Tuesday 15 June 2010

An Inflammable Situation

Some months back I ceased working in Children's care homes due to the stress and unsafe nature of the job (I still work in Supported Housing though). I also couldn't bear working in an environment where teenagers with no boundaries or ability to regulate their behaviour seemed to have more rights than the staff charged with caring for them. Its not that I believe adults are above reproach or that they should never have their authority questioned, but in these homes, effective authority, the kind troubled teenagers need, was largely absent and at the end of the day this leads to the youths becoming maladjusted and dysfunctional adults.

There were a myriad of incidents that pushed me to leave and I will document them here over the coming weeks and months. Below is one such incident.

It was a Tuesday evening and Liam came to the office and knocked on the door. He demanded to have all his incentive money paid to him there and then even though the money wasn't paid until the Saturday and he had yet only earned three pounds for the week. For those of you new to my ramblings cash incentives are paid to the young person for complying with certain standards and behaviours Monday to Friday. For instance, one pound each day can be earned for getting up when called in the morning, settling to bed on time, brushing your teeth, not smashing up the house or staff for the day, making an hour long appearance with your one to one private teacher in your private on site school. In the olden days they had a different word for these incentives, they used to call them bribes. They had a different incentive scheme as well. It involved behaving well so as to avoid a clip around the ear.

Anyway, Liam was informed by myself and the staff that we only paid the incentives on Saturday. Even though he already knew this he was having none of it and his behaviour started to escalate.

"I want that f**king money now, all of it. Its mine and I am going to get it and you lot are going to give it to me," he said with a menacing and threatening stare.

Although only fifteen, Liam stood about six foot one and came in at about fifteen stone. What he lacked in intelligence he made up for in brute force, ignorance and agression which many of us had been on the receiving end of at various times. He started to throw things around the office and pushed me and another member of staff. Three of us managed to restrain him with much effort and get him out of the office but he was only warming up.

Liam went to his room and proceeded to throw cups out of his window which could have injured an innocent person passing by. The manager on duty suggested we ignore Liam's feral behaviour, as oppossed to intervening to restrain him, and that in time he would calm down. That took about another hour which Liam spent trying to kick the office door down whilst physically threatening the staff therein.

When it was deemed safe to go and talk to him, Laura and I went to his room and where as his physical energy for mayhem had subsided he was still psychologically trying to intimidate us. He emerged from his den of delinquency with a lighter in one hand and a highly flamable deodorant can in the other. He kept igniting the lighter and threatening to spray the deodarant in to the naked flame and in our direction.

"I could burn you and there would be nothing you could do about it," he threatened. Like a hound who can sense fear Liam picked up on the look of worry on my face.

"Look at you, you are f**king shitting yourself." He bellowed with laughter at the obvious distress his behaviour was causing me. I didnt think he would do it, but then again I wasn't sure and he knew this and so played on it. Laura and I removed ourselves for the situation.

Was he punished for any of this behaviour you might be asking? What lessons did he learn? Well, he did lose his one pound incentive for good behaviour that day a payment he shouldnt receive in the first place.

A couple of hours later, in accordance with the policy of 'positive reinforcement', I listened to the manager praising Liam for 'choosing' (they love this word in social care) to have calmed down as he sat ignoring her whilst playing a video game on a giant TV screen in the lounge. How does praising him for playing video games and ignoring his dangerous behaviour help him in the long run?

Liam came in to care under section 20 of the Children's Act with his Mother requesting he be taken in to care. The reason being that she was unable to control Liam due to never having disciplined him or provided him with adequate boundaries. As a child Liam learned to get what he wanted by throwing temper tantrums which when he became a teenager became agressive and violent outbursts in which he asserted power over his Mother. It is not Liam's fault that he was allowed to become a bully and to believe that he could have what ever he wanted or that he was more powerful than effective and just adult authority. This was the mistake of his Mother and sadly and tragically for Liam the state is continuing in the same vein.

A few days later we took him to Butlins for the day with his peers. He verbally abused us on the way but to a lesser degree than he would have done if we had stayed at home with him on a Saturday (activity day). I was just relieved he didn't bring a lighter and a can of deodarant for the journey.


