Childrens Institutions




The status of the child has changed considerably during the 20th century, from being the ‘private property’ of their parents, who could deal with them as they saw fit, to an individual whose needs and rights are now recognised in law, and whose welfare can also be transferred to the childcare system set in place within our society.  At the beginning of the century the poor law saw the needy child to be of least importance by the Board of Guardians in the application of their ‘deterrent principles.’ Indeed it was not until 1948, which saw the arrival of the Children’s act, that there was the aim to introduce, and thus provide, a child centred service. Since the initial breakthrough in acknowledging that children have rights and needs, each decade has witnessed the implementation of a major piece of child related legislation. However, since its establishment residential care for children has always been viewed as a last resort by all sections of society-or has it?

Perhaps the best place to assess residential child care is 1945, whereby the Curtis Committee was set up to investigate the existing methods of providing for children who were deprived of a normal home life with their natural parents.  Furthermore they aimed to suggest what further measures could be taken to ensure that these children could be brought up under conditions that could best ‘compensate’ their lost, natural home environment. What this Inquiry revealed was a variety of statutory services that were of a very uneven quality, and thus recommended that a single child department should be set up in each local authority area, which ultimately would be under direct control of the Home Office. It was the views and recommendations that lead to the 1948 Act, which embodied the key aspects of the report.

Even in this early developmental stage of the child care system, and in the subsequent decade that followed, there was extensive criticism of the procedures. One of the first steps taken by the new Children’s Department (which was later to be incorporated into the social services department) was to look into expanding fostering and preventative intervention, which did not indicate that the Department had great confidence in residential child care themselves. Furthermore, the changes within residential care were somewhat questionable, the Curtis Committee recommended that staff in homes should be well trained and qualified, but according to critics such as Packman (1975) this was not ‘completely fulfilled, and lead to residential workers being labeled as ‘second class.’ This view was already embedded in the very ethos of the rejection of residential child care-the staff were not good enough to perform the tasks required of them.

If there were criticism leveled at child care in the 1940s and in preceding years, the 1950s and 60s were critical in producing ideas and perspectives that lead the majority of society to perceive residential care in a very negative way, a last resort so to speak. The work of Guildford (1945) and Spitz are prime examples of  people who helped to shape the negative attitudes held by society, but perhaps the key theorist of this era was Bowlby (1951). The core of his work centred around maternal deprivation, which immediately pointed to residential care, but he further stated that bad residential care could lead to severely bad effects on the child. These effects included; mental sub-normality, delinquency, depression, dwarfism, acute distress and affectionless psychopathy.

These views were presented to the World Health Organisation in 1951, and subsequent conclusions from his report were based on numerous studies conducted in child rearing situations, both in a natural and sub famial environment. The implications were not only clear for children’s institutions, they had a discernible effect on childcare policy and practice.

It was over a decade before the work of Bowlby really left its mark, the content of the 1963 C.Y.P.A bore the ‘imprint of Bowlby’s attitude’ and was based on the principle of family support, with admission to child care seen as a last resort. Of course Bowlby’s work did not go altogether unchallenged, Rutter (1972) believed that residential care was not ‘inherently damaging,’ but the effects of the damage depended largely on the quality of the care. However, such challenges did not interfere with the stigmatisation of harm and negativity that had attached itself to residential childcare.

Indeed the low value and status placed upon the system was reflected through the legal system, the 1963 Act embraced the work of Bowlby and the 1969 C.Y.P.A was pretty much more of the same. It primary aim was to keep children in the community if at all possible.

Criticisms of the system also came from the field of sociology, largely in the form of Goffman (1961).  He categorised institutions into five main bodies, of which children’s homes were one, and then described how the individuals that live in them suffered a number of assaults on their personality. According to Goffman, the ‘assaults’ were; a loss of identity, the endangerment of physical integrity, a lack of privacy, humiliation and a lack of authority.  The areas of Psychology and Sociology were hugely influential during this time, and the work of Bowlby and Goffman, among many others, produced a climate that was scathing of residential childcare. However, a number of other factors combined over the following years to reinforce the negative attitudes which were already extremely evident.

