Ian Dickson is a retired care experienced social worker
with a background in residential care with adolescent young people and
For the Howard League for Penal Reform, February 2019
It was interesting to read of the Howard League’s work on challenging the criminalisation of children in the residential care system, bringing back many childhood memories as a child in care in the ’50s and ’60s and during many years as a social worker.
I recall spending several years as a small child in a children’s home
with five other boys, all but one older and bigger than me. Discipline
in the home was harsh and any behaviour which upset the staff would
result in a good hiding. Complaints were out of the question. I was once
told “You tell them if you want, who do you think they’d believe, me or
you?”. Nobody ever complained. Also, if we were to get moved from the
home, we knew would be sent to the notorious remand home for ‘naughty
boys’ and the tales of what happened to boys there were enough to keep
us on the straight and narrow. Or at least … to stop us getting caught.
As small kids in care, we were not averse to the odd bit of shoplifting
and petty theft. Most of us stopped as we grew older. Most of us did not
get caught. Those who did risked being moved to the ‘remand home’ where
the discipline was ever harsher and the risk of getting involved in
more serious crime in later life was increased.
I learned two lessons in that children’s home. One was that the
difference between some kids whose care career led them into the
criminal justice system and the rest of us was that they got caught – we
didn’t. Once labelled as criminal, the system nudged you towards
becoming more involved in crime.
The other lesson was that harsh, indeed abusive, discipline did not
prevent the kids becoming involved in criminal behaviour. It just made
them craftier to ensure they weren’t caught.
Decades later, my work involved me visiting children’s homes across
the country. Most were homes that accommodated teenagers. Although many
of the homes I visited were deep in rural England, young people all
appeared to come from the big cities many miles away. Few if any of the
kids I spoke with had chosen to come to the homes from a choice of
options or been able to visit before admission. Contact with important
others, loved ones, friends and their own community suddenly became very
difficult to maintain, and social workers could be very difficult to
contact. This could be an immediate source of stress to young people.
For many young people, starting at a new school in a strange
environment, where most children knew each other already, and where they
are easily identified by their different accent or appearance, and
unfamiliar with the curriculum, could be a daunting isolating experience
even if they could gain a place, so many might go to the children’s
home’s own school instead, further separating them from community life.
These stresses are potentially built in by the circumstances before the
child has even begun to navigate their new placement.
The cost of not having positive relationships with children can be very high
Residential work can be deeply fulfilling, but it is not given
appropriate status, recognition or reward, and many staff rely on
sleeping in payments to improve their low wages. Long hours can easily
result in exhausted staff. Unless extra payments can be negotiated to
improve staffing to support individual children, staffing levels tend to
reflect the minimum staffing levels required by Ofsted.
The need for staff to develop positive relationships with children
very quickly is one of the unsung residential skills and many staff can
do this remarkably well. However, the cost of not having such positive
relationships with children can be very high. Managing incidents of
angry and potentially aggressive behaviour from young people towards
staff or each other call for highly developed interpersonal skills and
control of the immediate environment. Such skills take time and training
to develop, a luxury that many inexperienced staff do not have.
The use of restraint on a child by staff must be a last resort when
there is an immediate threat to the safety of the child or others. By
any recognised methods of safe restraint for an adolescent, the minimum
number of staff required to restrain safely would be three. If there
were other children in the house at the time, they would need to be
supported and supervised. That would require four staff to be available
on site at the point at which restraint was required.
However, it would be unusual to have four staff on duty in a small
children’s home. More likely there would be a more senior member of
staff on call from home or another establishment. In the event of a
crisis, a member of staff would need to remove themselves from child
contact and phone the “on call” support. This could conceivably result
in only one member of staff supervising children at a time of crisis.
We need a fundamental review of how care is delivered
So, we potentially have a cocktail of disaffected young people who
are living in a place where they don’t wish to be and who feel
potentially alienated and ignored. Add to that staff who are
ill-equipped and under-supported to manage challenging situations
without immediate on-site management support. Result? Staff feel unsafe
in situations that would not raise an eyebrow in a domestic situation
and call the police when they feel threatened. It is only a matter of
time until young people are charged with an offence by police – and
It is not enough to have protocols with the local police and
providers to avoid criminalisation of children in care. We need a
fundamental review of how care is delivered that reflects the needs and
well-being of the young people and those who care for them.