The intention of much child care legislation is that children should be placed in residential care for a maximum of two years. They actually stay much longer because of, amongst other things, a lack of permanency planning and inadequate resources for reconstruction work with families.
Unnecessary problems are caused for the agency and for the children who ought to have been admitted to the programme as part of a plan to bring about change in the family system, rather than as treatment for the children alone. Residential care at present is synonymous with "treatment-in-isolation". In contrast, VanderVen quotes Seidl in Beker and Eisikovits (1991) who describes residential care work that involves families as "family-oriented" or "community" child care practice.
In my country at present, there is also no legislation compelling child care agencies to seek the reunification of children and families. The admissions register of my own organisation indicates the length of stay of the current intake of children as follows:
What ought to have been a temporary placement seems to have become an indeterminate "sentence" for 45% of these children, in danger of becoming "drifters" in the welfare system. Very few, if any, will be reunited with their families, since in many cases all contact with families has been lost. Others may either be transferred to similar institutions, schools of industry and in extreme cases to reformatories, or they will just stay in the agency until they turn 18. For this 54%, their future is uncertain, the impact of the agency's intervention has been diluted, and all are in danger of institutionalization.
For many, links with their home and community may deteriorate to the point where they will know no one outside the residential unit where they are living. The families themselves are often left with feelings of guilt and blame; the children with feelings of loss, separation, shame and despair.
The task of the agency is further complicated by its dependency on external agencies for the rendering of family reconstruction services. The child is encouraged to make progress in the residential setting which itself has no role or responsibility regarding the progress of the family. Children and staff too easily become comfortable with the status quo.
Child care workers in paying homage to the belief that every child is entitled to a family, nevertheless find themselves assuming the role of "substitute parent". Comparisons are made between the resources and reliability of the children's home and the family.
The child comes to forget about his past and to feel that he is better off with the agency staff. Some children are caught in the conflict whereby they come to deny the existence of their "bad" families. They are often forced to choose between their own families and staff.
The author, as part of his practicum for a degree course in child care administration, embarked on a pilot study in his own organisation , the goal being to contribute towards the design and implementation of a working model for a private residential agency to facilitate the use of current care staff as family support and reconstruction workers. The objectives were:
In addition to studying previous models which had attempted work with families in South Africa (Quintrell and Crowley, 1988, Nightingale, 1990) the author undertook a simple research project which targetted the ten institutions situated within a ten-kilometre radius of his organisation.
The research included the following four components:
Seven of the ten questionnaires were completed, representing a total client sample of 292 children. Of these, 42% had been in their current placement for more than two years. Nearly two-thirds of the children had regular contact with their families. While only 38% received regular visits from family.
Directors felt that 27% of the children had progressed to the point where they could terminate in the residential programme, but could not — virtually all because of continuing family circumstances or poor reconstruction services.
Detailed reasons are given in Table 1:
The directors suggested a number of possible solutions, which included:
Directors reported a number of approaches which they had implemented in the past: counselling for parents, encouraging or "putting pressure" on parents, giving direct aid in the form of food parcels, and preparing the children for their return to society. All reported that they have children whose behaviour cannot be managed by parents at home, who come from single-parent families and who have been abused. 45% of the parents were unemployed. All of the directors felt that their work with the children would be enhanced by inclusion of the families. They were asked what were the stumbling blocks which prevented their agencies from involving staff in work with families:
Child care workers' Questionnaire
62 questionnaires were distributed to the child care staff members in these institutions and 49 were completed. Of these workers, 86% had visited children's families, 88% said that they had never been prevented from working with families and 94% had children in their care whom they felt could function well at home. 90% felt that their work would be enhanced by the inclusion of families. Care workers were asked what answers they gave when a child asked why his or her family does not visit. The answers included the family's financial difficulties, transport problems, awkward working hours and distance from agency. Others were family sickness, unemployment, lack of interest, conflict at home. One respondent mentioned the family's unsureness of the reception they would get at the agency.
Child care staff were asked what steps they had taken to help with these problems. (Table 4)
When asked what prevented their employing agency from involving them in family work, the following reasons were given:
Child care workers were asked whether they had ever been prevented from working with families:
Reasons for being prevented included:
Workshop with referral agencies
Social workers initially viewed child and youth care workers as not professional and were concerned about their training and development as family support workers. After the workshop they viewed child and youth care workers in a more positive light and acknowledged the value of the service they could render. The workshop accepted a resolution that working with families should be approached as a partnership. The social workers agreed to collaborate with child and youth care workers and to exchange information with them more regularly. They also offered to accompany the agency staff on a visit to the families.
Workshop with families
Families were enthusiastic at the prospect of spending more time with their children. The workshop itself gave them a sense of value, and they felt they were being given another chance at developing adequate parenting skills.
The pilot programme included retraining of staff. Whittaker (1986) emphasizes that residential programmes should be seen as family support systems. This pilot programme sought to bring these two concepts together, and proposed to use some of the existing skills of staff, e.g. teaching, counselling, modelling, communication, problem solving, behaviour management techniques and relationship building. Some of these skills were extended and applied to families while others were modified according to adult learning principles.
The key function of the programme was to involve and interact with families through a supportive relationship, including an attempt to blend support services into the fabric of family and community life.
Common notions of blame, guilt and shame were avoided; the model is about togetherness and seeks to transcend the perceived boundaries brought about by difficult circumstances, distance and difference. This model however, acknowledges that there are families who are entangled and in need of help in order to move beyond these obstacles. After their initial training, staff started visiting the families. Staff focussed on the strengths of the families, maintaining an informal atmosphere throughout. Staff talked to the family about the child's progress. They observed the family functioning and the worker listened to the family, consciously trying to perceive things from the other person's perspective. The purpose of these visits was to work with the family in a very non-directive way. The idea was to give management support as the families worked at solutions to their problems. Families were encouraged to visit their child. The findings of this pilot project have confirmed that the estrangement of children and families as a result of institutionalisation can be bridged. The primary challenge is to maintain the links between clients and families, irrespective of those circumstances which separated them. The child care agency has the resources and initiative to at least maintain basic links with the family. Child and youth care workers are well aware of the crisis that necessitated the placement. They are equally aware of the conflict and difficulties within the family. Crises imply that choices have to be made. Choices imply a fair amount of conflicting interests. Staff will have to focus on and maximize the strengths of the family and not use a style of communication which might heighten the conflict or anxiety.
Staff must understand that most of these families will initially lack good communication skills and self-confidence as a result of their circumstances.