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April 23, 2011 permalink
A disillusioned social worker tells what really goes on inside British care homes for teenagers.
The untouchables: How violence and drugs go unpunished in Britain's care homes where all that matters are children's rights
When Winston Smith became a youth worker after leaving university, he was an idealistic liberal. But after ten depressing years of seeing disruptive children in care being indulged rather than disciplined, he’s written a devastating book exposing the truth about the anarchy in this country’s care homes.
Well past midnight, a thuggish teenager called Liam is playing music in his bedroom at full volume. Three adults have spent 20 minutes cajoling him to ‘make the right choice’: in other words, to turn it down and let everyone get some sleep.
As they’ve been trained to do, they’ve praised him for those few hours in the past week when he wasn’t causing mayhem. But none of this works. It rarely does.
Liam has an angry, vacant look in his eye. Even threats don’t work. When I tell him he risks not going to Alton Towers this weekend, as planned, he roars: ‘B******s! I’ll be f***ing going. I’d like to see you try and stop me.’
If I dare to come into his room, he adds, ‘I’ll f***ing smash you right up!’
Everyone in the care home is awake now. Suddenly, a semi-feral 15-year-old appears at Liam’s door and hurls a 4kg dumb-bell at him, narrowly missing.
Provoking Liam — who, at just 15, is 6ft 2in and weighs 15st — can be unwise. In the past, he’s assaulted staff and gone on a wrecking spree simply for being asked politely to go to school.
What follows now is a hellish chase down a corridor. Fortunately, the dumb-bell thrower manages to barricade himself in a bedroom, along with two care-home workers and a pregnant teenager.
Liam starts furiously kicking the door down with his steel-toed boots. He’s also grabbed a frying pan from somewhere and is clearly intending to clobber the people cowering inside.
The door’s splintering and nearly off its hinges, but there’s nothing I can do except call the police. If I try to intervene physically, one of us will probably end up unconscious — and if it’s Liam, I know I’ll never work in social services again, regardless of the mitigating circumstances.
Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of care homes, where boys like Liam regularly get away with everything short of murder. During the many shifts I’ve worked at Charrington Place care home, he’s spat on me, threatened me with a home-made flame-thrower, thrown a clock at me and pelted me with eggs. He’s done variations of the same to pretty much everyone else.
On this particular night, the police arrive just in time to prevent a bloodbath, but conclude that there aren’t sufficient grounds for arrest.
The next day, Liam refuses to go to school. Instead, he’s taken for a walk in the countryside and then a row round a lake in the grounds of a stately home.
You might think this a highly inappropriate reward for attempted murder, and you’d be right. But the care system prefers always to look on the positive side. In the paperwork we have to fill out, Liam’s relaxing day is magically transformed into an ‘educational outing’.
On his return, he announces that he wants to go into town. ‘I don’t want to f***ing walk,’ he tells the care home manager. ‘Get me a car.’ The car isn’t available, so Liam begins rampaging around the house. He tears several paintings off the wall, throws a plate at me, slaps the manager, spits in my face, grabs me by the throat and spends a good hour trying to kick the office door down.
Later, he threatens to ‘mash’ me up while I’m asleep.
At the end of all this, he’s solemnly informed that he’s lost his £1 good behaviour incentive money for that day. Beyond that, though, he escapes censure; indeed, he’s told that if he behaves until Saturday, he’ll be taken to a nearby leisure centre.
Madness? Of course it is. Right across the country, the residential care system has been infected with an institutional and ideological form of insanity. As many as 90,000 children and young people pass through the care system in England every year, and 28 per cent are looked after in dedicated children’s homes. The average care home is small, with ten children or fewer, but I’ve seen some trying to keep tabs on more than 60 teenagers.
Many children have suffered appalling abuse and neglect, and some will have been placed with 50 different foster families before being moved to a care home at the age of 14. Forty-five per cent of children who arrive in care are assessed as having a mental health disorder.
In a sane world, they would receive the discipline and strong authority that would give them some chance of becoming decent and productive members of society. Instead, teenagers like Liam are indulged at every turn.
For the few minutes or hours that they aren’t misbehaving, they receive cash bribes and other awards. Violent rages go unpunished — a policy known as ‘positive reinforcement’. Far from receiving much-needed guidance, semi-feral kids are dictating the agenda.
Don’t want to go to school today? No problem — we’ll let you sleep in because we can’t force you. On top of that, we’ll act as your cook, butler, driver and slave.
The children are fully aware of their power. Take Wayne, a small, skinny 14-year-old who regularly leaves his breakfast bowl on the table in a puddle of milk.
The first time he did this, I asked him to put the bowl into the dishwasher.
‘We don’t f***ing do cleaning up,’ he said, smirking. ‘We’re not skivvies. That’s the staff’s job.’
