Residential Child Care in the 1960s and now : some comparisons

By Cynthia Cross

Date Posted: December 15th

After a distinguished career in residential child care we believe Cynthia Cross has retired to look after and walk her beautiful dog but we suspect also that she may well still occasionally exercise as a freelance child care consultant and trainer. She is a valued and generous contributor to the goodenoughcaring Journal.


Residential Child Care in the 1960s and now : some comparisons


I have written before about when I started as a residential worker in a “cottage home” in 1960. The “cottages” I worked in had 16 children of an age range of 18 months to 16+ years with a maximum of 3 staff on duty, doing the cooking, most of the housework and most importantly keeping the boiler alight. Staff worked six days a week with a weekend once a month and also split shifts, in real terms you were lucky if you got 2 hours to yourself in the middle of the day. The children were in 2 dormitories and there was one downstairs bathroom and a “day room” which served as a playroom and dining room combined. Two of the staff had small bedrooms in the house for which they were charged rent.

There was a church, a swimming bath, a food store, a clothing store a laundry, sewing room, a cobblers, a community centre, offices for the superintendent, deputy superintendent, matron, deputy matron, meeting rooms and a primary school on the “avenue”. You hardly needed to go off the premises, and some staff didn’t, both they and the children they looked after knew little of the “real world”.

When I arrived one of the first things that happened to me was that I was taken to the sewing room to be fitted with 3 wrap around floral overalls, which were then to have my name embroidered on. I had about 2 months of hassle from the deputy matron because I never collected them. Fortunately, I was placed in a cottage with “Auntie Margaret” who was friendly with the deputy matron. Auntie Margaret wore her overall all the time, even out to the local shops and in bed on her day off. The deputy matron came down one day to ask me again to collect my overalls and Auntie Margaret said “She does a lot more work than a lot who wear overalls” and I never heard any more.

It is small wonder that eventually staff got together and fought for better conditions of service; but did they throw the baby out with the bath water?


What did children get that they don’t get now?

    • Continuity: “Housemothers” were there when the children got up and when they went to bed. Most had eyes like hawks and knew what was going on and reacted accordingly. (There could sometimes be only one staff on duty with 16 children of all ages).
    • Reality: Neither the staff nor children could escape the situation – they were in it together. Children knew that if they did not co-operate daily life could not go on. It was not possible for the staff to do everything. Children asked to do something rarely refused and they certainly did not say “you are paid to do that.” Sometimes they were expected to do far too much.
    • Living with adults: The staff and children shared their home.
    • Consistency: Daily routine was important as there was no other way to function. (Sometimes cleanliness and routine were too important)
    • Secure adults: The main housemother (now officer in charge) was usually a middle aged woman who had often spent all her life as a residential child care worker (commonly known as “the work”). (There was more movement in the younger staff). Most believed that they knew what was right for children and behaved accordingly and expected others to do the same. (Some were over strict and lacked any understanding of what troubled children might be feeling).
    • Relationships: These often carried on after children left care. Because staff often stayed for many years and so did the children. Children came back to visit after they left and were supported into adulthood. (Children could not escape from unhelpful relationships).


Unfortunately the down side of this was that they lost contact with their families. The cottage homes were usually on the outskirts of towns/cities the theory being that the children could enjoy country air away from the negative influences of home.

Family visits were regulated and took place at the weekend, rarely in the “cottage” but with lots of others in the community centre.

When cottage homes were closed small homes were set up close to where children’s families and friends lived and so that they could continue at the school they had been attending. This was right for many children but there are still some who need to be taken away from the day-to-day emotional turmoil of family relationships and also away from peer relationships which force them to continue with anti-social and delinquent acts. This is still true today.


Negatives of the 1960s era


    • Too many children and too few staff.
    • Staff overworked and under paid.
    • Many staff and children knew very little about the”real world” There was very little money available, being set amounts for birthdays, Christmas, holidays etc. Household goods, clothing, combs, toothbrushes, etc had to be inspected and “condemned before they could be replaced. This left very little scope to individualise or be imaginative.
    • The staff were mostly untrained, (the training available concentrated on ”homemaking”) they knew little about child development and had no theoretical base to enable them to help troubled children
    • Decisions about children were often made without reference to the child or their direct carers. Family reviews were held in the office and the main participants were the Child Care Officer, Superintendent. Housemothers/direct carers were not given “confidential” information about the child.

