• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Monday 27th April, 2009

Serve America and see residential care in the round

Argument about the value or otherwise of residential care has resurfaced in the UK Press – as if to prove that whatever goes around in social policy making circles eventually comes around, Comment in the Right-leaning UK Daily Telegraph fretted over a suggestion from the House of Commons Select Committee on children, schools and families that the residential care sector might yet offer a minority of young people "high quality, stable placements”.The Committee based its opinion on a visit to Denmark “where a far larger percentage of children in care are in residential homes which have an enviable success record”. It was a misleading comparison, the Telegraph complained. Denmark was a tiny country with a relatively small number of disadvantaged children; it also had a tradition of high-cost social welfare provision.In the UK it cost five times as much to keep a child in a home than with a foster family, so it was hardly surprising that it was the preferred option. But that wasn’t the crux of it."In replicating as far as possible a normal family unit, a foster home will invariably be a better option than a residential care home – no matter how lovingly and innovatively run - for all but the most disturbed and difficult children."The Telegraph writer rounded things off by arguing that the Committee should have made better used of its time by working out how to ensure foster parents did their work well and were properly rewarded.As well as suffering from roundabout syndrome in which solutions to children's problems circle in and out of focus and fashion, policy makers - and journalists too – are prone to see alternatives in opposition rather than in any potentially useful combination.So a commentator on the Telegraph article pointed UK readers in the direction of the US online daily, The Huffington Post, where a few days earlier foster parent and communications consultant Tamar Abrams listed the failings of foster care in her country. Fewer than a third who "aged out" of foster care each year would obtain a high school diploma; 30% would be homeless at some subsequent point. They were much more likely to be victims or perpetrators of crime than biological children - and so on.Her angle was to draw attention to and applaud the Obama administration's decision to add programs for mentoring foster youth to the list of national service programs through the newly-signed Serve America Bill.Mentoring was a critical component in the success of teenagers, particularly for those who didn't have good role models in their childhood, she wrote.“As a foster parent, I know the concept of 'forever' can be a difficult one for children who are shuffled from one living situation to another. Impermanence can become the theme of their young lives and can shadow them as they become adults. That's why a mentor can be so critical – offering advice, providing friendship and modeling a stable, successful life. “You don't need to be a foster parent to have a positive impact on these children. You only need to care enough to mentor.”[For more about mentoring and its struggle to find evidence for its effectiveness away from the eddies of public opinion and personal conviction, see for example High standards mean bigs can help littles.]

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