By Charles Sharpe Date Posted: June 15th 2013

Residential child care in practice Making a difference : a review

by Charles Sharpe

Residential child care in practice Making a difference by Mark Smith, Leon Fulcher and Peter Doran ; published by Policy Press, Bristol as part of the British Association of Social Workers Social Work in Practice series : pp 192 ISBN 978 1 84742 310 8


Residential child care in practice Making a difference is a remarkable book in a number of ways. Drawing from worldwide sources it provides a thorough and informative overview of the historic, philosophical, cultural and practice development of residential child care. It explores the influence of political, social, economic and regulatory change on residential child care. Underpinned by the Child and Youth Care tradition of practice as well as that of social pedagogy it considers the different expectations there are of residential child care and the methods that have been used to measure up to those expectations. The latter include children’s needs for : safety and security, nurture, good emotional and physical health including loving relationships, encouragement to achieve, wide activity and mental stimulus, a sense of being respected and having responsibility, as well as a feeling of belonging and contributing to the wider community. These are themes based on the topics highlighted in the Scottish government’s publication Getting it Right for Every Child and this book dedicates a chapter to each of them. Every chapter begins with a scenario from residential care which precedes a full consideration of the topic. At the end of each chapter, the initial scenario is reflected upon in the light of reading the chapter. This is a very helpful way of introducing ideas for both a worker in training and for the interested reader. This makes the book suitable as a core text for training courses. To be clear this book is about the practice of residential child care and though written by academics, and there is no harm in that, each of the authors has clearly had long experience of working as practitioners and as a practitioner reading this book I felt in the presence of people who knew what they were talking about.

Karias Garabaghi writes in the foreword to Residential child care in practice Making a Difference, “These days it takes a lot of courage to write a book about residential child care”(p ix). With the noise of the body politic and the fourth estate as background, sometimes it may take courage to admit to being a residential child care worker, or to admit to spending a career enjoying residential group life with children. This deafening media induced clamour of negativity towards residential child care can make it very difficult for proponents of group living provision for troubled youngsters to find a voice that will be heard. The cacophony that screams about a residential child care service blighted by evil is cruel, scurrilous and unjust. To be sure, where there is evidence and proof that children have suffered from any kind of serious abuse which has occurred while they have been in residential child care, it is imperative that any perpetrators of such abuse should be exposed and should face justice. It is perhaps the mark of what I believe is the ready scapegoat status of residential child care that I feel the need to write that last defensive statement. Why couldn’t it just be understood that I would not wish children harm ?

From long experience I have found that most residential child care workers have a sincere concern to help children and certainly have no wish to see harm come to them. Even when they do get things wrong in their relationships with youngsters my impression has been that most of the time the original intent has been to do well by the young people. Yet even when residential child care workers make human, not evil, mistakes the torchlight of the media frenzy focuses on them unremittingly and unforgivingly. It can be a very isolating job. An underlying message of this book is the insistence that residential child care should not stand alone. It is part of our whole community.

Statements made by the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland (CELSIS) cited in the text remind the reader that residential child care exists within a public care system which some call the “corporate parent” that has – though if as a public we were genuine in our love for these children, we would say “who has” – “ the statutory duty of a local authority to cooperate in promoting the welfare of children and young people who are looked after by them,” which in turn coordinates, “the activities of the many different professionals and carers involved in a child or young person’s life” (p 9).

The authors understand the task of the residential child care worker to be “charged with operationalising the corporate parenting agenda” (p 9). This is all well and good, particularly within a system whose workers are trained, to differing levels, in the currently fashionable, though nonetheless valid, theories of attachment. The awkward truth for the “corporate parent” system is that – attachment theories or not – it allows or cannot seem to prevent a considerable number of children who are recipients of corporate parenting being subject to frequent and damaging changes of foster care and other placements. These are the children who frequently end up – when there is nowhere else to put them – in that last resort for seemingly lost causes, residential child care.

This book with its emphasis on the significance of secure, consistent and sincere relationships between the young people and adults in a residential setting demonstrates that residential child care can be and so often is much, much more than a residual service. The use of residential child care as a last resort is a symbol of the tension that lies between social work and residential child care. The authors tell the history of this and they suggest the inclusion in the 1960s of residential child care within the social work ambit resulted in an ambivalence towards residential child care which is

“reflected in a strong preference for fostering as the placement of choice for children who cannot be cared for at home” (p4).

During their training many of the social workers who will become responsible for placing children into foster and residential care are almost invariably fed a carefully prepared diet of Goffmann’s Asylums – ironically a book which, if read through rather than being known by selective extracts is not entirely damning of group care. This has led to the social work profession’s relative disinterestedness in the highly developed ideas, as well as the feelings, which inform and give life to residential child care work. These are fully examined here and I would recommend this book to everyone involved in the placement of children looked after in the public care.

