Stigma occurs where inmates become labelled or ‘marked’ as different, disturbed or in some way less worthy than those ‘outside’. Stigma refers specifically to negative identifications of people, for example, as the ancient Romans branded the word ‘FUR’ (meaning ‘thief’) on the foreheads of people found guilty of theft.

Cronjé and Niewoudt (1981) refer to Erikson’s view: “Stigmatising also isolates the individual from the outside world and a sub-culture is formed with other stigmatised people”. In this regard, I challenge you to read Erving Goffman’s (1961) essay On the Characteristics of Total Institutions without finding disturbing parallels with your organisation — even if it is a park-like cottage system home! When one looks at the shape of child care services, their visible, physical attributes, it seems that child and youth care has been led progressively almost to conceal what it does. In our attempts to avoid stigma, children’s institutions have tried to become indistinguishable from ordinary family homes, to the extent that one may well ask “What’s the difference”? This answer, increasingly, is “There is no difference”. It often happens that nothing particular happens in a children’s home which doesn’t happen in an ordinary home. A number of critical questions arise: Why, then, is the children’s home there at all? Why does nothing particular happen in them? Should something different be happening? What would the children’s homes look like if something particular did happen in them?

We would wish to avoid stigma, but this presents us with a dilemma: The more ‘normal’ we try to look, the less we can get down to the business of treatment. We might as well tell dentists that children are terrified by their drills and needles and probes, so please pretend not to use them, hide them somewhere so nobody will see them, furnish your rooms like a sitting room or a play room, take off your white coat, smile please ... and zip! No more dentists! We all heave a sigh of relief. Nobody liked dentists anyway. Until the toothache comes, then we look in vain for a dentist. We might then still find the occasional ‘closet’ dentist who feels too guilty to be reminded that he actually is a dentist, and all he can do is tell you to sit in his living room, please watch TV, read a magazine, forget that you have a toothache.

Families are highly valued in our society. We don’t like to see them going wrong. Separations, removals, ‘orphanages’ and such things, like dentists, send a chill down our spines. We don’t like to think of them. So when we do have to remove a child from home we like to get it over as quickly and painlessly as possible. We almost like to pretend that everything is really all right, so we try to make the children’s home as much like ‘a big happy family’ as possible — but the view is not rosy. Are we wrong to pretend it is?

In 1968 Elizabeth Pugh recognised this problem: “The present dilemma of residential child care is how to provide the conditions for good professional work without destroying the warm secure atmosphere of a home in which it is to be performed ... . Martin et al. (1979) however state more boldly: “Placement has to be seen as a radical but co-ordinated effort to bring about change ... and the courage to expedite this is essential”.

Today we face just this conflict, and the more real remedial, rehabilitative, reconstructive child care work we do, the more the tools of our dreadful trade become visible. How do we resolve this? Do we have to give up the ‘happy families’ image and get on with the work? Or do we have to forget about that something special we have to offer to troubled children?

But there can also be positive identifications for children living in groups, and we need to be able to see how these differ from negative identifications. We can then build accordingly on these positive identifications, together with necessary controls, in our institutions. Butlin concludes with the view is that “the residential unit has to be accepted as an institution, but the work within it can prevent, or at least help to lessen, the effects of institutionalisation”.



Gannon, B. (1994). Theories, approaches and principles of education and treatment. Pretoria: University of South Africa. pp.38-39





































Cronjé, E. and Niewoudt, J. (1981). Kinderhuise in Suid-Afrika: 'n opname van die samestelling, organisasie, praktyk en probleme van blanke kinderhuise in Suid-Afrika. Maatskaplike Werk/Social Work 17 (3), 163-172

Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Harmndsworth: Penguin. 13-116.

Martin, L., Pozdnjakoff, I. and Wilding, J. (1976). The uses of residential care. Child Welfare, 55 (4), 269-278