What is it like working in a children’s home? What does your home look like? What are the children like? How did you come about working in a children’s home? These are the types of questions I am asked when people find out the profession I work in.
When I explain that I set up and opened a children’s home, the bewilderment only increases. I can honestly say that whenever I’m in a social environment where people are talking about their professions, a feeling of trepidation comes over me. One, because it will result in a series of questions and two, because of some people’s negative views on children’s homes. One can only assume this negative view derives from the horrors of all the historical abusive practices that we hear about in the media today.
Unless you work in social care or have previous experience of accessing a social care setting, children’s homes are a taboo subject. The question is, should it remain this way?
The difficulty here is that a children’s home is an environment that needs protecting and safeguarding. One of the ways in which we do this is to create an environment that is highly confidential and ensure the children and young people have their rights protected at all times. We also need to ensure that we protect them from any previous risks associated with them which may involve third parties. This means that their location sometimes needs to be kept confidential also. The culture of confidentiality in social care is ingrained in practice and so it should be. Protecting the right of privacy and the dignity of children and young people is paramount when we are working towards improving their own wellbeing.
With this in mind how can we improve transparency? Before we answer this question we first need to understand why transparency needs to be improved and what benefits it would bring to the social care system.
The average cost of a bed in a children’s home in 2014 was £2,907 per week (Children’s Home Data Pack, Department for Education, 2014) and today you are looking at an average of around £3,200 per week (2016 statistics not yet released). This is a large amount of money and it is the tax payer that provides that funding. This in itself surely necessitates the right to know how that money is spent but more importantly why we spend this money. Helping the public to learn why investment in children’s social care is essential if we want to establish a sense of rationale as to why the cost is so high.
By promoting awareness of the needs of children in care along with the risks associated with them, we can start to break down the barrier of exclusion that they currently face. According to the National Audit Office (2014) there is a 43 percentage point gap between children in care and their peers, in the attainment of 5 GCSEs grade A*-C including English and mathematics. The NCPCC website states that 34% of care leavers were not in education, employment or training at age 19 compared to 15.5% of the general population. This gap between the educational achievements of looked after children and their peers continues on into adulthood. It can be argued that this discrepancy can contribute to further economic and social disadvantages for individuals leaving the care system. Ultimately, these disadvantages can lead to a vicious cycle repeating in further generations. It’s almost as if, as society we use a plaster to cover up a gunshot wound rather than treating the wound itself.
Working towards a solution
As society, we are always working towards solutions when problems or challenges arise and it is no different when it comes to children’s social care. However, when we want to find solutions we need to ensure there are as many heads at the table as possible and that the intellectual playing field is even, well balanced and diverse. The issue with children’s residential social care (children’s homes) is that there are not enough heads at the table as most people do not know where the tables is, what it looks like and in some cases don’t care about being at the table in the first place. This is an enormous problem because it means that the voices of the young people in care are only heard by the few and it’s those few who make the decisions and steer the social care system.
Transparency and why we need it
If everyone in society knew what children’s homes actually are and how they operate, would this transparency help society to not only accept children’s homes as being positive establishment making real change, but also have influence in how they operate?
The barrier of exclusion that prevents young people from accessing opportunities should not be a one-way mirror where the public gain more transparency to see in, yet the young people cannot see out. The barrier should be comparable to glass; as in children in care can see out into the world and come to understand that these barriers can be broken. Transparency is crucial to this process because:
- Transparency promotes engagement. Looked after children need to be able to engage with the world around them if they are going to be able to have the same life chances or access the same opportunities as their peers.
- Transparency allows the voice of the child to go further. Ensuring young people have a voice in their care setting is something that we ensure at all times. However, it should go much further than that. Their voice needs to be heard by everyone. They have a right to voice and express their feelings, views and wishes. Just like I am now writing this blog. The more people we have listening, reading and connecting the wider their own messages will spread.
- Transparency can help promote awareness. Raising awareness is key to gaining a more well informed public. However, you’re fighting a losing battle when attempting to raise awareness about something that people do not really understand. You have to take time to educate people in your cause for them to then decide whether they want to engage or not
Empower through awareness
If we could raise awareness of the real issues children in care face and the industry as a whole perhaps we could change people’s views and perceptions of social care establishments and the children themselves. When engaging with people in local communities, most of the feedback I receive about their thoughts on children in care is negative. Whether it’s their opinions on how ‘misbehaved’ they are or how little hope they have, it’s quite rare I get positive comments from those that have no experience or any involvement with children’s social care.
We need to change this perception so that people are more willing to engage with children’s residential homes and as a result, children in their care. Raising this awareness and improving engagement may lead to children in care not just having a louder voice in society but gaining more access to life chances. If we can achieve this then we are ultimately empowering children in care, giving them a better chance to improve their quality of life whilst in care and subsequently once they leave care.
Spreading the message
How can we spread this message whilst protecting the young people’s dignity, respecting their privacy and adhering to their rights? This is a tough question to answer and should be answered collectively by leaders in the industry, care workers on the ground and young people themselves. Until we reach this scenario the best we can do is keep bringing this issue to the table as much as we can. As an organisation we will be flying the flag for young people in care by expanding our reach on social media, sharing stories and experiences, commentating on current affairs and doing whatever we can to break down the stigma associated to children’s homes and children in care. The more people we reach to educate how the care system works the more public engagement we will hopefully achieve. More engagement means more transparency, more transparency will without a doubt lead to more change and most importantly a louder voice for children in care.