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We see reality of life at children’s homes in Kent during visits to two Deal sites

Children in care and the homes where they are looked after are often subject to misconceptions from the wider community, leading to opposition from neighbours when plans for new children’s homes in their area are unveiled.

Reporter Rhys Griffiths visited two children’s homes in the east of Kent to see first-hand what life is really like for the young people who live there and the staff working to rebuild their lives after experiences of trauma and upheaval…

A living room at one of the children’s homes in Deal
A living room at one of the children’s homes in Deal

Pulling up outside the Walmer View children’s home, it is difficult to know what to expect when we go inside. The property sits on a quiet residential street in Walmer, Deal, and at first glance from the outside you would struggle to find any indication that it is anything more than a regular family home.

For the vast majority of us, life inside a children’s home is something we give little thought to. All too often the lives of children in care are largely hidden within the system, considered to be of little consequence to those who have had the privilege of stable family life untouched by the care sector.

The only time many pay attention is when there are proposals for the opening of a new children’s home in their neighbourhood. They are often met with fierce opposition from those living nearby, with objections ranging from the impact on local infrastructure to concerns over the potential for bad behaviour from the children who would call the property home.

One such application in nearby Kingsdown sparked a wave of objections, including this comment: “There is no mention of what facilities would be available to the residing children/young people, what would they do or where would they go within a quiet rural village environment.”

Negative comments about the prospect of new homes opening hit hard for those working in the industry and the youngsters they look after. This is why we have been granted the rare opportunity to come inside and see for ourselves what life is like inside a children’s home.

The kitchen at one of the children’s homes in Deal
The kitchen at one of the children’s homes in Deal

From the outside Walmer View looks like a normal family home, but the first room we enter confirms this is very much a place of work. The office is small, with desks, a small sofa and a wall lined with filing cabinets containing the reams of paperwork required by regulators who oversee the work of care settings such as this.

Directly opposite the entrance through which we came a door leads through to the rest of the property, and through it appears James. He’s a young lad of 16, who has lived here at Walmer View on and off since he was 11. He comes across as a little shy – which is understandable given strange faces are probably an unusual occurrence in the home – and politely offers to make a hot drink, before heading off to the kitchen.

We will hear more from James later. But first the small, close-knit team who run Walmer View – and care for the four boys who call it home – are keen to talk more about their demanding but richly rewarding work.

A word that keeps coming up during our conversation is ‘misconceptions’. Whenever Back on Track, the care business that runs Walmer View and two other homes in the area, lodges an application to open a new home, there is almost always a backlash from neighbours who oppose the plans.

Katie Smissen is the registered manager at Walmer View, responsible for the overall running of the home and the delivery of the care given to the boys who live there. Like her colleagues, she feels that the only way they can overcome people’s preconceptions about children’s homes is to engage with their neighbours as openly as possible.

Katie Smissen is the registered manager at Walmer View children’s home
Katie Smissen is the registered manager at Walmer View children’s home

“Introducing the children to the community has been our biggest thing,” she said. “It's allowed the neighbours around here to see that they are just human beings, they are just children, they've got to be somewhere, they've got to live somewhere. And I think that's what's helped here.

“I do think any new home starting out, that's always going to be a struggle because of those misconceptions of a children's home, but talking from a children's home that's well established and has been open five years, and has long-running children, you just have to get past that barrier initially.”

Often people in the wider community assume the children who will be living in the homes are going to be teenage tearaways, and they fear a children’s home in their neighbourhood will produce an increase in antisocial behaviour.

While it is true that some of these young people will display challenging behaviours, it is inaccurate to assume they have been in trouble with the authorities. Many have come from troubled backgrounds and have experienced terrible trauma. The job of the home is to provide them with a stable, well-regulated environment where they can get their lives back on track.

Toni Etherington is the deputy manager at Walmer View. She is a smiley character, and radiates a sense of love and affection for the children she looks after at the home.

Toni Etherington is the deputy manager at Walmer View children’s home
Toni Etherington is the deputy manager at Walmer View children’s home

“Every child needs a chance,” she said. “You can't just write a child off at 10, 11. So many people might just think, ‘Well, they're trouble’.

“We invited our neighbours in and we had a meeting, and the children got to know them. We want to bring the children up in the community, so can we not help each other? If one of our children is doing something and we haven't actually seen it, come and tell us. Come and tell us if they're making too much noise and you can hear something in the garden that you're not happy with.

“The children are being brought up not just by us but with the surrounding community. We've got neighbours giving them a chance. Why can't we help someone else become a lovely human being? And that's all we want. We want our children to go out in the community and be lovely teenagers and grown-ups, and what we all want for our own children is what we want for these children as well.”

