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The importance of children's homes in UK alternative care

Children's homes are the best alternative care option for some
Children's homes are the best alternative care option for some

In the UK, children's homes provide care for many young people living without their parents. As Northern Ireland’s authorities investigate a number of these homes, some are arguing it’s time to bring an end to institutional care. But for some, children’s homes can be the best option. Laurinda Luffman examines why.

Recently, there have been a number of stories in the media about gangs who prey on vulnerable youngsters such as those living in care. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, an official enquiry has begun into abuse suffered at the hands of staff by children in 13 residential institutions. These high profile cases have highlighted the abysmal level of care offered by some children’s homes. As a result, certain politicians are arguing it’s time to end institutional care for children.

Sadly, the stories reflect the reality that some children’s homes offer a miserable environment for youngsters and are staffed by inept, unqualified or inappropriate adult carers. In Northern Ireland, the enquiry has found that some children’s homes were being run as “relics of a bygone era” where staff hadn’t yet adopted modern welfare standards and practices. Clearly, the authorities in Northern Ireland have their work cut out to address this deplorable situation.

Children in DamascusA thing of the past?

In England, around 6,000 children (9% of children in care) live in children’s homes or hostels according to information from the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF). A small number of these children are in ‘secure units’ because of severe problems. But with regards to the majority of these children, one Conservative recently stated that all should now be placed with families, arguing “children are much better off in the family setting of foster carers and much better still with the permanent loving home that adoption offers.”

It’s hard to disagree with this statement when considering the current press stories, (though it should be remembered that there are also cases of foster families mistreating children). Certainly, most childcare experts believe that large residential care homes or institutions should be a thing of the past. Indeed, most EU countries are phasing out these kind of facilities.

However, many experts believe there is a still a need for children’s homes. In the best examples, these residential homes offer what’s known as ’small-group care’ where children live in an environment which is as close as possible to a family setting. With sufficient trained carers, this allows for individual attention to be given to each child and the opportunity for youngsters to bond with a specific carer.

Providing stability

Such homes may offer the best alternative care for certain children, for example when short-term or emergency solutions are needed. For older children who have experienced a succession of different and perhaps unsuccessful fostering placements, youth homes can provide a respite from continual moves and instability. Children’s homes can also sometimes be the best short-term option for keeping siblings together when agencies are struggling to find a foster or adoption placement for a family group. Allowing siblings to stay together is seen as vitally important by leading psychologists – see Samir’s story.

SOS Mother and child

In 2009, the UN’s General Assembly endorsed a new set of ‘Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children’, which were put together by SOS Children and other leading organisations and experts. These guidelines state that if taking children into alternative care cannot be avoided, youngsters should be placed in an environment which offers the most “appropriate conditions” to suit “the best interests” of the child.

Children’s homes should perhaps then be viewed as just one in a range of ‘out-of-home’ care options which may offer a child the best chance for stability and happiness.

SOS Children provides care to children in Children's Villages. Find out more about how we care for those who cannot live with their families.

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