There was no point arguing, because social services object to anything that even hints at criticism of the young people in our charge. Instead, we’re expected to inhabit a morally neutral universe, without judgments or standards.
How on earth did I end up here? Well, like most people in this field, I was an unquestioning, Guardian-reading liberal — in my case, with a first-class degree in politics, philosophy and sociology and a Masters’ in international relations — who wanted to do something meaningful with his life.
On top of that, I’d had personal problems during my own youth, when I was a very heavy dope smoker. So, from my own experience, I knew that no matter how low you get, most problems can be solved by a combination of hard work and tough love.
Then I got mugged by reality.
Here’s what happens when a 16-year-old called Rachel smashes up the TV set in her bedroom during a temper tantrum. She’s told that the TV won’t be replaced for a month, so she immediately appeals to head office.
And what do head office do? They order that the TV should be replaced immediately, as it’s Rachel’s ‘right’ to have one.
Another day, Rachel phones to say she needs a lift back from a town 12 miles away. After all, it’s so much easier to call out a chauffeur than catch a late train.
Plonking herself in the back of the car, she then repeatedly kicks the driver’s seat with all her might, causing him to jerk forward. We’re lucky to make it home in one piece.
Her punishment for putting all our lives at risk? Two days without a chauffeur. When I ask why she hadn’t lost other privileges, I’m told: ‘Rachel has her rights, and we have to be careful.’
As for Wayne, he’s just lunged at my face with a broom. A ten-minute tussle ensues as I try to wrestle it out of his grasp.
Later, he says he’s off into town ‘to get stoned with the lads’ — and although he’s under-age and bunking off school, there’s nothing I can do to stop him.
I can’t touch him. I’m not allowed to lock doors.
So neither can I prevent two highly vulnerable 14-year-old girls from also strolling out. They usually disappear for two days at a stretch and are sometimes brought back by the police.
'The children know their power over us'
These, then, are just some of the sorry results of a profound shift in power away from adult authority. Instead of teaching these children values (so Victorian), we’ve empowered them to live pretty much as they please, irrespective of the damage they’re doing to themselves.
And, tragically, the same thing is happening in the homes designed as a staging-post for disadvantaged older kids and young adults. There are now more than 10,000 of these ‘supported housing’ projects in the country, costing us billions a year.
Yet few people are aware of their existence. Unless, of course, you happen to live next door to one.
As you approach the Emmanuel Goldstein Project, which is situated in a quiet residential street in a small English town, you soon pick up the trail of beer cans, fast-food cartons and cigarette butts leading to the front door.
Within the imposing three-storey building are 66 people aged 16 to 25, who are unable, for whatever reason, to live with their families. The idea is to give them a roof over their heads, some freedom and responsibility, and a little help in making the transition to living independently.
In fact, these homes are perpetuating the exact problems that they were designed to eradicate. Even if the kids are decent to start with, most are soon sucked under by the prevailing culture of drug-taking, drinking, slovenliness, violence and teenage pregnancy.
Typically, they’ve flunked all their exams. Failure is a badge of honour, and the ‘three Rs’ have been replaced by the three Is: ignorance, indolence and illiteracy.
They’re Generation F: failed, failing and f***ed up.
It’s not that they’re inherently stupid: it’s just that their parents and teachers have been unable or unwilling to instil in them any personal discipline or self-control. And, sadly, they won’t learn any of that here either.
That’s because they’re allowed to do exactly what they like. Indeed, any attempt to inflict rules (called ‘policies’ in some projects because the word ‘rules’ is too oppressive) results in a series of complaints and weeks of paperwork for the staff.
At the Emmanuel Goldstein Project, where I spent a year, the residents were each given freshly decorated bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms and shared kitchens — far nicer than anything I could afford. As well as TVs and gaming consoles, most of them also had more disposable income than I did.
As one of several ‘key workers’ on the premises, my job was to monitor their behaviour, write up endless reports, and meet with them regularly to help them achieve their goals — which, for most of them, is merely to sign on the dole.
For the residents of this project, the taxpayer is shelling out £196,560 a year in housing benefits alone. If you multiply that by all the projects in the country, the bill comes to an incredible £2 billion.
Even so, most of the ‘clients’ — as we’re told to call them — can’t be bothered to fill in their housing benefit forms, so we have to do it for them. Nor do most of them pay the £7.50 they’re supposed to contribute towards the rent from their other benefits.
One girl, 16-year-old Krystal, came crying to me once because she hadn’t received her Jobseeker’s Allowance. Despite the fact that it was 1pm on Tuesday, she was still wearing pyjamas.
‘I did miss signing-on yesterday,’ she admitted, ‘but that was because it was at 9.45 in the morning. It’s too early for me.’
To be fair, that’s like 3 am for many of the residents, who like to sleep much of the day and party all night. I called the Jobcentre on Krystal’s behalf — yes, that’s part of my job, too — only to be told that they’d changed her signing-on time to the afternoon.
‘Surely she should be up in the morning, looking for a job?’ I said, surprised at this decision.
‘Well, we have to be responsive to young people’s needs,’ was the reply.
Naturally, the residents also require rewards for things they should be doing in the first place. So, they get ‘points’ (which can be exchanged for cash) every time they apply for a job or enrol on a training course.
In other words, the taxpayer has to reward unemployed teenagers simply for trying to find employment.
Nor does this state-sponsored bribery stop at points: to get them to attend workshops or seminars, they’re given free take-away pizzas, sweets and soft drinks. These classes include a two-hour session entitled ‘Benefits’, for which an expert on scrounging comes in to instruct our clients on any additional payments that they might be entitled to.
Assuming you’re a taxpayer, this means you’re not only paying the benefits officer to turn up, you’re also bribing teenagers to learn how to sponge off the state.
Even those who land a job interview don’t necessarily get their act together. One morning, as I sat in the office downstairs, an obese girl in a tracksuit stormed in.
‘This place is a f***ing joke,’ she yelled.
It turned out that she had put in a request for a wake-up call with the night worker — but he’d only called her once.
‘I had a job interview this morning, and now I’ve missed it. I specifically said I wanted to be called three times between 8 am and 8.30,’ she ranted.
As mildly as I could, I pointed out that she wasn’t living in a hotel. Plus she could have used the alarm on her mobile phone.
She stared at me, nostrils flaring like a bull about to charge. ‘I’m putting in a f***ing complaint form about this,’ she said, wobbling out of the office. ‘It’s not on.’
All the residents are familiar with the nationwide complaints charter, which gives them a licence to moan incessantly. Filthy kitchen, with mould growing on the dishes? No problem: the taxpayer will pay to send in the cleaners.
Each teenager quickly learns how to work the system. For instance, one handy weapon is to accuse a key worker of being ‘judgmental’ — a failing to which I’m regrettably prone.
One day, when Kacey, an 18-year-old former burglar, was telling me about his latest shop-lifting spree, I couldn’t stop myself from expressing disapproval.
‘You’re having a right go at me,’ he whined. ‘I feel very judged.’
Now, being judgmental, in social work, is considered a far worse offence than theft. Fortunately, another member of staff, Nicola, was on hand to reassure Kacey that he wasn’t really being asked to examine the morality of his behaviour.
‘No one’s judging you, Kacey,’ she said. ‘I think Winston’s just concerned that you may get into more trouble. Of course, we acknowledge that you’ve done remarkably well and improved so much during the past year. Well done on that score.’
This is classic positive reinforcement: you congratulate a youth for refraining from breaking into people’s homes and businesses — and ignore the fact that he’s stealing from shops.
On top of that, staff are required to ask residents for their views on how the project could be better run. Since they lie in bed all day, playing violent war-themed video game Command And Conquer and getting smashed on cheap alcohol, they have to be tempted to the common room with boxes of Snappy Tomato Pizza. ‘How do you think we could make living here more fun?’ asked the manager, once they’d all assembled. By the end of the session, he’d committed to a karaoke night, a weekly DVD evening and the purchasing of a communal Nintendo Wii.
Never mind that the whole charade has taken place during the day, when these young adults should have been working or training; by getting a few of them to agree to stick up posters for a DVD night, the manager was able to tick a box labelled ‘resident involvement’.
Communal living, though, can definitely have its drawbacks. Particularly for the few who are actually trying to study or hold down a job, and don’t appreciate the constant rows and loud music.
Memorably, some residents kicked up a fuss about food being filched from the large communal fridge-freezers. The manager immediately went into action.
Using roughly £4,000 of taxpayers’ money, he ordered 31 brand-new Amica fridges (one for every two children), with a further £1,800 going on seven large freezer units. The large fridge-freezers, which worked just fine, were discarded.
Was this money well-spent? Don’t ask me — I might get judgmental.
In the end, I handed in my resignation because I didn’t think anything we were doing was actually helping anyone. I felt helpless, mired in a system built on lies.
The week I left, most residents were still not paying the £7.50 share of the rent from their benefits, choosing instead to spend it on super-strength cannabis and cheap booze.
Of the few who were working, several had not paid any rent for some time, and several more had been issued eviction notices for non-payment of rent or for anti-social behaviour. They were confident of winning their appeals.
Far from helping them to live independently, I’d helped create a new generation of crooks and scroungers.
n All names have been changed. Winston Smith is a pseudonym.
Extracted from Generation F by Winston Smith, published today by Monday Books, £8.99. © 2011 Winston Smith. To order a copy (p&p free) call 01455 221752. www.mondaybooks.com
Source: Daily Mail