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18 February 2000

Caring concerns

The reaction to abuse in children's homes has its own dangers, argues Jennie Bristow

'Lost in Care', the Waterhouse report on child abuse in North Wales children's homes, is the latest in a string of scandals over the past decade, which have involved homes from Manchester to Leicestershire, and from Staffordshire to South Wales. Calls for initiatives like a children's commissioner and a complaints officer to ensure abuse is spotted and allegations are dealt with are an understandable reaction to some of the horrific stories to have emerged from these inquiries.

But underneath the concern about children's homes, there is a broader fear that no institution, indeed nobody, can be trusted with the young people in their care. What looks like an epidemic of abuse in residential care takes place at a time of growing concern that more attention needs to be paid everywhere to the potential abuse of children by their adult carers. And this assumption has its own dangers.

Children's homes are not the ideal environment to raise young people - even if there is no abuse. The relationship between a care worker, who is paid to look after a number of children who may be in a home for varying lengths of time, and a child in care is very different to the relationship between parents and their children, or foster parents and children. It lacks the bonds of familiarity, affection, security and trust that most children take for granted and which, however good the care worker, cannot be replicated through a contractual relationship. The relationships created in this environment are arguably already more open to tensions, and there is a lot to be gained from the current move towards favouring alternative forms of care. According to NCH Action for Children, of the 53,300 children in care in England in 1998, only 5700 were in children's homes. The number of children in homes seems to be falling.

But the reaction to the North Wales inquiry goes much deeper than a critique of residential care. The focus on abuse in children's homes takes place at a time when all relationships between adults and children are seen as increasingly suspect. From government guidelines on smacking to high-profile children's charity campaigns, the family continues to be presented less as a safe haven than as a site for potential child abuse. Those working with children, whether teachers, voluntary workers or sports coaches, increasingly find themselves surrounded by guidelines detailing how they should behave with the children in their care. Meanwhile, children's charities and school lessons raise children's own awareness of the possibility that they might be abused by anybody, and encourage them to report any situation which makes them feel uncomfortable.

This is a no-win situation. When relationships between parents and children are constantly scrutinised for signs of abuse, the spontaneous bonds of trust and affection that child-rearing depends upon become strained. Professional teachers and care workers cannot develop constructive, trusting relationships with children in their care when both their colleagues and their charges are looking at them as potential abusers. Children taught to view the adults around them with suspicion will automatically feel wary and insecure - whether they are in care homes or not. Yet the fact remains that most adults do not abuse children, and that most care workers in residential homes put the welfare of their charges first. Whatever the solution to the problems of residential care, simply fuelling concerns about the extent of child abuse is no answer.

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