This is a most unusual book and it is fascinating in a number of ways. For a start, the author is an unusual person. He spent his early years in a large institution – Aberlour in Scotland – before being fostered, and in the course of a professional career with both ups and downs, David has been a Director of Social Services in London, an Assistant Director of CCETSW and a Professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. He therefore has insights into the management of social services, the training of social services staff, research and, most important of all, experience of being a receiver of residential and foster care services. This blend is not unique, but it is unusual, and it qualifies him to write the book.
Secondly, the book is self-published, based on the research being undertaken by David with a view to a doctorate. Self-publication of books on residential child care is unusual in my experience, but it should not be interpreted simply as a self-indulgence on David’s part. The book is well based on several interviews, mainly with former residents of Aberlour, but also with others who knew the home as Trustees, staff, trades people or outside professionals – a total of seventeen contributors. In short, the book presents quite a rounded picture of the home, and it comes over as being both credible and convincing.
The third unusual aspect is that all the people involved seem to have thought highly of the home. The typical image of residential child care portrayed on television is that of residential workers who don’t care, of institutional living, of children who are abused in care, of poor physical standards of care, and of abysmal outcomes. On social work training courses residential care is often seen as something to be avoided at all costs: better to have multiple foster placements than a stay in a children’s home, students are often taught.
But not according to this book. The book does contain criticisms, and some of the practice such as the lack of preparation for discharge was poor, but overall the tone is positive. David himself clearly looks back on his time at Aberlour as one that he treasures, and this leads to the fourth unusual feature.
Aberlour was a large institution, opened in 1875 and sited near the River Spey in Scotland. By the time it closed in 1967 it was something of a dinosaur, and the charity responsible moved into the provision of a number of smaller services for children and young people to replace the large home, more suited to current needs. But although Aberlour was a large home with over 400 children resident at its peak, it obviously provided a caring atmosphere despite its size and it offered a lot of opportunities for children in the range of activities available to children resident there, both on its premises and in the area round about. The home was also clearly well integrated into the local community.
It is therefore an important book for professionals to read. It is not good enough for student social workers to condemn all residential child care on the basis of highlights from Goffman. They need to know that, like any form of provision, there can be bad and good, and good residential child care can offer opportunities for children not available in other settings. The book is also full of pictures; the number of David shows that attention was being paid to recording the lives of the children.
I was fascinated, for example, in David’s take on risk. The book mentioned swimming in the River Dee, and did not duck the fact that there were children from the home who died as a result of accidents, but he clearly feels that on balance it was preferable for children to experiment, take on challenges and learn to cope with risky situations, even if there was a price to pay.
He quotes Canon Jupp, the Founder and first Warden at Aberlour as saying, “Every child has the ability and indeed the right, to grow up and flourish in society, notwithstanding the origins of their birth”. That statement was far-sighted and ahead of its time. Aberlour seems to have been fortunate in the four people who were in charge as Wardens in its 92-year history, and there are glowing references to Dean Wolfe, who was awarded the OBE and a tribute programme on This is Your Life.
In a time when it is the scandals which hit the headlines, a book like this is a welcome antidote if we are to achieve a balanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of residential child care. The book is a labour of love on the part of the author, but that does not mean that its contents are not valid. Every training course for students who are going to work with children and young people should have a copy; it will show them what can be achieved in a residential setting.
Aberlour was closed over forty years ago, having provided care for over 6,000 children, and Speyside High School was built on the site, so this book is a history, but there is no reason why the standards of care it promoted should not be replicated today. There is a sort of subtitle for the book, “Survived, Thrived”, a motto for David and the others who contributed to the book. Children in today’s homes should also have the chance to survive and thrive.
Divine, David (2013) Aberlour Narratives of Success
School of Applied Social Sciences, Durham University