The way things are in residential child care today

  1. No continuity possible: Staff work a 40 hour week (sometimes + overtime) and have upwords of 30 days holiday a year, there are no split shifts, staff are expected to attend handovers, staff meetings, reviews, and training courses in addition to writing up records, which often seem more important than being with children. There is also a problem with too many ever changing adults, often including agency and bank staff who sometimes have no knowledge of the children they are “caretaking”.


      • Most children’s homes are just that: No adults live with the children, they come to sleep in which they are paid for, there can be no real shared responsibility, most staff do not seem to value daily life. Many think you are only doing real “professional” child care when you attend reviews, do “direct work” with your “key child” or are writing their care plan and so forth.
      • Daily routine revolves around handovers, meetings, getting children out to school, and writing records.
      • It is arguable that there is too much money and too many organised activities available for children and young people in care. Money is too often used as an incentive to get them to do things. When young people leave care many have to live on benefits and have no experience of living on a low income without activities laid on for them.
      • Many more residential child care workers are now trained but a lot are not. One also wonders about the value much of the NVQ training.
      • Staff come and go and it seems that there is little concern about shared values. Many staff openly admit they don’t know what they should be doing with children. A number of times I have heard staff saying to children,”I don’t know what to do with you; what do you think I should do?” They tell me they are giving children and young people responsibility and empowering them!
      • Staff and children move around a lot, child care facilities close, ongoing relationships are often considered suspect. All children are supposed to be allocated a “key worker” a “professional” role with a definite function (which often seems mainly administrative). This is usually decided logistically – who is available? With very little thought being given to the compatibility between adult and child, or the therapeutic processes that should be taking place.
      • Children and their carers are now much more involved in decisions about their life. Although one feels that when it comes to crunch issues when finance is involved this goes out the window. As I see it, empowering children, is often a mechanism by which adults escape the responsibility of making difficult decisions. If things don’t work out it is the child not the worker who has “failed”. We hear ”the child knows best” but is that true? Do any of us know what’s best for us when we are fearful, lack experience and knowledge about a situation and are in emotional turmoil? We need help and guidance and sometimes someone who cares enough to be authoritative.


Final thoughts

It is hard not to be pessimistic about the future of residential child care.

The housemothers in the 1960s felt that they did a good job and felt valued. Many residential child care workers I meet feel fearful, deskilled, hopeless and worthless. What a message to give to the children in their care.

The service seems driven by policies and procedures which have very little to do with the day-to-day life of children.

The risk aversion culture with everybody watching their back for fear of contravening the health and safety and child protection procedures, or not keeping the all important paperwork up to date, prevents spontaneity and many of the “messy bits” which are the essence of healthy relationships.

Residential care continues to be a last resort, despite claims to the contrary, therefore many children are so emotionally damaged by the time they come into care they need specialist help, which is not available as it is seen as too expensive.

A little while ago the last government was so concerned by the state of residential child care, that they flew in “experts” from Europe and Scandinavia to advise them. One wonders why they did not talk to people doing the work in the United Kingdom. Social Pedagogy became the buzz phrase and many workers were trained and felt that the concept had much to offer them. Comments like “I can spend time with children” “I can cuddle children” “I feel supported” were heard. But earlier this year we were informed that Essex had closed it’s homes that were working in this “new way” and it was reported that the outcomes for children were no better than before the model was introduced. It would be interesting to know what criteria was used. Often one cannot know about the effects of relationships for children in residential care until the children themselves are adults and have children of their own.



John Stein writes : Cynthia, you nailed it! It’s the same here in the states. Your earlier article about children who need a therapeutic residential experince was also quite powerfully on target. It’s the twenty-first century. I thought when I studied psychology and sociology in college in the 1960’s that we were on our way. And this is all the ‘further ‘ we have come? I just don’t see the progress I expected. Keep writing. I think there is hope.