Caring about care means being ready to change
John Ryan, Assistant Director, Aberlour Child Care Trust, and Chair of Social Work Scotland's Residential Child Care's Practice Network, reflects on the fight to continue to do best by Scotland's children.
I thought that it would be interesting to take a pause to reflect on a career in and around residential child care in Scotland and Ireland that spans back to 1986. I often think about how I've got here and what's changed along the way.
I landed my first job in a 27 bedded children's home by accident really – I was on a summer break from college where I was studying a Diploma in Community Education and had applied to go on the temporary register to work with older people as this had always been my interest, or so I thought. Prior to this I had no experience of care at all.
When I got the call offering me a job in Carluke Children's Home, I really didn't hesitate but if I'm being honest, I didn't really know what a children's home was. I grew up in a family with strong values about respect and my mother's view was not to let the good people who had offered me the job down and to give it a go. 32 years on I'm so glad I listened to my mum's advice.
So off I went and I can still recall my first day as I met the children, many who were the same age as me – I was 19. Having met the adults who worked there, I was then taken into the main part of the home and on the way through what was called the playroom I saw someone walking towards me which had a profound impact on me. The young person was of mixed-race and I recognised had been to the same school as me. The penny started to drop: they had been a victim of persistent racial abuse in school and it was apparent to me that they were quite literally fighting for their survival. It was also apparent to me that the stigma of being in a children's home was something that they also had to cope with.
I began to realise that not only did this young person face prejudice of being in care – combined with histories of neglect and abuse I was being confronted by the reality of what being in care meant for children – it seemed that the society I was part of really didn't value these children at all. So, I found my vocation and fight to become an advocate for residential child care – I quickly found a place where there was an overwhelming commitment to providing loving homes for children who were there because they needed love, care and attention – not for any other reason.
To this day the reason that children are in residential care has never changed – it never will – the individual circumstances vary of course but the reasons don't. Understanding this has given me a cause to fight to challenge the stigma over a long career and I can say that for many others too who have made positive career choices to work in residential child care – I was fiercely proud in 1986 and remain so today.
The policy context of 30 years of care
Two key reports stand out for me in my career to date.
The first was known as the Skinner Report in 1992, Another Kind of Home, which really shone a light on the value and potential for residential child care in so far as it set out key principles on how children should looked after and also identified that the management and leadership of residential child care was key in securing success and continuous improvement. Angus Skinner also wrote that residential child care should not be seen as a last resort.
The second report was the Langeland Report, Higher Aspirations and Brighter Futures, which was written in 2009. Amongst other things, Romy Langeland wrote about professionalising the workforce and matching needs and resources – it was apparent that 17 years on from Skinner that there was still work to do in Scotland to really give residential child care a rightful place as somewhere that children should be able to come and thrive, and that a professionalised workforce would give residential child care higher status – after all, isn't it a place where many of our most vulnerable receive 'intensive care' providing a lifeline and hope when they most need it?
Fast forward to today and Scotland's care system is subject to a root and branch review following the First Minister's statement, amongst other things, that the care system is broken and that children in the care system need love. I have to be honest and say that I am challenged by the language of a broken system, and when I hear this being repeated it makes me more determined every day to do what I can to make sure that the children that we are privileged to look after having the opportunity to feel loved and care for by people who have compassion and kindness at their heart.
Showing love and care
I see many people working with children in residential child care everyday love – they laugh with the children, hold and comfort the children, celebrate the children's achievements often against the odds, they comfort the children in their times of need, they work hard to navigate the impact in children's neglect and trauma and never judge children or their families for because of their circumstances – a key social value I learned was acceptance of worth of individuals and of course, being non-judgemental.
I'm really inspired by Fiona Duncan who is chairing the Independent Care Review now underway – Fiona is determined to get answers to the hard questions. As Chair of Social Work Scotland's Residential Child Care's Practice Network, it was critical for me that we had an early conversation with Fiona – we are people who are working each day to make a positive difference. It was an inspiring conversation and Fiona has the right people beside her, not only with direct experience of having lived in or as part of the care system, but also people who are working every day to bring improvements.
Rather than feeling that I'm working in a broken system I believe that I am working in a system that is ready for change – it has been since I started in 1986 and remains committed to change. A lot of the key ingredients are there – so it's up to me and everyone reading this article to take the opportunity that is here and to push and influence change. We can do it. Scotland really can be the best place for children to grow up where society accepts that there is a need for other kinds of homes for those children who can't live with their parents or families. We should always have nothing but higher aspirations for children in care and deliver services which really enable them to have the brighter future they deserve.
John Ryan is Assistant Director at Aberlour Child Care Trust, and Chair of Social Work Scotland's Residential Child Care's Practice Network
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