The 1970s witnesses a mounting concern about not only the quality of childcare, but also the quantity, and the concern was coming from all sections of society. The most obvious area to voice their concerns were the media, with their interest alerted by the public inquiry into the death of Maria Colwell in 1973, and sustained by successive scandals. Colwell’s death raised a host of questions, with the key one being whether she should have been returned to her natural family after being in care, and whether having been returned, she should have been regularly monitored by the local authority. The competence and common sense of those who had made such decisions were also heavily criticised, and the social worker involved in her case was even physically attacked in public, a direct consequence of media coverage.

Researchers and workers from within, as well as outside the child care system became increasingly critical of the lack of effective planning for children in care, and the effect that such care had on the children. Studies in the 70s suggested that children in the system were ‘retarded in their personal independence,’ and that a ‘lack of freedom and overprotection’ lead the child to be ill equipped for independent life in the outside world. Other studies claimed that children in care were more likely to exhibit disturbing behaviour and suffer from neurotic disorders than children who lived with their natural parents.

So up until the 1980s the over-riding climate was one of great negativity, with the central attitude being that residential childcare was indeed a last resort. Such attitudes were backed up by studies, which suggested that the system was detrimental and harmful to the child. Even legislative measures reflected such views, particularly the two C.Y.P.A Acts of the 1960s. The attitudes were also reinforced in the 1970s by scandals, which surrounded the system, most notably the Maria Colwell incident, but an abundance of similar cases followed that incident.

Furthermore eve social workers persistently questioned the value of most residential solutions, not only due to their own experiences, but also to a growing body of evidence that suggested the destructiveness of the system. This evidence was not only due to various sociological and psychological studies, but an increasing number of resident’s accounts of their own experiences (i.e. Newton 1980 & Deacon 74).

Despite the apparent discontent towards the system, a number of factors did seem to contradict the aura of negativity that surrounded residential childcare. Primarily, there was a consistent increase in the number of children under local authority care, despite various acts whose primary aim was to divert them away from the system. In fact the number and proportion rose without interruption from the 1960s until the 1980s (Walton & Elliot). In 1962 there were 63,500 children under the care of the local authority, by 1971 there were 87,000 and by 1978 the number was well over 100,000, it was not until the 1980s that the number began to show signs of stabilising. Secondly, there was an increase in the use of compulsory powers-in 1962 47% of children were admitted to residential care by the means of a court order, by 1973 the figure was 61%, and by 1980 it was 74%.

There was also a similar growth in the use of POSOs (Place Of Safety Orders). Despite widespread discontent and the stigma of negativity, the number of children entering the care system was increasing, and so was the intervention of the state.

In 1984 the Registered Homes Act was passed, and although primarily concerned with homes for adults, it also identified certain basic rights for ‘all who find themselves in the care of others.’ The rights identified were; fulfillment, dignity, autonomy, individuality, esteem, quality of experience and the expression of emotional needs among others. The following year witnessed an independent review of residential care, and the view at that time was an agreement that the system was of a demoralised state.

The report of the Wagner committee was published in 1988, and acknowledged that changes were needed, but in order for them to successfully occur, residential care needed to be looked at in a positive light. It recommended the need for uniformity in terms of the practice within residential care, and to achieve this it introduced a multi-disciplinary steering group was established.

This group contained individuals from all sections of society, including local authority, ADSS, NAYPIC and NCB representatives.  The work carried out by this group took place in a time of unprecedented activity and concern with childcare issues. However, what measures such as this achieved is what many hailed as ‘the’ major piece of child legislation to date-the 1989 Children’s Act.

This act, which did not come into force until October 1991, drew upon a wide range of legal provisions, and signaled that a more unified approach to the needs of the child was now needed. The act itself embodied a number of key principles, but what was perhaps most apparent was its aim to dispel the negativity that had previously surrounded residential child care by addressing the problems that had been identified. For example, amongst its principles was the need to ‘actively maintain family links, to respect attachments, to allow young people in care to develop their own identities and to adequately prepare them for life after care.’ These three ideals were all identified to be lacking in the system before the act was introduced.