Anonymous said...

I'm a copper and regularly attend a local "children's" home on my patch for missing persons, assaults on staff, youngsters "kicking off" etc. Without fail the one thing that strikes me as incredible is the total lack of control or discipline exhibited by the staff and the way the feral youths run the home.

When will someone who can change policy in these "homes" realise that we are reinforcing negative values in to these young people on a daily basis? I try and avoid visiting because when I do I tend to start gnashing my teeth and pointing out to the "youth" that they are out of order. Naturally this is not condoned by the staff who seem to permanently have only fear in their eyes.

Anonymous said...

Liam sounds like a big fat loser who needs a good kicking. Who cares how he became like he is, he needs a lesson in reality. Oh, wait, the new reality is that bullies like Liam are now tolerated and actively nurtured by a "caring" state.

Ayak said...

One of the main reasons I got out of residential social work some 12 years ago, was because I simply burnt out. It's impossible to impose any discipline or boundaries because of the restrictions. Of course I approve of a positive attitude...praise for good behaviour...but I just can't condone ignoring bad behaviour. This wasn't the way I raised my children...and they've turned out just fine.
I'm glad to have found your blog...and will be back for a proper read when I have time.

Unknown said...

The key issue, as noted above, is that some young people in such situations have never had boudaries enforced by any parental figure at key stages in their development. I would imagine young people in most homes were spawned by people whose only concern is their own satisfaction. We fail the young at every stage, and by not enforcing limits later in life, we are just enforcing their current belief system - threats and violence to get what you want.

Hopelessly Naive of Tunbridge Wells said...

I'm sure threatening people with an improvised flame thrower must be some kind of criminal offence. I seem to recall that Stanley Baker got in all sorts of trouble for that kind of thing in a 1950s film. Shouldn't you have called the police?

VanDee said...

I love this post; it sets out so clearly the limits within which staff are forced to operate nowadays. ("Praising him for playing video games" - spot-on.)

I have no suggestions for controlling Liam other than solitary confinement in a bare silent room. Allow *that*, and it might sink into Liam's head that consequences exist. If that sounds too "cruel and unusual" for some, I'm open to suggestions of what else could be used to change his mind. Violence begets violence (and in his present state of mind I doubt he could be "made" to do hard physical work without the application of violence) but some time locked up with only his own thoughts for company could work wonders.

Pandering to him - well, that's been tried. Clearly it doesn't work.

French Fancy... said...

I'm new to your blog but this is about to be remedied. I've got nothing to say about Liam, his mum or the system. When I got a rescue dog a few years back I had to patiently teach it that growling and biting was not the way. I did this of course with positive reinforcement and I now have a loving and gentle dog that lives harmoniously with my other dog (that I had had since she was a pup).

Some people just should not be allowed to rear children.

David Redfern said...

How can this environment be considered a place of safety for these children?

I also think the question that has to be asked is, who is responsible for the policy of non intervention? Is it our government and if so which one, the overly PC nulabour or was it the preceding Conservative government.

Someone really has to look into issues surrounding staff intervention and responsibilities and get this sorted out. ConLib are doing it with Health & Safety so why not this issue?

Anonymous said...

Dear above, funny you should say that - I'm a policeman as well with very similar views. I haven't got a childrens home on my beat but I have a group of feral youths who roam the streets with a very similar outlook on life to the kids who Winston Smith describes. I know what needs to be done but ironically I fear that as long as I keep these kids under some degree of control I suppose I'm preventing the solution from being applied

Anonymous said...

Winston, why didn't you just call the police? If he was being violent and agressive to staff and innocent passers by you can call the police to have him arrested. You have the right not to be threatened at work.

If he kicks off too many times he gets removed to a secure unit or prison.

I want to know what you think residential staff can do with a large aggresive child - smack him round the ear - he's only going to hit back?

Steve said...

New to this blog and not an experton this situation at all... but speaking as a father to 2 boys, one with mild aspergers and prone to tantrums... I have to say discipline is the only way. And amazingly the lad actually seems relieved to know that there are boundaries. Kids - people - need them. It should be bleeding obvious!

