The office

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John Burton,
who has managed a variety of care homes, looks at the only part of a children’s
home that isn’t therapeutic. Noting that most of our own homes don’t have an
office but “residential homes” generally do, he asks: why?

At one level, it’s fair enough: we must keep money and other
valuables, medicine and confidential records somewhere safe and secure. After
all, you don’t keep your cleaning chemicals in a locked COSHH cupboard at home,
but you do have to in a children’s home.
If the use of the office was restricted to the absolute essentials, it
wouldn’t be the problem that it often is.

The problem with the office in a children’s home is that it can
very quickly become the centre of the home and the trouble-spot – the location
of argument and incident. It’s the one room in a home that isn’t therapeutic.

Many children’s homes now claim to be “therapeutic”. Some are and
some aren’t. The therapy we are talking about is contained in the good
experience of living together and relationships with grown-ups who really do
care about you. So, cooking, food and mealtimes, getting up and going to bed,
watching TV and playing games, going off to school and being welcomed home,
gardening and enjoying outdoors, talking together and just being together,
being happy and sad, coping with pain, anger, envy, resentment, disappointment,
emptiness and loss, and so on … this is the therapy of a children’s home.
Just as being a good parent to one’s own children is very demanding, so being a
reliable and loving grown-up to the children of parents who have usually – and
for whatever reason – failed their children can be even more demanding.

In making a restorative and healing relationships with children,
therapeutic residential workers are giving children the chance to be
emotionally held and supported, to heal and make attachments, to grow and take
charge of their lives. Such work takes place in the kitchen, sitting room and
garden, in their bedrooms and bathrooms, in the hall and on the stairs, out
shopping or walking in the park together. While the work must be planned and
structured, much of it is done by simply being with the children and, when you
are not with the children, by holding the child in mind.

Diversionary
delinquency

Even in a really good home, it’s common to find staff in the
office when the children are around. If the staff are in the office, the
children are likely either to want to be in there with them or, finding
themselves at a loose end and unconnected with staff, they may stray into
harming themselves with all manner of diversionary delinquency. 

The office should not be a staff room, a bolt-hole, or a fortress.
It’s not somewhere to get away from the children but that is how it’s used. The
excuses range from having to write up records (including the blasted “log book”
every five minutes), answering the phone, dealing with money/petty cash,
checking the rota, doing the handover, making appointments, talking to “head
office” … the list is endless. But, let’s face it, somewhere deep down
underneath it all, in the murky depths of our unconscious defences, is simply
getting away from the children.

Therapeutic work doesn’t really get going until there’s a
therapeutic structure to work within. There are times when it’s OK to get the
office work done but much of what is done in the office now should be done
elsewhere. Take handovers for example. Why would you hold such a potentially
richly therapeutic meeting away from the children? They should be involved.
It’s not uncommon for staff to be locked in the office having a handover, while
the children are peering in the window or banging on the door. If you must get
petty cash for travel or whatever, sort it out before the children get up and
have it ready for them. One of the most predictable sources of unproductive and
harmful incidents is children being in the office and picking up keys, phones
etc. I’ve known homes where eggs have been kept in the office because they’ve
been thrown around. That seems like a total abandonment of therapeutic
principles and aspiration.

Outside expectations and demands don’t help. If your external
managers, or social workers, or inspectors think that you should be in the
office whenever they call, they are adding to and reinforcing your own
avoidance of the children’s needs and the therapeutic task. As always, the
misuse of the office is a whole system issue and outsiders need to reflect on
the part that they play in it.

Reflect on this and ask yourselves:

·       
How is the
office used in your children’s home?

·        Where do you hold your handover meetings and are the residents involved?

·       
What views do
the children have about staff being in the office?

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