Residential care and sexual exploitation: sound bites versus reality

7 Oct

Watching the recent Stephen Nolan show regarding the ongoing police investigation into allegations about the possible sexual exploitation of 22 young people who have gone missing from residential care in the last 18 months, I was struck by the fact that the discussion centred on panel participants providing a ‘yes/no’ answer to the question ‘can care workers restrain young people to prevent them leaving care homes when there are real concerns about the risks they may be exposed to?

Although based on the understandable desire to find a quick and effective solution to address the problem, setting the parameters of the discussion in this way does a disservice to everyone involved. The public may well be left with the impression that, once again (bearing in mind the horrific examples of historical institutional abuse), residential homes can never deliver on their promise to safeguard the well being of the young people they care for; that care workers are ineffective and that young people living in children’s homes are out of control to the extent that they need to be restrained. The reality is, of course, far more complicated than these sound bites.

Sexual exploitation involves the coercion or manipulation of a young person under the age of 18 years into engaging in some form of sexual activity usually in exchange for gifts (money, cigarettes, alcohol, clothes), affection and/or status. It can happen to any young person from any background and of any age. It is largely hidden. It is therefore wrong to make the assumption that it is only young people who live in residential care who have been or who will be sexually exploited.

With regards to residential care there are 41 children’s homes in Northern Ireland, which provide care for about 250 children and young people. There are also 9 other residential homes that provide respite and longer term care for disabled children[1]. Of the 41 children’s homes most young people enter residential care when they are in secondary school and most stay there for short periods of time and often return home. Given the numbers that the police are concentrating their investigation on, it is clear that the focus is not all young people in residential care and neither is it all children’s homes. It is wrong to conclude therefore that residential children’s homes per se place young people at risk.

The role of residential care in parenting young people has recently been the focus of positive policy and practice initiatives. In May 2013 the DHSSPS published draft Minimum Care Standards for Children’s Homes, which have been developed with the involvement of children and young people who live in children’s homes. The new standards will strengthen the role of the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority in its legal duty to inspect all residential units. The publication of these new standards alongside the launch of recent regional guidance regarding police involvement in residential units when children go missing[2] and the introduction of therapeutic approaches within children’s homes across Northern Ireland[3] indicate that there has been a lot of work behind the scenes to improve residential child care in Northern Ireland. It is inaccurate to imply that during the period covered by the police investigation, nothing has been happening.

The children and young people who live in children’s homes have said that they value residential care and that they want ‘the home to be their home, to be homely and similar to those of their friends not in care’ (DHSSPS, 2013, p. 1). Most young people experience residential care as a good place, value their relationships with their care workers and feel that their time in residential care has helped them deal with their problems. We also know that there are care workers who go ‘over and beyond’ what is expected of them to make connections with young people in attempts to address risks in their lives.

Underpinning young people’s positive experiences of residential care is one common element – the development of trusting, consistent and meaningful relationships with staff. If we think about our own families and our wider communities it is only within the context of trusting, positive and meaningful relationships that opportunities are forged to effectively educate, reason with and role model the knowledge and skills required with children and young people to help them identify and manage risk effectively and appropriately. Fundamentally the aim of residential care is also to provide these opportunities.

From what staff, children and young people tell us we cannot say that the work of care workers is ineffective. We do know though that it can be time consuming and resource intensive to build relationships. It can be very difficult to ‘reach’ children and young people when they have had few positive relationships in their families and their communities.

Within this context restraint cannot be relied on as an effective and reliable intervention for preventing risk of exposure to sexual exploitation and is not a solution. Restraining young people is traumatic for them, an intrusion into their private space and maybe experienced like another violation of their person. It is almost certainly unlikely to be experienced by them as providing a platform for the development of meaningful relationships. The process is also traumatic for staff and places them at much greater risk of complaint and investigation.

What all of this should indicate is the need for an informed discussion and one that recognizes that there are no ‘quick fix’ solutions regarding the sexual exploitation of children and young people. One issue that needs much more careful consideration is whether being in residential care per se increases the risk of young people being sexually exploited. It is convenient to ‘box off’ sexual exploitation as connected with residential child care and makes it much harder to push for the development of a shared sense of responsibility, across agencies and communities towards the children and young people living in our areas.

The recently established Safeguarding Board Northern Ireland has a vital role to play in this regard and its newly published guides on sexual exploitation have been developed on a model of shared professional responsibility and effective working relationships between professionals. Translating the principles and practices of these guides into the daily practices of people who work in settings with children requires more opportunities for adults and children to develop trusting, respectful and meaningful relationships with each other. Supporting the development of these requires resources so that we have the right number of people with the right training in the right place and at the right time.

Dr. Karen Winter is a lecturer in social work at Queen’s University Belfast and has researched and written widely on the subject of children in care. Most recently she is one of a team commissioned by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to undertake a review of research, policy and practice concerning children and young people on the edge of care and in care and their right to family life.

Sept 29th 2013


[1] DHSSPS (2013) Children in Care in Northern Ireland

[2] HSCNI/PSNI (2011) Regional Guidance. Police Involvement in Residential Units. Safeguarding of Children Missing from Home and Foster Care.

[3] SCIE (2012) Therapeutic Approaches to Social Work in Residential Child Care Settings.


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