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Does Care Change Children?. Ian Sinclair. Four Questions. Can Care help children to change? If so, which children, in what ways and how? Do the changes outlast the time in care? How can organisations foster such change?. Sources of Information. Probation Hostel Study – mid 60s

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Four questions
Four Questions....

  • Can Care help children to change?

  • If so, which children, in what ways and how?

  • Do the changes outlast the time in care?

  • How can organisations foster such change?

Sources of information
Sources of Information

  • Probation Hostel Study – mid 60s

  • Children’s Home Study – mid 90s

  • Foster Care Studies – late 90s to date

  • Care System Study – 2004/5

  • References at the end

Some caveats
Some Caveats

  • All these studies were in England

  • They covered a wide range in time

  • I led on all of them and so see them through the same lens

  • So the question for you is ‘Do the results generalise and are they relevant in Australia?’

  • And I need to describe the context

Context probation hostels in 1960s
Context: Probation Hostels in 1960s

  • Study focussed on hostels for young men aged 15-18, 16-19 or 17 to 21

  • The hostels were open, strict, for 15 to 20 residents and run by married couples who lived in – usually two assistant staff

  • Almost all residents sent by courts for a year on a probation order

  • The purpose was to remove the young people from a ‘bad home’ or establish the habit of work

Context children s homes in 1990s
Context: Children’s Homes in 1990s

  • Small (modal size 6-8), open, almost always mixed sex establishments

  • With high staffing ratios (c 2 staff per resident)

  • Catering almost entirely for age range 12-16

  • Admitted for reasons of abuse or breakdown of family relationships, often associated with difficult behaviour

  • ‘Too difficult to be fostered’

  • Study focused on 48 homes and a sample of 223 children in them at a particular point in time

Context foster care 90s 2000s
Context Foster Care 90s, 2000s

  • Couples and lone female carers (a handful of male, gay and lesbian careers)

  • Some related to foster child but most not

  • Approved for different categories (e.g. Short, medium, long-stay care)

  • Study focussed on 596 foster children, in care at a particular point, and followed up over 3 years

Context care system 2004 5
Context: Care System 2004-5

  • Served very various children, of different ages, admitted for different reasons and kept for very varying lengths of time

  • Study focussed on 7399 children (all those looked after at any point over a defined year in 13 local authorities)

Why talk about such different contexts
Why talk about such different contexts

I will suggest that:

  • There are deep similarities in the way children in different kinds of care do or do not change

  • These similarities have persisted over time in England at least

  • They may therefore be relevant in Australia

  • If so they may have practical consequences

The studies focussed on differences
The studies focussed on differences

  • In the outcomes for children in different care units (foster carers and residential homes)

  • Between behaviour/wellbeing in care and behaviour/wellbeing on leaving it

  • Between the behaviour/wellbeing of those who remain in care and that of those who leave

    The assumption is that differences in outcomes not fully explained by differences in the children are evidence for change

In describing these studies
In describing these studies

I’ll spend most time on the probation hostel study since:

  • They’re an old fashioned form of residential care that is probably not familiar to you

  • It would be very difficult for you to check the original data

  • It foreshadows and in a sense contains all the other findings I will describe

Hostel study differences in behaviour
Hostel Study: Differences in behaviour

  • There were limited but accurate records on 4343 probationers admitted over 10 years

  • Over this time there had been 46 different regimes (i.e. 46 different couples in charge) in 22 different hostels

  • Depending on the regime the failure rate (percent leaving because they absconded or offended) varied from 14 to 78 per cent

  • Differences between regimes within hostels as great as between regimes in different hostels – i.e. They had to do with the couple

And there were other differences
And there were other differences -

Some couples in charge had lower failure rates with relatively old children and some with younger ones

Some took back a high proportion of those absconding and did well with them

Some took back very few absconders, most of whom re-absconded

BUT – Couples with high or low failure rates did not differ in the proportion of high risk young people that they took (‘Risk’ was judged through a survey of 429 young people who were assessed on the basis of records at time of admission and followed up to see if they had a further conviction within three years)

Successful couples were authoritative
Successful couples were authoritative

  • In Case studies successful regimes were ‘authoritative’ (warm, firm and consistent)

  • Unsuccessful regimes were variously harsh, out of control, or marked by marital conflict

  • Statistically measures of warmth and couple consistency were related to low failure rates

And there were changes over time
And there were changes over time ..

  • The rate of absconding and offending rose by two thirds when the couples in charge were away

  • There were ‘runs’ of trouble with the rate of absconding or offending much higher in some periods of a regime than others

  • Changes in failure rates over time were marked by changes from ‘authoritative to less authoritative’ (or vice versa)

  • BUT – Some regimes still had more and more serious runs of trouble than others

The current environment was key
The current environment was key...

