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The only home they know...

As Sister Alphonso (left) stood trial for cruelty to youngsters in children's homes, Raymond Ross asked the Scottish Institute for Residential Childcare what is being done to improve conditions for children in residential care.

Children's homes hitthe headlines again this month with the case of Sister Alphonso, who was found guilty this week on four charges of cruelty to girls at Nazareth House homes in Aberdeen and Edinburgh from 1965 to 1980.

Public perceptions of homes are coloured by abuse scandals on the one hand, and images of young criminals in institutions on the other, as people fail to distinguish between residential homes and secure units.

But residential homes have changed a great deal since Sister Alphonso's day, says Kirstie Maclean, director of the Scottish Institute for Residential Childcare (SIRC). With regard to cases of abuse, she says: "A lot of the allegations coming out now are actually historical."

Ms Maclean has been involved in childcare work for 25 years, and says:

"While we can't give an absolute guarantee of no abuse, the safeguards are a lot better today."

Most residential homes are run by local authorities. Those which are run by voluntary agencies, such as some Catholic homes, are inspected by local authorities and come under the same regulations.

There are 1,784 young people in residential homes and schools in Scotland, according to 1999 SIRC figures - a drop of almost 1,000 since 1988. One of the main reasons for the dramatic decrease, says Ms Maclean, is the increase in fostering. Scotland still has 265 residential homes, including 35 schools, but over the past 25 years she has seen significant changes in the nature of residential homes.

"They've become much smaller, usually with six to eight young people in them, and the environment is now much more domestic and far less institutional," she explains.

"Because of the increase in fostering, especially of younger children, looked-after young people tend to be teenagers as well as the most difficult in terms of needs and behaviour, and the reasons why they are in care.

"Residential homes are also more open now to the local community. Young people bring their friends in and go out into the community more. Sometimes they live with brothers and sisters. It's not as close as a family home but it's not an institution."

But while the homes have changed, public attitudes to looked-after youngsters remain ambivalent. They often think the young people have committed offences, explains Ms Maclean.

"It's still very hard to get planning permission for new homes because of NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitudes, even though homes make every effort to build bridges with neighbours.

"A major concern," she says, "is that if a lot of staff are unqualified, they may not be able to cope and so they can lose control of the young people and of themselves."

SIRC was set up by the Scottish Executive in April this year to ensure that residential homes have a fully qualified workforce. At he moment less than 50 per cent of staff have a recognised qualification, according to Ms Maclean. "We want 100 per cent to be qualified. Within 18 months the Government is setting up a regulatory body like the General Teaching Council which will set the target dates."

Nevertheless, she argues that there are a lot of safeguards already in the system. Every looked-after young person has a key worker who has particular concern for that individual. Who Cares Scotland? (WCS) works for and with looked-after young people. It has looked-after young people on its management committee and has a youth forum.

Every local authority has a WCS worker who links up with the young people in residential homes. They provide an advocacy and support service and can attend a review meeting, for example, or take up a complaint. They can represent a young person where there is a plan to move them, say, for behavioural reasons. They will put the young person's views forward.

Another major change in residential homes is the emphasis now being put on education. Five or 10 years ago the educational prospects for looked-after young people were poor. Roughly 75 per cent left school with no qualifications at all and less than 1 per cent went on to university, says Ms Maclean. But she believes this is beginning to improve - though there are no figures as yet - because residential homes are placing more emphasis on education.Similarly, she points out that the numbers of ex-residential youngsters in prisons, mental hospitals or on the streets are high.

There's no research to show it's improving, but her feeling is that it is, because of initiatives like the Residential Home School Liaison Workers who are all from teacher backgrounds and who will give individual tuition, set up homework clubs in the homes, and liaise with schools.

"Education is hugely important," stresses Ms Maclean, "because it's probably the main passport to a good adult life for many looked-after young people. Those who get good school qualifications or go on to further or higher education are more likely to be survivors in life."

More resources are now spent on books, newspapers and computers in homes and there is more emphasis on doing homework, she points out. And the fact that most youngsters now have their own room also helps with studying, though a lack of dedicated homework space is still a problem. But the main issues are low attainment and exclusion.

"Looked-after young people are more likely to be excluded and a minority have no school place because they've been excluded from one and it's hard to get them into another," she says. "There are also school refusers. Refusal is often associated with traumatic events in the young person's life."

Some homes do badly on the education front because of a combination of staff not giving value to education or feeling it is a hopeless task. "The best are those which promote education and promote a supportive educational culture with strong links with the schools," says Ms Maclean.

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