Frances said...

Came across your blog from Fly's French Leave. I read your post and came away more dismayed with the world then I was before - thanks! :D How we supposed to create a respectful society when you don't have the power to enforce it when a lack of it becomes dangerous like this? What happens when he's an adult and not in care any more?

Really love your blog and will stop by again. Thanks for telling the story so well.

Anonymous said...

please feel free to debate residential child care @ www.residentialchildcarenetwork.com There are a lot of good homes out there that do a great job

Anonymous said...

I'm an ex-policeman and spent my youth in Central Africa where my Mother still lives. On a recent trip back to see her I went with her to see an orphanage run by some Nuns and which my Mother helps to support. I was amazed to discover that the Nuns still used corporal punishment. Then I found out that they'd used it once in the last five years. The mere presence of the possibility of getting your backside tanned was enough to keep 90-something children, aged from 8 to 16 behaving impeccably.
ALL of the children leave the orphanage with good educational qualifications.
Those who have been through the orphanage often visit and offer what support thay can.
A big difference to Winston's experiences!

RichieRich said...


I'd be interested to know whether, in your view, the duty manager in your story suggested ignoring behaviour rather than intervening because she was scared to follow the latter option or because she was philosophically committed to the former. I suspect it might be a bit of both, but one has to ask how anyone can remain committed to such an approach when it clearly just doesn't work. (But, then again, it's amazing how deep woolly liberal thinking runs in certain sections of the middle classes!)

I can't help thinking that VanDee has a point in suggesting some sort of solitary. Seems an extreme step but, then again, extreme problems demand extreme solutions. However troubled the background of a child, it needs to be made absolutely clear that physical assault or the threat of it is entirely unacceptable and that extremely negative consequences will follow such behaviour...yes, even more extreme than not receiving their incentive money!!!

MagnificentFiend said...

Glad to have you back.

Neil80 said...

Blimey, that all sounds very intense. What I'm interested in though Winston, is what your solution would be. From your previous posts I can tell that, with good reason, you take against the moral-relativistic approaches of modern social work, but what do you feel should be in its place? The past in terms of care homes is equally as bad as the present.

WinstonSmith33 said...

Why didnt I call the police someone asked? It was up to the manager on shift that day and she and the company and social services frowned upon criminalising the teenagers.

When managers weren't present and things kicked off we the support workers would ring the police who more than often were not happy to be called and would have a go at us for not controlling the kids. I understand their frustration.

Whats my solution for the likes of Liam? Tough discipline with hard consequences for agressive outbursts. Care and support and praise when it is valid but boundaries and effective authority. Removal of all priviliges for violence and abuse and then having to slowly earn them back. This type of thinking is anathema to social services though.

Anonymous said...

I worked on a construction training scheme for young people who were not able to access education and training through the normal route. One of the rules (yes "rules") was that if the trainee did not attend they lost that days allowance. This rule was strictly imposed, so if they were off "sick", tough. If they missed the bus, tough. If their alarm didn't go off, tough. It sorted out the trainees who saw this as an opportunity to help them get off benefits and into work, and we did have many successes. How did we deal with the aggression from the trainees who didn't get their own way? Because this was a construction programme we had trainees and managers who were male, and had worked in the construction industry, which is, even now, very tough. So they stood no nonsense. They made pretty good role models too.

Neil80 said...

Can I raise a point here, maybe its a bit controversial, but Social Work is historically a feminine discipline which hasn't managed to shake off the whole Laura Ashley stereotype. Modern social work is also heavily influenced by public choice discourses.

What Anonymous points to, with the construction industry example is that approaches drawn from a strongly masculine environment are actually pretty effective.

Not too dissimilar to the arguments put forward in that reality series 'bad lads army'where boys who had been in trouble responded well to the 1950s style national service regime.

RichieRich said...


You write

"Whats my solution for the likes of Liam? Tough discipline with hard consequences for agressive outbursts. Care and support and praise when it is valid but boundaries and effective authority. Removal of all priviliges for violence and abuse and then having to slowly earn them back. This type of thinking is anathema to social services though."

