Towards ‘home-like’ residential care

picture of Guardian Pam Simmons
Pam Simmons Guardian

In 2014 I traveled around the state talking with workers and carers about their views on children changing placement while in care. We listened first to some young people relate their views and experience in a short video recorded by our Office. One of the biggest challenges that came to light in the discussion was how to create a sense of security in children where there is instability and uncertainty.

Welcome to the world of residential care workers and emergency and short term foster carers. The children and young people they provide care for on a day by day basis are in uncertain circumstances, often not knowing how long they will stay put, where they are going next, and who they will share their home with. Their temporary carers though are expected to help the child to settle and feel safe.

Our conversations brought to light excellent practical ideas. Important among these was listening closely to the child’s expression of feeling, in whatever way they are ‘saying’ it. Another was letting the child create and control their own space, as much as is practicable. For longer discussion of childhood trauma, how it manifests and how it can be addressed you can read the article on page 4 of this edition.

In 2014 Professor James Anglin visited SA from Canada to coach residential care workers and others in the skills of therapeutic residential care. In his unpublished paper for the workshops he writes, ‘While no child “belongs” in a residential home, it may be that they experience a sense of belonging through the attention and nurture of skilled and caring adults…’

He talked of giving children a sense of self-worth, being valued and respected, and competence; planting the seeds of positive attitudes and behaviour through positive interactions. He said that we will not know which experiences will make the difference so all our interactions are important.

Adults caring for children on a short-term basis are temporary in a child’s life so one eye of the carer has to be on the more permanent relationships. This includes the child’s family, their cultural community and possibly adults in their school and out of school activities. Anywhere the child has connections and derives positive identity. If those connections are not there then every opportunity should be taken to help the child learn to function within the community.

Anglin, writing about residential care, says, ‘Programs that offer a therapeutic orientation begin to re-design their buildings, how they create spaces to be more welcoming and home-like, how they prepare and serve food, and how they involve the residents in decorating and shaping their own rooms and living spaces.’ Rules are limited to safety issues – everything else can be an expectation. The beauty of this is that adults have to ‘punish’ less and can modify more.

It is for this reason, among others, that I am relieved that three of the six older large residential facilities have now closed. The physical environment was impossible to make home-like and the high number of residents made it difficult for carers to give children the attention they needed.What became obvious in my conversations was the need to pay attention to the feelings of the adults. They are also experiencing uncertainty in the situation.
They may have strong feelings of frustration, anger, powerlessness and the expectation of loss. If we want them to pay close attention to the children, we have to pay close attention to their emotions, and ‘free them up’ to give again and again to the children in their care.

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