Leaving the office, we are taken through the rest of the property and James is keen to show us his room on the first floor. All the children have a private room, which gives them some space of their own in what can understandably be quite a hectic environment. James is lucky to have a large room with an en suite, and it’s big enough for him to have a punch bag set up so he can practice boxing, a sport he has got into through a local club.

After our brief tour, we sit down to talk in the home’s games room. James exudes a typical teenage mix of confidence and nerves, but he is extremely polite, greeting with a firm handshake and meeting your eye as you talk.

A living room at one of the children’s homes in Deal
A living room at one of the children’s homes in Deal

He explains how he has been living at Walmer View on and off for five years, and says he has developed good relationships with the staff there, saying that “when it comes to feelings they are very understanding”.

This summer James has sat his GCSEs and is now looking forward to starting a course at college. He says that having good relationships at the children’s home gives him more confidence for the future.

His experience of life at Walmer View is echoed in the home’s latest Ofsted inspection, which saw the watchdog give the setting a rating of ‘outstanding’. Inspectors found that “the actions of the children’s home contribute to significantly improved outcomes and positive experiences for children and young people”.

The report also stated that “children who live in the home are loved” and their “progress is exceptional, and they flourish while living in the home”.

As in many care settings, times were tough at Walmer View during the pandemic, and Toni recalls how staff had to make sacrifices in the face of risks posed by the Covid virus.

“We still came in 24/7,” she said. “We had staff living in, leaving their families because they didn't want to go home and give it to their families, so people chose to live in.

“We all got Covid due to us just saying, ‘Actually our children are our priority’. They wanted a cuddle - we weren’t going to not give them a cuddle, because they felt so poorly.

“One of our children really couldn't quite understand why we had a mask on, it really confused him, so then I sat and cuddled him and got quite poorly through it. But actually it's a vocation and you take it - we're all here to give the child a better life and that's what we're about.”

After leaving Walmer View, we drop in at The Willows, Back on Track’s newest children’s home in the Deal area. There we meet Ryan, a 14-year-old lad who has been in the care system since he was just three years old. He’s engrossed in a game of Fortnite, but politely tolerates our intrusion.

“It’s a bit more chilled than other places I have been,” he says of The Willows. “We get on most of the time. We are just normal kids who can’t live with their families.”

Ben Hilton is registered manager at The Willows children’s home in Deal
Ben Hilton is registered manager at The Willows children’s home in Deal

Ben Hilton, who is the registered manager at the home, invites us into the office to talk more about the running of the property. He says that from every hundred referrals they receive there may be just one or two children they consider to be a good fit for the home.

“These children have suffered so much rejection and trauma in their lives,” he said. “For them to come into a home like this and then something goes wrong, because we've made a bad decision in placing them here, and they have to move on again in the short space of time, it's another rejection.

“It's another set of people that couldn't care for them or didn't care for them. In their eyes, it almost proves a point to them that no one cares, or I'm not deserving of being loved and looked after.

“They live in a constant state of high alert, frustration, wondering when the next meal is coming along, when the next slap's coming along - all of the horrible things. And so as a defensive mechanism they often push others away and they don't mean to, but they've never had care, love and affection to know that it's OK to have a bad day but the next day will be better. It's about creating that real consistent kind of parenting for these children to repair and rebuild.”

How does he feel about the negative reaction from the community when plans for new children’s homes are announced?

“Because of how specific some of them were in their comments, or their mindset, it shows that they don't have the understanding about what we do and how we can do it,” he said.

“You know, a lot of people assume that residential children's homes are for young offenders and kids that have come from a criminal background. Although there is potential for that, if we're not the suitable place to take a child like that because of our location, because of our training, because of our guidelines, things like our statement of purpose, we wouldn't take those children.

“We take children that we know we can work with because of their needs, or what it is that they require, and we can do our damnedest to provide them with that.

“We're all really happy to try and educate people, to try and alleviate people's anxieties, and more often than not people don't want to take us up on that. Perhaps because they're scared to change their perception, because they've always known that, and maybe 20 years ago that may have been what residential children's homes were like.

“But we're governed by so many rules and restrictions now, and the scrutiny that we come under as a residential children's home, that we can't make those mistakes by just bringing any child into these homes.

“We've got to make sure that they're right based on the other children that live in the home, the skillset of the staff, the area that we live in and the impact that that's going to have on people. So it's frustrating.”

It has been an eye-opening experience to see children’s homes from the inside, speaking to staff and children about life in the care sector. The young people in care have had lives full of uncertainty and trauma, and the carers who support them work long hours in what can be an extremely challenging environment.

Misconceptions and misplaced prejudice only make that work harder. Toni sums it up perfectly: “Everyone deserves to be loved - it doesn't matter what they've done, everyone deserves that love and that family and we are it in a lot of cases.”

Names of children have been changed

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