In the comments to your "Fleeting moments..." post, you expanded on this saying

"What would I do with this kind of behaviour in care homes? Well for a start confiscate TVs, DVD players, computers and all Mod cons for periods of time. All pocket money remove ad. Weekly activities such as bowling,cinema, swimming pool, trips to amusement parks all cancelled. I would take awy these things bit by bit for extreme anti social behaviour as well as enfringement of the house rules."

In reply, I asked

"Do you believe that sanctions such as confiscating DVD players and computers are sufficient for e.g. a 15 or 16-year old who physically attacks a carer. This, after all, is an assault by someone well above the age of criminal responsibility?"

To which you replied

"With regards to taking away some 15/16 year olds entertainment gadgets as a form of punishment I think it would work a lot better than an ASBO or conviction for assault as some young people view this as a badge of honour as oppossed to something negative. A consequence that affects them is what they need. I've never seen it happen though."

I'm not saying you're wrong but I remain to be convinced that removal of privileges is sufficient. But, also, how would it be enforced with someone like Liam. I could imagine that every day he was without privileges he would be threatening care workers who were, understandably, pretty s**t scared and who might therefore reinstate privileges much earlier than originally planned.

I guess what I'm getting at is that, at the end of the day, the ability to discipline seems to rest on the understanding of those being discipined that those doing the disciplining have superior fire power.

Super Nanny's "naughty step" works because parents are physically stronger than children and can keep putting them back on the step.

Brat camps in America work because the kids know that ultimately the staff can physically restrain and overpower them (plus the fact there's nowhere to run).

And I would imagine that one reason the trainees on the construction course described above would keep in line is because they'd know they'd come off second best if they tangled with the instructors.

I just don't see how disciplining someone like Liam is possible if there is not the ability and willingess to use superior physical force.

TonyF said...

Why is this 'liam' not dangling on the end or a rope?

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say I love reading your blog. I have a relative who works within the childcare system and everything you say is spot on. My relative is constantly amazed at the way the children are allowed to do whatever they want with no responsibility. They are allowed to run riot with no consequence and are indeed rewarded for bad behaviour. The worse culprits with the rewarding system are usually the shift manager or main boss over the units.
Keep up the blog as I really enjoy your honesty.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your blog, Winston. I had considered social work as a future profession and now I'm so glad that I didn't go down that path.

What they are doing to these kids is just wrong. The Labour government was so obsessed with the human rights of these children to the extent that they seem to have missed two obvious points: that human rights of the staff are being violated daily, and that what they are doing to these children by employing moral relativism is confining them to social care all of their lives. By enforcing these methods they will never be able to succeed in 'normal' society (which has a pretty clear distinction between right and wrong), and that in itself is surely some kind of human rights violation. By not forcing them to learn both basic social skills and vocational skills, and by fostering some sort of interests or goals that don't involve food, benefits and video games, they are taught to be mentally deranged.

Keep up the blogging and lets hope someone with the power to do something about this awful situation reads it!

rielouise said...

'I could burn you and there would be nothing you could do about it' The guy tries to *burn you to death* he faced no consequence? Even if your managers care nothing about care workers then surely they should care about the other residents.

I get the impression that care workers are not treated with the respect they deserve in most sectors. They are the ones who spend the most time with 'service users' and yet when they voice their concerns to their 'superiors' they are dismissed. I noticed that when I was a patient in psych hospital. I spoke up when I saw a kind, compassionate nursing assistant who didn't suffer fools gladly being given a dressing down by some G grade nurse who'd only been there for five minutes.

I'm wondering if their lack of concern for you was due to the fact that you didn't have a DipSW.

WinstonSmith33 said...

Hi Richie,

Sadly I think that you are right and there are some kids usually male that are bullies and need to be put in their place.

Firstly, with kids of this extreme disposition I think it would be good to firstly remove priviliges and only use 'superior physical force' as you put it, in a measured and appropriate way so that they get the message that if they use extreme violence or threat of then they will come out the worse. However, any physical force used should be measured, not excessive, and used with the intention of protecting staff and other young people and acting as a deterent against future outbursts from the teenager.

stopbeingstupid said...