  • Differences between regimes in criminal behaviour were limited to the year the young people spent in the hostel

  • Those sent to hostels to be removed from ‘bad homes’ were significantly less likely than others to be convicted while in the hostel (32% v 45%)

  • But they were more likely to be so on leaving the hostel so that their three year conviction rates were almost average (69% v 70%)

But environment was not all
But environment was not all

  • Young people with 3 or more prior convictions were more likely to be convicted in the hostel

  • They were also more likely to be convicted after they left it

  • Moreover those who were convicted in the hostel or absconded from it were more likely to be convicted on leaving

  • So the issue is what changes by how much and how stably

And there was an issue of control
And there was an issue of control

  • The control system included supervising local committees, visiting probation officers, and liaison probation officers

  • It also included twice a year inspections by central government inspectors

  • Despite these efforts at ensuring good performance the variations in performance persisted.

  • It is not easy for outside authorities to control what goes on ‘within four walls’

Children s home study
Children’s Home study

  • Rates of absconding and offending varied widely

  • These variations were not explained by differences in residents’ histories or ironed out by inspections

  • They did relate to truancy rates and measures of social climate and morale among staff and residents

  • Homes doing well did not differ in staff ratios, or staff qualifications but were smaller and less likely to have been recently reorganized

  • Successful homes were consistent in that manager and staff agreed on approach

  • Past residents from the more successful homes did not do better than past residents from other homes

Foster care studies carers
Foster Care Studies: Carers

  • Some foster carers did better in terms of breakdowns and ‘successful placements’

  • These differences were not fully explained by the characteristics and wishes of their foster children (although these were important)

  • Nor were they fully explained by the effects of school and contact with family (again important)

  • Successful foster carers were warm and consistent i.e. authoritative (as rated by social workers)

  • Fit or Chemistry with carers and other children were important, leading to good/bad spirals (cf hostels)

Foster care studies outcomes
Foster Care Studies: Outcomes

  • The rank ordering of children on some characteristics (e.g. attachment difficulties) did not vary over time or between placements of varying quality

  • This seemed to be so whether or not they had left care, and irrespective of quality of placement, unless they were re-abused

  • Older children behaved ‘worse’ if they went home than if they remained ‘in care’ and this difference did not seem to be explained by their characteristics

Care system study
Care System Study

The findings relevant to this talk were that:

  • Key decisions (e.g. on whether child went home or type of placement) varied strongly by local authority and within authority by social work team

  • But our measures of well-being seemed to be determined by quality of individual placement (i.e. by the people with whom the children lived) and not by local authority or s.w. team

  • High quality placements were consistent and (in the case of foster placements) warm

Putting all this together i suggest
Putting all this together I suggest

  • The current environment can have a big effect on the behaviour of young people in care

  • In terms of criminal behaviour they are likely to do better with a warm, clear, consistent approach

  • Influence flows both ways – it is easier to be authoritative when young people co-operate

  • BUT – The evidence for the power of the care environment carries with it the implication that this influence may be short-lived. When young people move on, the new environment takes over

  • AND Some characteristics are very difficult to change

  • AND It is not easy to produce (as against recognise) high quality placements by administrative action

Some implications parenting
Some Implications: Parenting

  • If warmth and consistency are key we need to ensure that all placements provide them

  • Training and support do raise morale but in England we lack evidence they can improve performance

  • It is, however, possible to identify ‘good placements’

  • So a crucial task for management is to ensure that these placements are identified and then used

  • A crucial task for inspection is to ensure that this quality control system works well

But good carers are not enough
But good carers are not enough

  • They may fail to ‘click’ with particular children

  • ‘Vicious circles’ may destroy good placements

  • It is difficult to identify these dangers in advance

  • So it is vital to listen to carers and children about what they want and also to identify placements that are not working quickly

  • And we need to learn ways of intervening that interrupt ‘bad cycles’ in both residential and foster care

Change may not last without support
Change may not last without support

  • ‘Permanent carers’ should know there may be limits to change but also that changes can be made

  • ‘Permanent placements’ should continue to provide flexible support beyond 18 as happens in families

  • Children going home should, if possible, benefit from relationships they have formed in care (e.g. through respite, return to former placement if things go wrong)

  • Children should not be discharged to independence without a tested support system (accommodation, work, friends etc)

My own conclusion is that
My own conclusion is that ..

Whatever we do some children in care will carry the scars of their heredity, gestation and early upbringing throughout their life. This does not mean that we cannot give them a good experience of care or the skills to cope with their difficulties. Doing this will depend crucially on the quality of placements, on the relationships formed in them and on what happens next. We need to know more about how all this works and in particular about what organisations can do to make sure that it works well.


  • Sinclair I. (1971) Hostels for Probationers: HMSO: London

  • Sinclair I. and Gibbs I. (1998) Children’s Homes: A Study in Diversity, Wiley, Chichester

  • Sinclair I., Wilson K., Gibbs I., 2005, Foster Placements: Why they succeed and why they fail, Jessica Kingsley: London.

  • Sinclair I., Baker C., Wilson K., Gibbs I., 2005, Foster Children: Where they go and how they get on, Jessica Kingsley: London.

  • Sinclair I., 2006, Fostering Now: Messages from Research, Jessica Kingsley: London.

  • Sinclair I., Gibbs I., Wilson K., 2007, The Pursuit of Permanence: A Study of the English Care System, Jessica Kingsley: London.