Future of residential care

Residential care costs a great deal and risks contaminating its residents. The case for it is essentially twofold. First, it is able to tolerate behaviour that leads to foster-care placements, the main alternative at the moment, breaking down. Second, a number of young people chose it in preference to foster care. Its future will depend, in part, on the degree to which other provisions can be developed that can match these advantages.

It seems likely that more alternative provision will be developed. Some intensive American fostering schemes do appear able to contain young people who are as difficult as those in British children's homes and these might be adapted to conditions in the United Kingdom. Remand fostering, 'crash pads', and occasional beds in family centres might provide for some young people currently accommodated briefly in children's homes. Supported lodgings could provide for some, particularly older young people who avoid foster care because they feel they cannot live in a family, or that it is time that they started to move out on their own. Boarding schools might provide for younger children who do not want to enter foster care because they feel it invites disloyalty to their family, or who enjoy the company of other teenagers. The comparative advantages of these differing kinds of provision have not been evaluated and it is important that they should be.

The growth of alternative provision will allow the continuing reduction of the residential sector. It is also likely that the sector itself will change, with the current all-purpose children's home giving place to more specialist provision that can more easily provide the clear goals which are important. Research that could determine the shape of such provision is lacking and should be carried out. Possible models of provision include the following.

• Secure (namely, closed) provision—public opinion will not allow young people who have committed very serious crimes to remain in open conditions.

• Brief- to medium-term provision designed to allow time for young people to consider their situation and move on to new placements in a planned way—there is evidence that fostering placements made from residential care are less likely to disrupt, although it is not yet clear why this is.

• Medium-term provision designed to provide treatment—the case for such provision is that treatment involving a group can be more effective. Evidence for this is lacking, although the variations in the behaviour of residents in different establishments is evidence of the power of the group.

In addition to these kinds of residential care, there is a case for some long-stay accommodation in which groups of residents live together. Such provision would be similar to a large foster home or the former family group homes. There seems no reason why it should not work well. It would, however, need to be less generously staffed than current residential homes, otherwise there would be pressure to move residents on for purely economic reasons.

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