How can service managers make children’s lives better?

By Ian Sinclair

An exciting day, 75 years old and my first ever blog!  Apparently it has to be short, controversial, easy to understand and linked to research.  These things to my mind do not go easily together.  Whatever … Here’s a thought:

‘Those who manage services for children in care have no idea how to make the lives of children in care better’. 

This should be controversial.  Making children’s lives better is what such managers are supposed to be about.  Personally I see it is a half truth.  I have exaggerated to raise a key question.  Most of what really matters in Care takes place behind four walls, out of sight of the managers and their staff.  The question is how does one link the committees, budgets, policies and procedures which take up managerial time with the day to day lives of individual children in care.

Interestingly there is relevant research[1].  Children’s Services do influence key decisions about children’s lives (e.g. whether they are adopted or go home).  When, however, it comes to how well the children then do things are not so straightforward.  Managers do not influence the children directly but rather through their influence on the placements.  The question is do they know how?

At first sight this is not rocket science.  Children in care tell them what they want, for example, that their carers are committed to them and do not make them feel the odd one out.  And we also know what kind of adults are likely to do this – those who are warm, clear about what they expect, encouraging, and sensitive to children’s wishes.  But what we do not know is how to produce these carers and placements.  There is no evidence that the many different kinds of training produce, on average, a better result.  We do not know how to select good carers.  [See also the latest Rees Centre review on this topic]. And when we inspect caring services we concentrate so much on the bureaucratic requirements that we are in danger of missing the essentials.  All this reflects a lack of research rather than managerial incompetence or lack of concern.  But it is a problem nonetheless.

So here are three suggestions:

  • All providers must focus on identifying the good and less good placements.  The less good ones are more likely to have breakdowns, face allegations, and be seen by social workers, supervising social workers and former residents/foster children as providing less good care.
  • At any moment they should be able to say what proportion of their placements fall into each category and should be doing everything possible to reduce the use of less good ones.
  • Inspections should concentrate above all on the proportion of each kind of placement used by the provider and the accuracy with which the provider had made this distinction.

These are obviously not the only ways of improving the lives of children in care.  Nor without further research can we be sure that they would work.  What they should do is concentrate the managerial mind on what is really important, while at the same time offering a possible way of achieving this.  The question is:  Do you agree?  And what else would you suggest?

[1] In what follows I rely primarily on research reported in: Sinclair I., Baker, C, Lee J. and Gibbs I. (2007) The Pursuit of Permanence: A study of the English Care System, Jessica Kingsley,  Sinclair I., Wilson K., Gibbs, I. 2005, Foster Placements: Why they succeed and why they fail, Jessica Kingsley;  Sinclair, I.  2006 ‘Residential Care in the UK’ in C. McAuley, P. Pecora, W. Rose (eds) ‘Enhancing the well-being of children and families through effective Interventions: International Evidence for Practice, Jessica Kingsley pp 203-216.


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