Taking the next steps to improving residential childcare experiences

Following her attendance at the Howard League for Penal Reform ‘Policing the Community’ Conference and Community Awards, at which CYCJ and Staf received a special commendation for their work on responding to offending in residential childcare, Debbie Nolan talks us through what she learnt and the future direction of the ‘Next Steps’ project.

On November 14 I was fortunate enough to attend the Howard League for Penal Reform ‘Policing the Community’ Conference and Community Awards. The Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice and Staf (Scottish Throughcare and Aftercare forum) were shortlisted for an award in the residential care category for the Responding to Offending in Residential Childcare – Next Steps project.  At the event we were awarded a special commendation for policy development.  The project has had three interrelated areas of work:

  • The development and implementation of a programme for local improvement to provide an understanding of, and influence, staff practice in responding to offending behaviour in four children’s houses in Scotland as detailed in the Next Steps progress report;
  • Individual and collective discussions with, and the provision of support to, national organisations to consider and reflect on their role in supporting more appropriate responses to looked after children and to offending behaviour and as necessary change practice. This has included for example the previous roundtable discussion on looked after children and offending;
  • Wider knowledge exchange of the learning gained from the above work and practice support to implement this learning. This has involved a combination of the production of journal articles; podcasts; inputs at events; facilitating multi-disciplinary events and roadshows in local authorities and third sector organisations; lectures; contributions to consultations and formal reviews; supporting practitioners; and contact with the head of residential childcare services in each local authority area to share learning and to offer assistance.

In measuring the impact of the project, due to the challenges of focusing solely on reducing police contact, we have utilised more subjective measures of success, coming from feedback with those practitioners and managers we have worked with and provided inputs and support to. The programme of local improvement accomplishments and learning points as summarised in the progress report included the development and trialling of a programme for improvement in respect of responses to offending behaviour in residential childcare; capacity building; the opportunity for practice reflection; and identification of the areas of change that could support improvements to practice and outcomes for young people, which have been taken forward within the individual organisations involved. The Assistant Director of one of the organisations involved has commented:

“During the Next Steps project and subsequently we have worked hard to reduce the criminalisation of children in care and have changed our practice significantly. In the local area we have made strong relationships with Police Scotland and now host regular liaison meetings with key officers… We now have a system whereby we will call the Police if a situation is deemed to be out of control but with the Inspector’s help, we now can ask for Police Officers to come and help to restore order. This is a really positive step forward as previously automatically a crime would be recorded, leading to a high likelihood of the child being charged.”

Likewise, in one local authority following the facilitation of a multi-agency event, a short life working group has been established to develop and take forward actions to support practice improvement. We are continuing to support this group. Similarly, after an input on the project to an organisation working with care leavers in England, they have made the criminalisation of looked after children a key focus of their work.

At the conference, a plenary session was devoted to the criminalisation of children in residential childcare. Claire Sands (Youth Justice Researcher) provided an overview of the Howard League’s programme to end the criminalisation of children in residential care in England and Wales, with a number of common themes to those highlighted by our work evident including:

  • The challenges of data collection and monitoring, but that which is available evidences the concerns regarding the criminalisation of looked after children in residential childcare;
  • The importance of ensuring that police contact is avoided unless absolutely necessary, given the recognised impact on future outcomes and on life chances and opportunities, not least owing to the current system of disclosure of childhood records;
  • That responding to offending behaviour is inherently complex, being influenced by a multitude of factors;
  • The importance of supporting the workforce and working in partnership to support change and improvement;
  • The need to recognise the impact of wider systemic issues, including challenges in the care system, that impact on practice, rather than solely focusing on individual children.

This was followed by an input from Amber James (Interim Head of County Services) who detailed the journey Hampshire County Council have been on in their children’s homes. This has involved a combination of:

  • Investing in the buildings and environment of children’s homes, through the demolition of old houses and building of smaller, more homely buildings, spread across the county, with young people heavily involved in the design of the houses and furnishings;
  • Agreeing a consistent model of practice – Pillars of Parenting – to support the provision of confident, authoritative, warm and relationship-based parenting;
  • Investing in staff training and support to staff;
  • Adopting a joined-up approach and working in partnership with other agencies, including each children’s house having an educational psychologist linked, the development of a common language and checklists for monitoring progress and development;
  • Actively working in partnership with the local community, for example providing inputs to community meetings on the reasons why young people come into care and their needs and experiences;
  • Changing attitudes towards residential childcare away from this being deemed an option of last resort and young people being “cared about” not just “cared for”.

As a result, the approach of staff to contacting the police has been significantly changed, with a marked reduction in police call outs, and positive feedback from staff, children and parents.

The event really reinforced the focus and findings of our project. The Next Steps project is due to conclude in April 2019. Until then, we will continue to work with national organisations and knowledge exchange activities, as detailed above; to publish further blogs including from care experienced young people; to develop a final report and guide synthesising the learning from the project with corporate parenting responsibilities; and to hold an evening seminar on the project.

If you would like more information or if we could assist you in this area of practice, contact Deborah.nolan@strath.ac.uk.


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