I was heartened that one of the many ideas which have not only explained but have given a meaning to what happens in residential child care – psychodynamic theory – is given a good outing in several places in this text. It is a theoretical stance which draws from the influence that infancy and the pre-verbal stage of life has on a young person growing toward adulthood. It is as interested in what is “felt” as much as what is “thought.” The psychodynamic approach offers open ended interpretations of the relationships and social processes which go on in residential care. It takes consideration of the place of an individual in the group and the group becomes part of the therapeutic experience. Psychodynamic theory does not impose and so it tends to fall foul of the regulatory processes or rather regulatory fixations. It is for me a disappointment that the authors, despite their informative and impressive explication of psychodynamic theory did not, in relation to group living with children, discuss at any length the contributions of the therapeutic community and planned environment therapy movements. Both are underpinned by psychodynamic theory, have their roots in the United Kingdom, in Europe and in the USA and have given a great deal to the residential child care tradition. However to stress this regret further would be a disservice to this almost comprehensive book and, as Adrian Ward once suggested in a letter to The Guardian some years ago, it isn’t really what school of therapeutic theory is being followed that counts, it is the quality of the relationships between the people involved that is paramount. This idea is echoed for example, in the writings of Henry Maier and Thom Garfat from the child and youth care range of the residential care spectrum and certainly by Hans Kornerup from a more social pedagogic position. As an aside I would note that Hans Kornerup and his colleagues have written about the many common features shared by both the therapeutic community and the social pedagogy schools of thought (Kornerup, 2009).

In focusing their writing through the lenses of two traditions of practice, child and youth care which is prevalent in Canada, much of the USA and in South Africa and social pedagogy which has been an influential model of practice across Europe particularly since 1945, the authors argue that the emphasis these two forms of practice place on relationships in residential child care – particularly the relationship between a young person and an adult – demonstrates that the two disciplines have much in common. There are other important relationships involved in residential child care : those between young people and young people, between adults and adults, as well as the individual’s – adult or child – relationship with the group and the relationship of sub-groups within the overall group. The capacity to cultivate healthy relationships is fundamental to all residential work but, as the authors indicate – citing Smith (2008), one of their number’s previous publications – the notion of sincere, concerned relationships has been a sensitive and problematic issue for residential child care.

“Admitting to being crazy about a kid, or that you might experience feelings that we might tend to think of as loving, has not been a good idea in the risk averse and child protection dominated climates that have enveloped residential child care in recent years, where fear rather than love has been the dominant emotion. “

Rightly in my view, the authors have not separated out an entire chapter dedicated to relationships. The significance and the impact of relationships imbue the entire book just as they do the residential child care task. For me an irony that shines out from the text is the observation that the Munro Report (2011)

“calls for a realignment from the predominantly procedural towards more relationally based way of working” (p 9).

We must wait to see if the resources are to be made available to achieve this in field social work, but the very nature of residential child care with its reality of living together means it is already set up for the “relational” approach. It cannot be otherwise.

While examining in great depth what makes up a relationship between and an adult and a child, the authors remind us that relationships between adults and young people present problems for our wider community and so it would seem important to remember that residential child care is a part of the whole that is our community. The idea of inclusivity in a wider community brings me to the authors’ consideration of “life space” and the ideas of Kurt Lewin and Fritz Redl. I know I am an old curmudgeon but both Lewin and Redl wrote life space as two words and not as “lifespace” as written in this book. The description of Fritz Redl’s notion of the “life space” should enjoy general agreement, centred as it is on what he called the “life space interview” in which opportunities from every day events involving a young person and an adult are used for therapeutic purposes. My reading of Redl is that for him one-to-one relationships are very important but he also places great stress on the significance of the group. Every day events involving the group also offer opportunities for positive change. It seems to me this book as well as a number of other recent publications tends to sidestep the phenomenon of the group. The question needs to be asked. Why place children in a group living setting if you don’t think the group has significance for the nurture provided? I am sure Redl knew of that true champion of pure democracy, Kurt Lewin, and his notion of the “life space” which was significantly different from Redl’s. In seeing the human community as a whole – the gestalt – I believe Lewin saw the life space as the room available for the individuals and the sub-groups who make up the whole to be dynamic. For Lewin in an unhealthy community the life space is limited and there is little room for manoeuvre and many of its weaker elements are held in and stuck in place. Some elements of the whole may be happy with this order of things while others are not and feel powerless to change things. In a healthy community there is sufficient life space for all of its elements to have room to manoeuvre safely yet with an active concern for others. Although I have put it crudely I think it is evident that Lewin’s notion of the life space is a useful one for residential child care, but in the light of this book it is particularly so in relation to residential child care’s need to show courage in resisting and shifting the suffocating forces of ever increasing, ever detailed, ever prescriptive regulation when it is in the interests of children to do so. I’ll stop there. I would like to think, discuss and write more about the exercise of generosity and kindness, of responsibility, of the “common third” and so much more that this book deals with. There is an abundance of food for thought here, so many starting points for discussion that I might still be writing about it in June 2014. I consider this book an important step in the discourse on residential child care.

About two years ago I can remember a conversation with Mark Smith, one of the authors, in which he expressed his concern about the future of residential child care. When someone like Mark says something like that you take note. This book belays my fears for residential child care. If you want re-assurance, read this book.


Some references which may be relevant to this review   Department for Education (2011) Munro review of child protection: final report – a child-centred system London Government of the United Kingdom

Fulcher,L. & Ainsworth, F. (eds) (1985) Group Care Practice with Children London Tavistock Publications

Kornerup, H.(ed) (2009) “Milieu Therapy” with children : Planned Environmental Therapy in Scandinavia London Karnac Books Redl, F. (1966) When We deal with Children New York The Free Press

Lewin, K. (1951) Field theory in social science; selected theoretical papers. D. Cartwright (ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Smith, M. (2009) Rethinking Residential Child Care : Positive perspectives Bristol : Policy Press

Ward,A., Kasinski, K., Pooley,J., & Worthington, A. (eds). (2003) Therapeutic Communities for Children and Young People London Jessica Kingsley