There were also issues addressed concerning the way agencies and systems work, integration, planning and the need for appropriate training for staff were all highlighted as key areas to work on. A framework of conduct was also implemented, which introduced complaints procedures and regular inspections of children’s homes. Furthermore requirements for every children’s home in the country had to be met; a written statement of purpose, the abolishment of corporal punishment/deprivation of sleep, written care plans for children, 6 month reviews and an annual medical examination for every child. The emphasis on ‘proper management and supervision of homes’ and the need for properly trained staff accompanied these regulations.

What the decade of the 1980s had witnessed was an aim, by the government, to change the negative attitudes towards residential childcare into something that should be perceived as a ‘positive choice,’ a system that was not a last resort. It was acknowledged through the reports and the Act that the previous system had been very inadequate in dealing with children, and that the detrimental effects could be reversed by making a numerous changes. The 1989 Act was of course the key legislative move in addressing these problems and making the changes necessary to change the image of residential childcare.

The 1990s saw the emergence of many Inquiries and reports, which related to all aspects that had a bearing on the childcare system. The first of these was the Pindown Inquiry in 1991, which documented unacceptable practices in various children’s homes in Staffordshire. Evidence emerged of cruel regimes in these homes, which were said to deprive the children of their liberty, and subjected them to ‘social isolation, humiliation and oppression.’ The recommendations they made were directed primarily at that local authority, but the report also had implications for residential childcare nationally, with particular reference to management training and the protection of the child.

The Pindown Inquiry had an immediate impact at a national level, and Sir William Utting was chosen to carry out a national review of the system. What this report did was to act as a catalyst for an increase of interest and concern in the child care system as a whole, as well as creating national demands for improvements in the way that children in homes were being looked after. The Utting Report, coupled with two other key reports produced the same year, for Wales and Scotland respectively (The Welsh Office 1991 & Skinner 1992) created a far-reaching statement about the position of the system in England, and introduced ways that it could be improved. Underpinning these reports was the belief that residential care should no longer be seen as ‘second best’ or as a ‘last resort,’ used only after other types of placement have failed. Instead the emphasis was that the system actually had a crucial role to play within the range of services available to children.

Essentially these three reports set the national agenda, and their recommendations would be vital in raising the professional and public status of the service. The fundamental message was that ‘the time was right for residential care to enter a new phase,’ its transformation would induce the concepts of integral, essential and valuable in terms of the systems provisions and capabilities. This was not just about the children, the staff that worked in the system needed to be given full recognition, and adequate training and support was needed in order to successfully implement the changes necessary.

The Utting report was vital in channeling the necessary changes, it gave great recognition to the 1989 Children’s Act in paving the way for a better future for the residential care system, if it was properly and accurately implemented.  Furthermore, it contained the argument that although extra resources were a pre-requisite, they were not the answer to all of the problems.

At the end of 1991 the Warner Report, ‘Choosing With Care,’ was published following the trial and conviction of Frank Beck and others for offences committed against children in a children’s home in Leicestershire. The Committee was set up in order to assess recruitment and selection methods for staff who worked in children’s homes, and to recommend improvements bearing in mind that the protection of the child was the key aspect to the investigation. The report made many suggestions, including the ‘regular documented supervision sessions between staff and their managers’ and the ‘annual appraisal of all staff.’ The Ty Mawr Inquiry (1992) followed closely behind, which aimed to look into incidents in children’s homes of self-harm and suicide. This again criticised the channels through which staff were appointed.

The Leicestershire Inquiry was published the following year (1993) and examined the events which lead to the recruitment of Beck, and the failure at management level to overlook the abuse he committed over a 13 year period. What this report, and numerous others that preceded it in the early 1990s, show is that the managers who are responsible for the children in residential care have lacked the knowledge and experience, and have made serious misjudgments regarding the safety of children. These reports did not reveal minor offences, but serious issues of child abuse, from intimidation to child sex abuse. These findings would not aid the view of the government, that residential childcare was no longer seen as a last resort.

