2019 - a year of real opportunity in residential child care

16 October 2019

Topic: Residential care
Author: John Ryan

John Ryan, Assistant Director, Aberlour, reflects on what this new conversation about the use of restraint means for those working in residential care with children and young people today.

So, there I was at the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care (SIRCC) 2019 conference when I heard Professor Jim Anglin say “residential child care isn’t rocket science, it’s far more complicated than that”.

I’d first heard Jim speak at the SIRCC Conference back in the 1990s and hearing him repeat this observation reminded me of a number of things. I’ve been working in and around residential child since 1986 and in that time I’ve found myself having to repeat the mantra that ‘residential child care does work’ and I still advocate that it should always be seen as a positive choice. Angus Skinner wrote about this in 1992 as did Romy Langeland in 2009 and here we are at the dawning of the outcome of the Independent Care Review, hoping that the value of residential child care will again be restated and perhaps bring us a bit closer to being fully recognised for the wonderful work that I know takes place.

Residential care can be a positive choice

Within weeks of the conference I was fortunate to speak about Social Work Scotland’s perspective on residential child care at an event hosted by South Lanarkshire Council for their residential child care services. That was a wonderful event as its whole focus was celebrating residential child care. There was a quiz which asked participants if foster care was a better option for children than residential care. Unsurprisingly the majority of the audience said residential child care was the better option.

But, as a strong believer that residential child care does work and should be the first placement of choice, the statement did make me stop. It’s too complicated for a right or wrong answer, but what I do know is that residential child care needs to be considered far earlier in deciding how children’s needs can be met, and in doing so never, never seen as a last resort which implies that everything else has failed.

Many children who I’ve had the privilege of seeing living in residential care have gone on to live successful lives. That said, I acknowledge that the complexity Jim Anglin talks about means that it is still the case that for far too many children experiencing residential child care (and other forms of care) their outcomes are still poor, and for some, tragic. This complexity takes us to a place of trying to understand what we can do to stop such poor outcomes from being repeated. My hope is that Scotland, seen internationally as a leader in the field of care, can embrace the outcomes of the Independent Care Review and get closer to a care system that those of us who have been working so hard to bring change about in, is seen and experienced as being successful for all. In the meantime I’ll continue to advocate for residential child care, as I see what it can achieve.

A hard conversation

So back to the SIRCC conference for a moment, I found it a very different experience this year. SIRCC was responding to a challenge raised at the 2018 conference when a care experienced delegate asked for restraint of children in care to stop. It was time to really talk about this on a national stage and I’m really pleased that for the first time in my career, SIRCC provided that platform for a national conversation to take place.

It’s a hard conversation as it is naturally complex; complexity that holds relationships at its heart. This is understandably a place of emotions and perspectives: some staff fear being blamed if they use restraint as an intervention, others legitimately speak about ‘holding’ children at times of extreme distress – this conversation is giving permission for the different perspective to be expressed in a safe way in a way I’ve not experienced in my time working in and around residential child care.

Laura Steckley presented a plenary presentation at the conference on the subject of restraint; she did not shy away from exploring the issues and underlined the fact that residential child care is ‘intellectual work’. Laura recognised that we expect people to come to work every day and be available to children and their colleagues, and she spoke of people working in residential child care needing to ensure their ‘head, heart, hands and bodies’ are present for people to be effective.

I'm ready to be part of the conversation

At the same time that Independent Care Review reaches its conclusions we are at last having a conversation about restraint in residential child care – is it bad, is it good, does it provide containment, is it damaging, how do we help people recover from their trauma without needing restraint, is holding safely the same thing as restraint? These are all questions that this conversation will address and I am ready to be part of this.

The challenge made at last year’s conference was also timely for me because at Aberlour we were having the same conversation: – how can we help rethink restraint and its place as a means of intervention – we want to explore what last resort means.

Although restraint was and is not dominant in our practice, we want to avoid its use. The complexity and intellectual nature of what we are asking our teams to do is really significant and it feels good to be in an organisation that’s helping redefine how we care for our children – improving the way we bring children to live with us is top of the list.

We’re investing heavily in psychological support for our staff – it’s complicated and intellectual work that takes a lot of thinking, often at times which require instant responses. We are excited to do more work with our staff on exploring the impact of child’s developmental histories and create stronger reflective spaces for our staff to think about the children. The best for us is that we are involving the children we care for to help us redefine what the houses they live in should be like and feel like. We have a rich history in listening to our children but our courage to talk about this difficult issue is enlightening us all, especially those of us who have been around for a very long time.

Restraint doesn’t happen every day and isn’t a feature in all of our houses. Every day we strive to ensure that we can walk through our houses and see the children relaxed, playing, and living the lives that we hope that they will; a life filled with love, care, kindness, humanity and humility, compassion and respect – received and given in equal measure.

When I hear children give staff medals for the love they have shown them I’m reminded that despite the complexity and intellectual nature of the career I work in, residential child care does work and the children and people who work in Aberlour inspire me and give me the courage to continue to advocate for residential child care.

I’m excited to be involved at a time where our next path on the journey to improvement is about to dawn – and the world is watching!

Update | September 2021

The following video was recorded as part of SIRCC 2021 Online.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders. 

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Graphic text - Physical restraint in residential care. Read other blogs
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