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Changing face of children's homes

Provision is no longer based on the huge institutions of old, but on smaller residences.

Children's homes in Scotland are now far from the public image of big rambling "orphanage" institutions, stuck in the middle of nowhere, staffed by largely untrained carers. The majority are six- to 12-bedded units, and a drive is taking place to ensure staff have basic training in childcare. The range of provision includes respite care, leaving-care units and supported flats.

Many secondary schools will have one or two children's homes in their catchment area and the chance of teachers meeting young people living there is high - even without including those who live with foster parents.

Most people assume the phrase "in care" means "residential care". In fact, it has included a range of supervision for children and young people who need care and protection, or who have committed offences, or often both. About three-quarters come via a compulsory supervision order from a children's hearing. Under the new Children (Scotland) Act, the very phrase "in care" -because of its stigma - is now to be replaced by "looked-after" children. Only about 17 per cent of these children are in residential settings, as the trend towards community placements continues. In contrast more than 50 per cent live at home with social work supervision, and one in five stays with foster parents. The residential population now has a bigger concentration of damaged and distressed young people - but this does not mean they are less able or articulate about their needs, as the organisation Who Cares? Scotland has forcefully shown. Latest available Scottish Office figures (from 1993) show more than 2,120 children in residential care. About half of these were in local authority homes, with most of the rest in residential schools, assessment centres and voluntary homes. (In comparison, more than 2,740 children were placed with foster parents.) More than 80 per cent of children and young people in residential care were aged from 12 to 17 - which still leaves a significant, often-overlooked number in younger age groups in children's homes.

Many of Scotland's most vulnerable young people have experienced both foster care and residential placements - their experience can't be broken down into neat compartments. Many have also been in care for a long time, which can increase their sense of stigma in settings such as schools. In 1993, for example, 28 per cent of children living with foster parents had been in care for five years or more.

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