happened today? As with all stories about life in residential care knowing the staff member in question really makes the story.

Thanks to John for such a thought provoking article.


Please email your comments about this article to
Return to the Journal index  here.