How do children in care today1 differ from their predecessors of fifty years ago?

Few today have experienced material poverty, few are total orphans, but many have suffered a much greater degree of emotional deprivation. Apart from those who have been evicted, the majority are the children of broken homes, their parents either divorced, separated or in mental hospitals. Often one parent has just disappeared, abandoning the family.

As a result the children tend to be more emotionally disturbed and to present more acute behaviour problems. Those who do not present such problems are easily boarded out, so the Home is left with no core of stability.

The material conditions of children in care are incomparably better. Most Homes accommodate not more than twelve children of mixed ages and sexes. Furnishing is often luxurious and includes fitted carpets, central heating and T.V.

Food is excellent; clothing is not merely adequate and of good quality, but is similar in style to that worn by other children in the district.

Hair styles are often remarkable, particularly among the boys.

Domestic help is employed so the children no longer do heavy domestic work such as scrubbing and polishing. In many homes they do nothing but lay tables and help with washing-up. In some they do not even do this.

Risk of physical ill-treatment is minimal. Punishments are seldom severe. The standard of health is good and no child is allowed to go out into the world with a physical defect which could have been rectified, as for example squint, facial disfigurement, speech defect.

These advantages are to a large extent offset by the deplorable amount of change in staffing. These small Homes which appear to provide cosiness, security and a certain intimacy in living are often subjected to constant change in management so that children are unable to form close attachment to anyone.

As a boy remarked to me recently “The Staff don’t seem to stay more than a year nowadays!” Many are only in the Home for three months. This leads to a somewhat cynical detachment on the part of the children. They assess new House Parents and rate them according to their leniency over bed times and household jobs; their efficiency in providing decent meals and general comfort. Sometimes new House Parents have standards and make demands, when war ensues. But more generally there is an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.

The pendulum can swing too far. I remember visiting a Local Authority ‘Home’ on a very wet Saturday morning. Being a week-end no ‘daily’ was available and the woman in charge was obviously over pressed. Six older girls lounged in the playroom grumbling at the noise created by the younger children. I asked if they gave any help with the housework or cooking? ‘Sometimes one of them will offer to help with the washing-up‘ was the reply. ‘but we’re not supposed to ask them to do anything.’

In such a situation, apart from being bored, children can grow up with no sense of loyalty or obligation to anyone. ‘Homes’ once resembled penitentiaries, it would be a pity if they became third-rate hotels instead.

Another respect in which the pendulum has swung too far is in the appellation of staff. No one wishes for a reversion to ‘Matron’ or ‘Sir’ but many children resent ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’ or the infinitely worse ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’.

Relationships are already sufficiently confusing to a deprived child without seeking to complicate them further. Affection is not dependant on a name and feeling for a loved ‘Miss Jones’ would not be intensified by calling her ‘Auntie Gloria’. Children generally evolve their own names for loved adults anyway. When one hears such phrases as ‘I hate Auntie Doris’ or ‘Our new Auntie is coming tomorrow’ the sentimental absurdity of the term becomes apparent. The practice is particularly nauseating when the adults refer to each other by these fictitious names. In some ‘Homes’ the casual visitor meets them only as ‘Uncle Jack’ and ‘Aunty Sue’ and has no idea of their real identities or marital status.

One of the greatest personal problems of modern House Parents can be their own children. In theory it is better that deprived children should be in the care of people comparable in age to their own parents, but this means that House Parents will probably have children of their own. Where the ‘own’ children are much older or much younger than the others they can be a considerable asset, but where they are of similar age there is almost inevitably jealousy and tension. There is also a very real danger that the ‘own’ children can also become deprived because of the parents fear of showing favouritism. Normal, well balanced children secure in the affection of a parent or relative may accept these ‘own’ children as part of the household, but the child who is emotionally starved,. Hungry and over-demanding, will resent them bitterly, and will, on their account, fail to establish a satisfying relationship with the House Parents. It is not unusual for one of the ‘own’ children to develop behaviour problems which necessitate his parents leaving the job.

The larger homes did at least provide a greater degree of continuity; if one member of staff left, others remained. The returning ‘old’ boy or girl found at least some people who remembered him when he was small and could strengthen his own memories of childhood and secure his roots.

1ie the mid 1960’s