December 2015

House, but not home: youth residential care

For Australian children in residential care, living in a building with a bed, a fridge and a television does not constitute a home. A home can be a slum or a tent if it is a place of genuine and unconditional love, writes Ashleigh Green.

BY Ashleigh Green

Turning back the clock, I remember visiting children’s ashrams in India four years ago as a 20-year-old. The kids in these homes were the lucky ones. They were the orphans who had been found on the streets by the Fransalian Fathers, who gave them an education and saved them from a life of begging.

Among the dusty, crowded streets of Mumbai these children were the minority. The majority of children were living in slums without an education, wholesome food or a home that could withstand the weather. Naturally, I felt blessed as I returned to my home on the NSW Central Coast where footpaths are paved, homes have roofs and food is never an issue.

Earlier this year as a social work student, I jumped at the opportunity to do some weekend work in youth residential care to build my experience in the field. Residential care placements are funded by NSW Family and Community Services (FACS). Children live in houses that are owned or rented by an agency and are staffed on a rostered basis. Typically, residential care is a last resort when a foster care arrangement falls through for reasons that may include: the young person’s challenging behaviours or the lack of foster carers.

After completing three days of intensive training where we learnt skills in responding to self-harm, working within a therapeutic framework and having unconditional positive regard for the young people, I had my first shift.

The house was beautiful with a white picket fence, a well-maintained garden and a ceramic plate beside the front door that read, “Home Sweet Home”. But when the graffiti on the bedroom window caught my eye, along with an engraving on the wood paneling that read, “Go to hell!”, the home suddenly became a little less sweet. As a 14-year-old girl greeted me at the front door with a blunt, “Who the f*** are you?”, I knew I had a long shift ahead.

My fellow carer told me it’s rare to last three months in the job. With a high burnout rate, the turnover of staff is high, which makes the environment for the young people even more inconsistent and unpredictable.

Most residential care homes are intended to be therapeutic environments where the journey towards healing can begin. The home is envisioned to be a place of structure and predictability where the young person’s basic needs are met and where they can learn strategies in emotional regulation and dealing with past trauma.

While residential care works for a small minority, for many it can be a place where young people are re-traumatised. Some young people have lived in up to 15 foster care placements, so to be placed in a home where workers rotate every eight hours contradicts the essence of what they need: stability and love.

Living in a home with other children who have similar trauma backgrounds and challenging behaviours can draw them further into a spiral of risk-taking behaviours, drug use and self-harm.

My heart breaks every time I work with a 12-year-old boy named Matthew (not his real name), who is currently living in a home with three other young people. Matthew grew up with his grandparents, but when his grandmother passed away last year, Matthew was placed in a short-term foster placement. FACS was unsuccessful in finding a long-term placement for Matthew so he was placed in residential care this year.

Many prospective foster carers will take babies, but 12-year-olds come with histories and behaviours that, understandably, many prospective carers would rather avoid.

I have had several good conversations with Matthew, who wants to one day be an architect. However, living in a house with a 15-year-old who returns home at night under the influence of speed, and 17-year-olds who bully Matthew for liking tea, I worry for Matthew’s future. I worry that residential care will lead him down a path that many have trodden before him. I hope that he can be resilient enough to refrain from emulating the behaviour of his co-clients.

The children in these houses have all the material items they need. We live in an affluent society with a welfare system that ensures even children from the most disadvantaged families are not on the streets. In fact, our most disadvantaged children are living in homes with Xboxes and fully stocked fridges, a far cry from the streets of Mumbai where society’s most needy are sifting through rubbish dumps for their next meal.

I met orphans in India, some of whom had spent months living on trains begging for money. They despised their situation, but knew that back in their villages and slums were aunties and uncles, cousins and friends, ready to greet them with love.

For our Australian children in residential care, living in a building with a bed, a fridge and a television does not constitute a home. A home can be a slum or a tent if it is a place of genuine and unconditional love. Providing a roof over the heads of our young people is not making them any less home-less than if they were living in a bus shelter. Our residential care system is only going to work if it prioritises love and stability over Xboxes, big houses and white picket fences for our most disadvantaged children.

Ashleigh Donnelly

Ashleigh is a Social Worker who has worked with youth at risk and adults living with intellectual disabilities. Ashleigh is married to Justin and is mum to Rosemary who is soon to turn one. In 2019, she accepted an invitation to join the Vatican's International Youth Advisory Body as the Oceania representative. Ashleigh enjoys speaking, writing, cooking, hiking, and undertaking creative endeavours.

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