Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Professional and family models of public childcare

Channel 4's season on children in the care system is an honourable attempt to shed light on a forgotten group, even if its centrepiece "Find me a Family" is infected with some of the cliches of modern television (the money shot of someone crying, the wait for the judges' decision on whether the person will be allowed to adopt).

Writing in the Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown drew this moral from the series:

We need fabulous, high tech new care homes with professionalism of a standard we have not had hitherto.
This is the instinctive reaction of the liberal-left when they come across the awfulness of the public care system for children. We need more professionals and more professionalism.

But listen to the experiences of David Akinsanya, the presenter of "Find me a Family" who grew up in the care system himself:

came into the care of Essex social services when I was 14 months old because my private foster-care bills were no longer being paid. I moved to a small family group home in Basildon with 10 kids – where I spent nine ­fantastic years, thanks to Aunty Betty and her ­dedicated, untrained team. We were well cared for, and I felt loved and at home.

When I was nine, a change in childcare practice meant that social services closed many of the family group homes in favour of larger homes staffed by trained and qualified workers. The effect on me personally was catastrophic. I became uncontrollable and was excluded from school at 10.

I was considered institutionalised, and the five attempts to foster me failed. I was sent to a boarding school for maladjusted children, and it was here that I lost my innocence and learned how to bully, steal and fight.

Because Akinsanya, born in 1965, lived through the transition from a family paradigm of public care to a professional one. And he did not benefit from that change.

In a paper I gave to a meeting of the British Psychological Society's Psychotherapy Section in 2004 (which evolved into a chapter in the book Making and Breaking Children's Lives) I quoted Christian Wolmar's Forgotten Children:
As late as 1967, the service was very female dominated and the staff largely lived in the homes. The Williams Committee, reporting on the staffing of residential homes that year, noted “two thirds of people at present employed in residential homes are single women and one third of all staff are over 50 years of age”. All but 7 per cent of workers in the survey lived on the premises, which provided an important but hardly noticed safeguard for the children.
Researching that paper and chapter I learned that it was not adequate to see a straightforward opposition between the family model and the professional model. In the immediate post-war period lay campaigners and advanced psychotherapy made common cause against the charities who had hitherto seen themselves as the experts in institutional childcare.

Nevertheless, I think that the left's unthinking call for more professionalism needs to be questioned.

Perhaps the real problem today is that we lack a clear picture of a happy family life. So it is that Polly Toynbee writes in favour of the SureStart scheme on a weekly basis, but never mentions the joys of looking after your children yourself.

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