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About this book

This text offers a clear and balanced introduction to social work with children and young people who are looked after away from home. The book explains the context in which children are looked after, the range of services available, and the research evidence, laying the groundwork for developing good practice skills. It emphasises the importance of listening to children and to issues of disability and ethnicity. Theoretically informed but practice-oriented throughout, this is a much-needed guide to social work with children in care for students, practitioners, educators and policy-makers.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Introduction: themes and key principles

Working with children and their families can be one of the most stressful, and most controversial, areas of social work practice. It can also be one of the most rewarding.

Chapter 2. The needs of children and young people who come into care

Let’s start with some personal reflection. Find a relaxed setting, and try the following exercise in your own time.

Chapter 3. Listening to children and young people

These quotations give very different pictures of children’s involvement in moves in foster care. Elsie’s experience in 1924, as related by her adult self Janet Hitchman, was not untypical of that period. The interviews from which the second and third quotations are drawn took place in 1996, and by then it was much more common for children to be consulted about their placements. However, as the quote from the nine-year-old suggests, it was still by no means universal.

Chapter 4. Caring for young people from different backgrounds

As we saw in Chapter 2, there is enormous diversity among children and young people who come into care — reflecting the diversity of the general population, although not at all in the same proportions. Social work with young people in care, like other fields of social work practice, is crucially about working with difference and diversity. Recognising and responding to this difference and diversity must be core elements of ethical social work practice, although the nature of this response, and the words used, have not always been the same. Indeed, social work has sometimes been accused, in practice if not in theory, of imposing uniformity on diverse groups (see O’Hagan 2001).

Chapter 5. Law, policy and practice in looking after young people

In any area of social work practice, there are good reasons for social workers to know about the law. Some laws are important because they impinge on social work clients and their lives: laws on housing, employment, race relations, as well as family law and education law. Other laws are important because they directly govern social work practice. These include community care law, mental health law, criminal justice law, and of course child care law.


Chapter 6. Assessment and planning

Individual assessment is not an inevitable part of providing care for children and young people. There are many examples in history of care systems which have allocated placements on a predetermined basis — whether it be to orphanages or other institutions, or to forms of family-based care. Decisions as to what care to provide may be made on the basis of moral and political principles as to what is appropriate for society to provide, or on the basis of economic factors that determine what resources are available. Decisions may also be made according to the social class and status of the child or young person, their age or gender, or the reasons why they need care. All these factors still have a bearing on decisions in contemporary child care systems, as we shall see. However, the idea that each child is entitled to a personalised individual assessment of her or his needs and circumstances is a modern one, largely characteristic of highly developed and affluent societies since the middle of the twentieth century.

Chapter 7. Placement and contact

Choosing a placement for a child or young person in care is arguably one of the most important decisions that social workers regularly take. The right placement can ensure that a child is happy and fulfilled, and create a sound basis for her or his development into adulthood. The wrong placement can leave a child unhappy or emotionally ‘stuck’, can trigger educational or other developmental difficulties, or can lead to a pattern of instability and movement that, at worst, may last through childhood and beyond.

Chapter 8. Residential and foster care

In this chapter we will look in more detail at the main types of care provision for children and young people — residential or group care, and foster care or family placement.

Chapter 9. Adoption and working for permanence

We saw in Chapter 2 that, whatever is meant by ‘children’s needs’, in some sense it is true that all children need to experience stability and security as they grow up, in order to have a sense of belonging and a secure identity. For many children who come into care the experience is a relatively short one, and they quickly return to their own families. In most cases it is assumed that their own families are able to provide them with the necessary stability and security. For a high proportion of children and young people, however, it is the task of the care system to meet these long term needs.

Chapter 10. Leaving care and aftercare

This chapter looks at work with young people before and after they leave the care system. In it all the central themes of this book are relevant. In relation to children’s needs and ‘best interests’, we see how the needs of this group of young people must be broadly defined, and as far as possible self-defined.Children and young people’s rights and a ‘listening’ approach are hugely important in this area of practice. Leaving care services cannot work effectively without respect for the autonomy of young people, and we will see that some of the most effective leaving care services are those that create opportunities for young people to work collectively to improve their situation.Working with difference and oppression is a strong theme. We focus in this chapter on the needs of three particular groups of care leavers: Black and ethnic minority care leaversYoung disabled care leaversRefugees and asylum seekers leaving careIn relation to issues of parenting and the state, we will need again to think about what ‘corporate parenting’ means, and also about what standards of care are being applied.

Chapter 11. Conclusion: outcomes, effectiveness and good practice

In this final chapter I want us to think about the results of all our work with children and young people in care. We will review more of the evidence from past and recent research into the outcomes of care for children and young people, some of which we considered in the previous chapter. In this chapter we will also reflect on what this research actually tells us, on what we mean by outcomes, and what is being compared with what. Following this I want to focus on the idea of effectiveness and ‘what works’, before looking more generally at what constitutes good practice with children and young people in care. I will conclude by arguing again for a particular approach to practice, one that prioritises an active relationship with the child or young person.

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