You're very brave for continuing with the work you do.

Neil said...

This isn't just a NuLabour thing, althoug it is a PC thing.
I have a friend in worked in one of these 'homes' in the era of John Major.
What is interesting is how the state apparat has been taken over by the PC left, regardless of which party is in political control. These PC policies carry on! I wonder how a Conservative government could change that.

Anonymous said...


"Why didnt I call the police someone asked? It was up to the manager on shift..."

That may well have been in the terms and conditions of your employment Winston, but it is a contravention of your human rights. Your employer has no right to expose you to danger, and deny you the normal protection of the law.


Anonymous said...

"...criminalising the teenagers..."

He is a criminal (Threats to kill, affray, criminal damage and a number of minor offences all described in your post) he needs to be punished. Yes the police will be annoyed to be called because you can't control the youth and the advice you get will be the same that we give to those parents that call us with some paraphrase of "I can't be a parent to my kid can you do it for me?" but that is still better than covering it up! The criminal justice system is already geared up to give kids a series of second chances. My advice call the police and get him thrown in a cell!

Alex said...

I'm impressed with the office door withstanding being kicked by 6"1' 15 stone Liam for an hour! What have you got on there - plate steel!

Anonymous said...

Compulsive, hard-hitting and very depressing stuff Winston.Thank you for showing me that I am not the only bloke in England who thinks that the world has gone mad. I used to work in a primary school where the fawning drips who managed ( I use the term loosely)the "behaviour unit" also rewarded bad behaviour and ignored boundaries. Let the little shits hurl bricks from the roof and they'll come down eventually for their hot chocolate. These kids are as young as eight, and should a teacher try to discourage the child from taking this course of action they are usually met with an expletive or ten. This loss of respect and loss of sanctions when trying to educate young minds and meet endless targets eventually led to my clinical depression and a nervous breakdown. I will not be going back, even though I will be unemployed from September, and I won't be going into social care either. You made the right decision to leave.

WinstonSmith33 said...

@Alex above. He had managed to kick through it on another shift a few weeks prior to that but I wasnt working that day. Since that a tougher more robust lock was put on it and it was a fairly sturdy door anyway.

Kids kicking office doors down or trying to is very common place from my experience in care homes.

Top Cat said...

One thing I am sure of is that putting loads of fucked up kids togethter in one place causes more problems than it solves. They tend to sink to the lowest common denominator.

The trouble is Winston, that while you have identified the problem you offer no clear solution other than being stricter. This becomes another race to the bottom when each intervention that fails leads to a harsher one and so on. In the end what do you do - send them to room 101?

In my experience these kids are lost when their school gives up on them. What they need is some kind of meaningful work or occupation and, like you point out, what they get is an xbox. How can a support worker fix a bad education crap parents and rampant consumerism?

Sending young people back to famlies where that has failed won't work. They'll just end up on the streets - which is why the hostels got set up in the first place.

Charlie Bluefish said...

Be interested to hear your comments on my recent post, relating to being punched during my shift working in adult supported living. Click on my name to link to my blog "4 Kinds of Cloud". Have been very interested to read all your posts - very articulate and brave - and wish you all the best. Thank you.

Charlie Bluefish.

Alex said...

@ Winston - LOL Yeah I know! We've replaced ours a few times. The one we have now is about 4 inches thick with a lock on it the size of a small family car! It gets a token kick now and again but that's it. I like to think it's because we're doing some good work with the kids rather than it being the result of their defeatist attitude :)))

Anonymous said...

I once worked a shift at a youngster's supported housing project over Christmas Eve. A youth tried the same thing on me - holding a cigarette lighter and an aerosol, flicking the lighter and grinning that grin. I abhor violence and I'm probably not very good at it but I do look like a right hard-case. This chap was obviously used to the touchy-feely regulars and was testing his barriers with me. As he continued to flick his bic I told him that he didn't know me, I wasn't a regular, I didn't give fuck-number-one and if he continued then I would take him out the back and kick shit out of him. I told him I would deny everything and stay in my job whilst he spent the night in A&E. He actually apologised.