Residential Care – Changing the culture one word at a time

This blog entry was authored by Geoff Moore, Team Leader,
Therapeutic Care Program at the Australian Childhood Foundation.

Within the out of home care sector, Residential Care is far too often viewed as the end of the line for children and only to be used as a last resort. The dominant culture can be one of inevitability that chaos will rule and that the children will survive rather than thrive. The service system staff can sometimes speak negatively of young people or of systems, and their language reflects the experience of feeling stuck with little hope. All children in residential care have a right to physical and emotional safety as well as the opportunity for a brighter future, and one way I am convinced we can all affect change in this culture is with language.

The introduction of Therapeutic Residential Care in Victoria has brought us a great opportunity to begin this work. The culture of “Resi Care” can now move towards to one that is more respectful, hopeful and expectant of positive outcomes. I’m pleased by what seems to be a movement away from generalised and blaming language within the Residential Care programs towards more descriptive and non-blaming language.

Language is powerful. When setting out to change the culture of a program a great place to start is to change the “jargon” language that we use in relation to it. The language we choose to use within a program has a direct impact on the culture of that program, and the words we use to describe something have a profound effect on our experience of that thing or person. The negative and blaming language that has historically been a feature of the residential care system has led to a lowering of expectations and the general sense of hopelessness described earlier. There are many influences on the “out of home care” sector that we have little control over, but one of the things we can change is the language we use.

The words we use to speak to and about children also have an effect on our experience of them and their experience of us. A few examples of changed language might be:

  • Regular “access” with siblings sounds very different from visiting a sister each week.
  • Transporting a child to school has a different feel to it than giving them a lift to school each day – the latter being the more ‘normal’ language for children.
  • Referring to a child’s behaviour as “absconding” is blaming language that fails to provide context or encourage an understanding of the meaning behind the behaviour.

Changing the “jargon” language we use in Residential Care programs will create a much more normative and nurturing environment for the children we care for, and will also assist them with more positive identity development. It’s a simple change that can be adopted by all of us involved in providing care to children in a Residential Care programs. Let’s begin by being more aware of the language we use and encourage others to do the same. I’m confident that a change in the language we use will lead to a positive change to the culture of the programs we provide.