Niall Kelly: Kids in care homes need a hug now and then – but it’s a touchy subject

Organisations looking after children may feel that the best and safest practice is to avoid close contact with children altogether
Organisations looking after children may feel that the best and safest practice is to avoid close contact with children altogether
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Young Foundations Limited is a specialist children’s services company which runs children’s homes and schools in Scotland. The majority of children we support have additional needs, and usually have experienced ­disruption in their development and ­education. The children who live in our homes have struggled with their mental health and need more care and ­support than any family could provide.

Last month, Eilidh, a 15-year old girl who was an in-patient in a Child and Adolescent Mental Health ­Service hospital was referred to our ­children’s home in Johnstone. She was well enough to leave ­hospital but not well enough to go home.

Niall Kelly is Managing Director of Young Foundations, a member of the Scottish Children's Services Coalition

Niall Kelly is Managing Director of Young Foundations, a member of the Scottish Children's Services Coalition

Eilidh wrote to Seona Weir, who runs the service, to ask if she and her team gave hugs. She said that the nurses in the hospital were very nice but they didn’t give hugs and she didn’t want to move to another place where this was also true. Eilidh had been a patient in hospital for six months and no staff member had hugged her.

The case for touch and physical comfort in child development is well understood and its importance to physical and mental health is uncontested. In early infancy, a baby needs and demands constant touch and ­caregiving from its ­mother and father. The continual process of ­hearing and absorbing the infant’s cries of hunger, anger, fear and ­confusion leads to parents responding accordingly— ‘giving back’ the emotions in a more manageable form. This process ­enables the development of thinking in order to make sense of experience and feelings.

Children in residential care may have missed out on some or all of this. Touch can be an integral component in providing reassurance, comfort and ­containment for many young ­people in the day-to-day life space of residential care. Expressing warmth and affection to children is important for many reasons. It’s crucial for ­children of all ages to be appropriately touched and hugged by adults.

There is however much confusion within organisations who provide residential care for children whether their staff should touch the children. The key issue seems to be a concern that physical touch between staff members and children will be inappropriate, either by the child or those who look after their ­welfare.

The experience of physical and sexual abuse by many children growing up in residential care has caused a major rethink by organisations which run the services. In their efforts to ensure that there is no ­experience of abuse in their ­services, they issue clear guidance which ­places the emphasis on child safety and by extension the safety of the staff ­member and their employer.

I have worked in specialist ­children’s services for 27 years and during this time I have not met a senior leader who believes that children in their care should not be touched. Policy guidance within organisations is more likely to say that ­physical touch is appropriate when it is safe for the child and the staff member. It is always clear that consent by both child and adult is required and also that staff members’ practice should be visible and challengeable within teams who are trained to be vigilant for signs of inappropriate or abusive behaviour.

How did Eilidh’s situation arise? I think the issue is that individual ­services or influential staff within them feel that the best and safest practice is to avoid touch altogether. In that way, the risk of inappropriate or abusive touch is reduced to nil. This seems flawed logic to me and is in danger of causing harm by denying the child the experience of physical touch and comfort in their daily lives.

It is more likely that a child in ­residential care will have experienced abuse in their past than the population of their age group peers not in residential care. This may ­distort their view of what physical touch can be and may cause them to mistrust adults who offer ­physical comfort as part of their caregiving. Also, the staff member may be aware that physical touch is not straightforward for the children they look after, and that genuine offers of physical touch are potentially going to be misunderstood.

Seona went to meet Eilidh and ­reassured her that she would get a hug when she needed one. Eilidh moved in shortly after and she is ­happily recovering and getting on with her young life.

Niall Kelly is managing director of Young Foundations, a member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition.