Secrets of a Happy Home
Susan Notes: There are a lot of positive elements in the way Kinderhaus treats
the foster care youth in their care, not the least of which is the
pocket money they are given each month.
by Alison Benjamin
If 19-year-old Rene Schohl were English it is statistically likely he would have flunked school and would be facing a bleak future encompassing unemployment, homelessness and spells in prison. But luckily for this troubled teenager, he lives in Germany, where the majority of children in care go on to further education, get jobs and lead comparatively trouble-free adult lives. The reasons why German children are in care differ little from the UK: parental mental illness, alcohol misuse and neglect at home. But the response is poles apart.
A few months ago, the social exclusion minister, Hilary Armstrong, and officials from the Department for Education and Skills came knocking on the door of the children's home where Schohl has lived for the past two years. They wanted to know what Kinderhaus, in Berlin, could teach them about how to improve the abysmal record of "corporate parenting" in the UK. Some of the lessons they learned were reflected in the government's green paper for looked-after children, published last Monday.
From the outside, Kinderhaus looks like an impersonal, council housing block, except for the giant painted chrysanthemums that adorn the front of the seven-storey building. They hint at what is inside: a warm, friendly, family-like environment. Its huge size belies the one-to-one support that all 244 young residents receive from teams of professional educators, social workers and "pedagogues" whose job it is to nurture the development of these emotionally damaged children and adolescents, and enable them to build strong relationships with others. The teams also work with some of the parents, devising ways to address problems, improve parenting skills and rebuild the family unit.
The Kinderhaus philosophy is based on ideas pioneered by Austrian child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim and Hungarian paediatrician Emmi Pickler: creating stable, loving and creative environments that promote children's wellbeing. Its director, Hans-Ullrich Krausse - a university-trained pedagogue with a PhD in sociology - exemplifies this approach. As 17-year-old Sandra, who is training to become a chef, is telling me that she is more open and self-confident and has discovered opportunities at Kinderhaus that she would never have dreamed of, Krausse butts in. "She sings very well," he boasts, like a proud parent.
Kinderhaus residents are drawn from Hohenschonhausen, a new town of 240,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of Berlin in the former East Germany, home to many of the Stasi secret police and their families. Keeping it local allows the young people to attend the same school, stay in touch with friends and maintain links with the local community. Kinderhaus encourages residents to do out-of-house activities. Melanie, 17, plays in the local football league. She has developed her passion for the game since she arrived at Kinderhaus, aged eight. The majority of children are between eight and 12 years old, but ages range from a few months up until 19. Around 40% stay for more than three years. Sandra has just been helped to move into her own apartment nearby after six years at Kinderhaus.
Almost all of the youngsters come voluntarily, often at the suggestion of their school's child welfare department. Sandra Herzmann, aged 16, was taken here by her uncle 18 months ago after her mother had a breakdown. But she says it was her decision to move in. All new arrivals are assigned an advocate, or "responsible educator" who acts like a parent throughout their stay; sorting out issues at school, helping with homework, chatting through emotional problems, and encouraging participation in extra curriculum activities.
Schohl, who moved in two years ago after he fell out with his mother's new partner, has taken up the drums, drawing and singing under the watchful eye of his educator who is now helping him to find an administrative job.
Herzmann and her educator share a bright, spacious apartment, called Phoenix House, with nine other young people on the sixth floor of the block. Each has their own large bedroom, and shares a huge kitchen-diner, two bathrooms - separate for boys and girls - a computer room and laundry facilities. Murals by the children, photos of trips away and funky mirrors and lights adorn the orange and yellow painted walls. It looks and feels like a modern family home. Herzmann's is a typical teenager's bedroom, strewn with clothes and makeup and with posters and photos on the walls. The only difference, she says smiling, is that it is much larger.
A housekeeper cooks and cleans for the "family" whose ages range from seven to 18. According to a rota pinned to the wall the young people do chip in. Their chores are allocated at a weekly house meeting. There are some house rules: younger children in bed by 7pm; older ones by 10pm and in by 9pm on weekdays, or just before midnight at weekends. They have to ask permission to sleep over at a friend's house. Under 16s caught smoking in their room have €10 deducted from their €53 a month pocket money. Drugs, alcohol, violent computer games and gangster rap are banned. Although the residents are no angels - Krausse estimates that 40% are "delinquents" when they arrive - expulsions are rare.
Reinhart Wolff, board member and professor of social work at the Alice-Salomon University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, explains: "We have a very flexible policy. We'd try to work with the young person's problems. We had a case where a young person had a weapon and maimed another child. The children's council [representatives from all 30 Kinderhaus projects] wanted him sent away. After a while, he returned but lived in a prefab until his behaviour had improved to the point when the council allowed him back in."
There are nine Phoenix-type houses in the block with 24/7 supervision. A further two houses have less supervision. Another 20 projects - some on site, others located nearby - provide a range of services for vulnerable children and their families.
On the ground floor of Kinderhaus, seven primary school-aged boys tuck into a lunch of frankfurters and mash. They come to the Family Centre every afternoon. Their problems include attention deficit disorders, anger management issues and poor social skills. Connie Scheidlock and her team - a family therapist, social pedagogue and carers - work intensively with the boys and their parents, playing games and sports to improve self-esteem and teach teambuilding.
The floor above houses the mother and baby unit, another bright and spacious apartment where 10 young families live with their educators. Up another flight of stairs, we are greeted at the door of the family integration project by social worker Mario Bade. "We assess families, develop a plan with them and organise an intensive programme," says Bade. "It is about finding a solution that is agreed by everyone." He works with five educators, a pedagogue and psychologist to help 10 residents as young as two, and their parents, for up to nine months. Asked if the families are hostile to such in-depth involvement, he seems surprised. "We are not against the family, we are supporting them," he replies. "They are reacting to a support service. They are relieved from the burden."
Sixty per cent of the children are able to return to live with their families. But Krausse disputes that 40% fail. "In some cases the decision is made with the parents that the child should live elsewhere. Because they have agreed that they are not ready and have taken part in the decision-making process, I would count this as a success, " he says. By his measure the family integration project has a 85% success rate.
While only 1% or 2% of Kinderhaus residents go on to university, three-quarters pass the General Certificate of Education - "no mean feat considering about half come here with severe learning problems" says Wolff - and 95% of these residents go on to vocational training. This compares with just 11% of looked-after children in England who gain five A to C grade GCSEs at age 16 (compared with 59% of all children) and 55% who are not in education or employment.
A study by the Thomas Coram Research Unit, at the University of London's Institute of Education, comparing outcomes for looked-after children in Denmark, Germany and England pinpoints staff training, commitment and approach as key to positive outcomes. The high staff turnover that plagues England's children's homes (27%) is unheard of in Germany (8%) so the children receive continuity and stability. None of the educators I spoke to at Kinderhaus had been there for less than seven years, retained by training opportunities, reasonable pay and rewarding work.
Only in England do procedural duties take up more staff time than building relationships with children. This is reflected in a more negative appraisal of staff by looked-after children in this country. An estimated 95% of staff in German children's home have a degree, compared with fewer than 30% in England.
Such marked differences were not lost on Armstrong. Commenting on the British government's visit, Wolff says: "They were impressed by the professionalism and maturity of our staff and grasped that education and training is a strategic part if you want to change social work for marginalised populations." Economies of scale were also of interest, says Wolff.
On average, there are 11 young people in a children's home in England. Kinderhaus's size means that it costs €33,000 (£22,000) a year per child compared with average annual fees in England of £30,000. Wolff claims that its charitable status is another reason for its cost effectiveness. "This service is much cheaper than for marginalised adolescents that private agencies care for," he says.
Kinderhaus is not, however, without its problems. A handful of kids play truant or try to run away or, like football-obsessed Melanie, get pregnant at 14. The reason it is not more, says Krausse, is because "we have solutions from an early age that help them to develop past this stage".
Improving life chances
The government appears to acknowledge that Kinderhaus has some answers for improving the life chances of children in care. Among the proposals in the looked-after children green paper are new qualifications and training for the workforce, a package of intensive family therapy, independent advocates for children in care, and piloting the use of individual budgets for each child to be held by their lead professional.
Speaking at the launch of the green paper, the education secretary, Alan Johnson, said: "As a proxy parent, the state must raise its ambitions for these children, just as a good parent would, and transform their life chances through better emotional, practical and financial support at home and in the classroom."
As for Schohl, he says: "Kinderhaus has helped me to develop independence, my education and social contacts."
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