In spite of these events, the reports made clear that the need for good residential childcare remained, and that for some children it was still a first choice.

Throughout the 1990s and into 2000 the government has striven to further improve the quality and standards of residential childcare, (i.e. Quality Protects Initiative 1998, Children Leaving Care Bill, 2001). The belief that ‘life in a nuclear family, however bad, is superior to life in a residential community, however good,’ (Richton 1976) seems to be giving way to a realisation that there may be alternative forms of communal living which are viable and satisfying, and are no longer a last resort. So what does the future hold for residential care in terms of its ‘last resort status?’ Will it shed the negative image that has plagued it through most of the century? Or will the upsurge in interest and concern, evident throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and backed up with numerous measures to improve the system at all levels, shed that negative image of residential care being a last resort?

Perhaps a more relevant question is whether residential childcare actually has a future at all. Around the time of the Wagner report some local authorities believed that childcare would diminish in the near future. Policies introduced by the government were lent heavily toward encouraging social workers to use fostering and adoption. At the same time ‘boarding special schools’ were accommodating young people who might have otherwise been in residential care. This last point was so strongly believed that it was included in a major piece of research in the early 1990s; ‘Closing Children’s Homes-An end to residential care. Indeed as the population of children’s homes declines, the populations of the boarding special schools increase, and such a link was established in the 1989 Act.

To conclude one would suggest that residential care never recovered from the huge amount of criticisms it attracted from its establishment in the late 1940s until the end of the 1970s. Although the start of the 1980s marked an attempt by the Government to change peoples attitudes through a string of reports, enquiries, recommendations and the 1989 Act, which dramatically altered the whole system of residential childcare, it would seem that its use is very much in decline. The question of its ‘last resort’ tag is lost in whether residential childcare actually has a future at all.

                                                                                                                             (Approx. 3000 words)






KAHAN, B. (1985)

Growing Up In Groups


(Pp 34-53)


Loveday, S.

Reflections On Care  (1985)

The Children’s Society: London 

(Pp 1-13)


Packman, J.

Who needs care: Social Work Decisions About Children     (1986)

Basil Blackwell Inc: Oxford 

(Pp 88-110)


Packman, J.

Childcare: Needs And Numbers     (1968)

George Allen Unwin LTD: London 

(Pp 157-174)




Baldwin, N.

The Power To Care In Children's Homes (1990)

Gower Publishing Company: Aldershot, Hants


Berridge, D.

Childrens Homes  (1985)

Basil Blackwell Inc: Oxford


Mann, P.

Children In Care Revisited-Childcare Policy and Practice  (1984)

Biddles LTD: Guilford & Kings Lynn


Page, R. & Clark, G.A

WhoCares? -Young People In Care Speak Out     (1977)

North Bourne Press LTD: Coventry


Parker, R. etal

Assessing Outcomes In Childcare     (1991)

HMSO: London


Prosser, H.

Perspectives On Residential Care     (1976)

NFER Publishing Company: Windsor


Schaefer, C.E. & Swanson, A.J.

Children In Residential Care: Critical Issues In Treatement     (1988)

Van Nostrand Reinhold Co: Wokingham


Sinclair, I. & Gibbs, I.

Childrens Homes–A Study Of Diversity     (1998)

John Wiley & Sons: Chichester





BALDRY,S., & KEMMIS, J. (1998)

Research Note : What it is like to be looked after by a Local Authority

British Journal of Social Work. Vol : 28, 129-136

Maternal Care and Mental Health, Geneva: World Health Organisation

Maternal Deprivation re-assessed, 2nd ed. (1981)

Attachment and Loss, Vol : 1 (1949)

Asylums. (1961)

Who Needs Care. PACKMAN (1986) Pp n.l


                                                                                                                                                         Copyright(C) 2007 - 2025. All rights reserved.