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Whatever ‘residentialism’, is it is too important not to be stated as a means of starting its creation.

Residentialism does not see itself as right or that group living is superior or supplants any other option for young people in care yet it asserts that it has its own right to exist and to be considered as an equal contributing beneficial partner for some children at some time in their lives. It is not a competitor to family or community-based options, it is an alternative proposition. It asserts its value as a choice amongst others in a horizontal plain and rejects the hierarchical view that subjects children with high level needs to the social and psychological stresses of arriving at the right place only after serial placements. Residentialism is concerned with a children’s care system where children are in the right place at the right time. A child is living residentially because it is the right decision, taken after assessment, for this child right now; a residential environment is a good, therapeutic, practical and pragmatic place to be.

With a focus on the needs of the child being met, residentialism sets aside financial considerations. The current reality is that funding enters the discussion and creates policy stances like reducing residential, not because it is an appropriate and required placement option but because it is relatively expensive in the short term.

Residentialism challenges the idea that residential child care has lower outcomes than other options. It does so on firm grounds, not rhetoric but rational analysis. A residential place is not the cause of lesser attainment. The current outcomes are the result of a system that uses placement options hierarchically, residential care is, all too often, considered to be a last resort. It is often considered only after years of moving from one placement to the next, resulting in reduced number of secure relationships and a diminished capacity to make or risk forming them; reduced access and opportunity for stable schooling; with increased fragmentation of family and friends, a young person’s resilience is latent as it has been allowed to be underdeveloped. Without the right supports the young person has drifted away from national outcomes levels. Taking professional responsibility we can say, it is system that has drifted. A residential place now is where we can see the correlation of a hierarchical system that makes and breaks relationships to the detriment of those who need them the most.

Residentialism is about good child care practice. It is not about child care business. There is an economy of care that exists outside of commercialism; this too has to be constructive to conserve the care that makes the enterprise possible. It is about doing the right things for a child no matter who owns the building and pays the staff. It is about good models of care not business models. There is a lot written about the market of care but little about the economics other than to consider spending. There is more about supply responding to demand, than demand supporting supply. This is to take an exclusively monetary/financial view, mostly written about by people who have never had any substantial experience of residential living, and there is another economy, the economy of care, mostly written about by people with little or no experience of the financial world other than perhaps having successfully run their own ‘business’ for many years.

Residentialists, people who work in residential child care, know a lot about good practice. They do so because it has been the longest, and continuous, evidence trial in social work/care. What works has been tested more in residential child care than in anything else in social work/care. The research does not have an evidence threshold as formal studies have not been conducted. However residentialism understands that millions of case studies have been conducted, called placements. Residentialism understands that there is before and after observations. Residentialism understands a Random Control Trial has been involved and there is both a comparator group in that what happens or would have happened if residential group living had not been experienced.

Residentialism understands that without residential care the children’s care system cannot exist successfully. It has survived and exists for a reason. All the other options and services are reliant on there being a resilient residential child care option for a child. There are few children but they have a disproportionate effect on the ability to operate of other services and placement options. Residential child care options exist for a reason. There may be a time in the future when residential child care does not need to exist, but now is not that time. Accelerating its demise makes matters worse for children and services.

Residential living is ‘another country’ for many people even in social work/care.

Residentialism is underwritten. It is not a culture abundant in writing. Popular media often will focus only on the negatives when things go wrong, often for reasons that have been created in prior, unsuccessful placements. Good news in the media is not often covered. When it is, it is generally an individual case that is highlighted and then often used to cast criticism directly or by implication on the rest of the residential sector for its comparative failure with no reference to the circumstances outlined above which go some considerable way to account for the ‘failure’ of residential living.

Residentialists understand more than they know. They pass on their knowledge orally or show by doing, they connect the action to an experience to something learned. It is not manualised culture, theirs is no IKEA diagram to show what to do and when. Training requires reflection. Having learned from a role model, the learning is applied in relation to what was learned but with added dimensions of the self itself acting in relation to the other, the young person. Residentialism understands that it is about the person, the self, who you are and how you do what you do, that matters. There is a continuity of knowledge, an achieved wisdom that comes from continuously experimenting and learning.

Residentialism understands that child care is all about relationships. A relationship is where we start. The debate about relationship based social work is fatuous, there can be no other effective form of social work, and residentialists hold this wisdom. We need a public conversation about relationships in residential child care. We need to challenge a view that a relationship in a family or fostering can be seen as somehow different than with a residentialist. When is a relationship not a relationship? When it’s with a residentialist! With relationships being the root of all interventions for a young person then it is the experience of a meaningful relationship that matters for a young person. There is an equality in a relationship in that we need another person in order to have one. And, it is the environment where they develop that supports the quality of the relationship, there can be good or not good relationships anywhere, family, fostering, group living.

Residentialism understands that protest is sometimes necessary when advocacy has had no effect. It is so for a young person who by disruption tells their carers something is not alright. If the carers catch the child’s communication they can provide the environment for the advocacy by the young person to state what’s happening and what needs to happen so it doesn’t happen again. These steps are reactive, after the event, where things could not be expressed; good practice will enable good communication to be open and easy. As much as campaigning, and advocacy are important in getting an issue noticed so it requires good practice to be regular for these not to be needed. If it is true at an individual child level it is also true for residential child care in general, workforce support is essential and this requires recognition of the value of residential child care practice and its promotion. This is about people, places, practice, and the acts by which they relate to each other, from anywhere and everywhere to home and each.

Residentialism understands ‘place’ matters. It is a home, a secure base, as a site for development. The way the place looks and feels matters.

Residentialism recoils from disintegration and depletion. People and services are dependent, interdependent and independent. The material base affects the definition of being ‘good-enough’.

Towards a definition of residentialism
def: a rational advocacy of residential group living for young people

  1. An informed and conscientious positive regard and relationship for residential options and good practice for and with children
  2. Acting on the felt need for residential resources to have them available for young people, that each child that needs one can experience a place of one’s own,
  3. Active in creating resilience, materially, psychologically, organisationally, culturally, for residential opportunities.
  4. Acting to ensure there is enough availability of residential options, that there is capacity of number and models of care beyond sufficiency to enable choice.
  5. A view of intensive (for a young person) being expensive (for a system) yet a saving (for a young person and society in the long term) not a spending (for a system).
  6. An acceptance that children have the capacity to have many people involved in their caring, that this might be helpful in providing an experience of the integration of continuity of caring that cannot be given by an individual or couple or disparate ‘care package’ team

Jonathan Stanley July 2020 (with prompts by Wendell Berry)