In 2003 Robin Douglas and
Chris Payne reflected on a piece they wrote in 1981. They considered changes which were taking place in residential child care at the time. They asked then about the extent to which their fears been allayed or confirmed. How are things in 2018?
Important changes in staff conditions of service
have taken place in recent years: the introduction of a shorter working
week and payments for overtime; an increase in staffing levels to
accommodate reduced working hours; and the employment of more
non-resident and part time staff.
But what have been the effects of these changes, now
that many residential care staff work no more unsociable hours and have
comparable occupational groups like field social workers, nurses and
policemen? Have they resulted in greater job satisfaction, improved
morale, lower staff turnover and more commitment to the work? Are
residents being offered a better service now that they can be given more
intensive care and attention by these larger numbers of people, who,
when having a hard time, have the consolation of being able to “get away
from it all” at the end of their shift?
We have no definite answers because, to the best of
our knowledge, there has not been an empirical study to assess the
effects of these changes. If one was to be carried out we suspect our
worst fears would be confirmed — neither staff nor residents have really
benefited and the introduction of industrial practices and conditions to
human service organisations like residential units has brought as many,
if not more, problems than it was expected to solve.
One consequence is that the caring process has
become increasingly bureaucratic. For many workers in even the smallest
units, organising complicated duty rotas has become a nightmare. The
whole care programme has to be geared to the availability of staff.
Hours worked have to be carefully calculated and overtime sorted out.
Just another job?
Communication remains another major problem. Staff
may have little contact with each other for days at a time and getting
everyone together for a staff meeting or supervision session begins to
require as much planning as a military operation. Off duty staff often
have to be called in and paid overtime — if this is allowed. Small
wonder then that such activities are given low priority and supervision
practice is so rudimentary. The effects of poor communication and lack
of support can be clearly seen on residents and staff for whom caring
becomes “just another job”; a matter of clocking in and out of the
shift. Commitment, work satisfaction and morale all suffer.
A system that revolves around the duty rota must
inevitably corrupt even the most basic caring principles. For children,
the experience of being in care under these circumstances will be very
confusing and fragmented, with few of the predictable reference points
which are so essential if a sense of security is to develop. This does
not imply that the solution is to revert to the “ever present
houseparent” model, but something needs to be done to ensure a degree of
continuity. As the system now operates this seems impossible, and the
greatest effects are being felt in those smaller units which set out to
reproduce home-like, family-style living.
It is not being looked after by different people
from day to day that creates the confusion. This occurs when there is no
attempt to reconcile the different behaviour of the caring adults to the
children’s needs. Each adult brings to the children a different set of
attitudes and values, standards of behaviour, style of interaction and
other personal qualities. The differences in approach can be either a
resource or a handicap to the children.
With fewer staff and simpler working arrangements, a
fairly consistent pattern of care is guaranteed, yet under the present
system it is common for gross inconsistencies to occur. The effects are
evident in the different styles of getting children up in the morning
and going to bed at night, in the effects of casual remarks made about
such matters as their personal appearance, which so affect children’s
self image. They are apparent at mealtimes and other important focal
points for interaction; in conflicting decisions about television
programmes, use of pocket money, smoking and inconsistent attitudes
towards swearing, quarrelling, fighting and sexual behaviour.
Control is made more difficult because conditions
for the development of relationships where there is give and take are
absent. Activities which can be a means of developing a relationship and
an opportunity for children to experience a sense of achievement are
also more difficult to sustain. How frustrating for a child who has to
wait until a member of staff comes back “on duty” at the right time to
continue a particular interest together. An adult can take up or put
down an activity at will, as when attending an evening class, but a
child is more volatile, the interest quickly evaporates unless the
supply of attention is maintained.
Of course, children learn to survive in whatever
circumstances they find themselves, but often in ways that are far from
conducive to their healthy development. What they learn is to exploit
the weaknesses of adults, to get what satisfaction they can from them,
where they can and using any means at their disposal. Where there are
such discontinuities and inconsistencies of approach we should not be
surprised if the children reject or manipulate what is being offered, or
indeed be given to displays of uncontrolled anger.
Surely residential workers cannot find satisfaction
in this situation? Like the children, they must become confused,
muddling through from one duty period to the next. The conditions have
been created which, potentially, provide a richer source of
relationships and variety of experiences for children in care. It is
evident that in some units progress is being made towards creating a
consistent, caring environment, even though working practices and
numerous other problems make this very difficult. But in others it seems
that staff. through no fault of their own, have given up trying.
Douglas, R. and Payne, C. (1981)
Alarm bells for the clock-on philosophy. Social Work Today, 12 (23).
Reprinted as Residential Care and the Industrial Model in Payne, C. and
White, C. The Best of In Residence Vol. 2. London: Social Work
Today/ Residential Care Ass. pp. 110-111