The Impossible Task?

Richard Balbernie.

Adapted from “Residential Care for Young People: The Invisible Illness and the Hopeless Task”, an unpublished paper delivered to the Reading branch of the British Association of Social Workers on October 22, 1971.

Perhaps I might just preface this paper with a quote from David Wills, a man who described himself as quick-tempered and sarcastic and claimed as his only virtue ‘an invincible faith’:

If you have a boundless and invincible faith in what you are doing, and that faith is based on the unchanging and eternal verities, you will survive. But if your confidence in what you do is based on some pragmatic assessment of its value, measured against the yardstick of some human scientific concept, then I advise you to keep bees or become a business tycoon. (1)

As I experience it, we are in a period of potentially overwhelming helplessness, anxiety, and uncertainty in the social services and probably particularly in residential work. It is a time of big, powerish disputation, argument, assertiveness and polemic, and this I believe simply to be a smokescreen which plasters over an increasing sense of real and important uncertainty and doubt and the loss of attention to immediate, small, down-to-earth detail and reality.

I believe this particularly affects the residential worker into whom, almost traditionally now, the social services put the weaker half of the split between arrogance/domination and dominated/confused/castrated powerlessness. So far the residential worker has, for some reason, all too ‘happily’ accepted this Cinderella, masochistic and martyred role. It is perhaps so much easier to suffer under an aggressor than to take things on and sort them out a bit – or to bring out and then accept the aggression from another when you interrupt their delinquency.

This is, I think, why sub-cultures – especially, perhaps, staff sub-cultures – thrive in residential work.

If one is concerned with a culture, one is concerned with the performance of a definite and specific task. This inevitably faces one without one’s sense of inadequacy, of weakness and one’s fear. It also means that one must know what the task is and whether or not one is performing it.

Sub-cultures, on the other hand, are anti-reality and anti-task: one has an external aggressor and an enemy ‘them’, one can remain within a persecuted ‘we’ in which one is collusively identified with anti-task in a delinquent way, and is never faced with or confronted by reality. The sub-culture thus provides the very primitive form of security found in the delinquent gang, which subsists over against authority.

The dynamic of the sub-culture is somehow itself very primitive: the avoidance of the facing of the pain, anxiety and helplessness in ourselves and others, which so easily leads each and every one of us in this work to lose belief in the structures which we create and maintain, and in the order which it is our task to bring to the disordered, disorganised and unordered lives of others.

Sub-cultures can only be brought out and dismantled by insistence on a focus on task and its performance, and by being faced, interrupted, and challenged by this. But face the collusion of the sub-culture and bring it to the surface and all hell breaks loose, in terms of aggression and denial. It is just this that we have been concerned with for the past four years at the Cotswold, in our task of converting a traditional, orthodox penal (and punitive) approved school into a therapeutic community (2).

It may be useful at this point to comment on the main problem of such a ‘conversion task’. The severely emotionally damaged adolescent ‘offender’, above all others, continuously and dramatically evokes the sub-culture – creating splitting processes in others – both in staff and in society. His own acting out, his own violence, his own destructive aggression – his entire self-made survival kit of defences, evolved to protect a very weak or completely unformed ego from annihilation in a rejecting and scapegoating environment – generates a massive group dynamic. Teachers may find themselves becoming the competent, confronting, authoritative aggressors. Child-care workers, who have to live with the child (and into whom the child is consequently more likely to put the undifferentiated, psychotic, disordered and damaged side of himself), may find themselves taking on the other side of the split – the helpless, permissive, woolly side, with an evasion of taking on the negative from the child (3).

Society’s ambivalence towards delinquency and delinquents continually drives those involved with delinquents into extreme love/hate attitudes: either they deny their hatred and recognise only their love, or they deny their love and recognise only their hate. It is therefore perhaps small wonder that those who have to cope with delinquents sometimes find their own uncertainties – about their own authority and ego-functions – drive them into inflexible attitudes. Especially in the past these were at least consistent attitudes – too consistently authoritarian on the one hand, over –determinedly permissive on the other. Hence, in the past the absolute split between the authoritarian repressiveness and punitiveness of the approved school and, more recently, a whole woolly, permissive, and sentimental so-called ‘treatment attitude to the young offender, which so easily ignores the severe delinquency and delinquent acting-out which are a symptom of severe emotional deprivation.

With these remarks, which I am making at a time in the history of social work which I believe to be a climax of the gravest doubt, uncertainty and confusion, and also of hope, I want as simply as I am able to retrace the steps of my own experience and work in this field over the last 25 years, to state some personal beliefs and principles derived from the experience.

It was from child guidance experience that I developed the belief in a really substantial and authoritative assessment of need within the total situation. Not just a rag-bag, but an assessment the basic elements of which are always and everywhere essential – involving, for example, a really substantial social history which includes the early developmental stages, and particularly information on such things as the child’s development of dependence/independence and so on; a really sound intellectual assessment and assessment of abilities, skills, attainments, and educational development; a substantial assessment of personality structure and emotional development. But more than this there must be a very clear diagnosis of the level of integration and ego-functioning which has been achieved, and a clear differentiation made between the child who is unintegrated and the integrated neurotic – the assessment of whom must primarily be centred on the gathering of information from a group of people all of whom have been involved with or have lived with the child. Only these people have the necessary knowledge. But because the knowledge of each will be lop-sided, according to what the child has put into them, that knowledge must be pooled, pulled together and meaning made of it.

Without this assessment (and of course assessment must also be a continuous process) our work does not even begin. I would go back to absolute first principles – back to Mary Richmond’s four stages, in fact: substantial investigation and assessment of need involves the bringing together of sufficiently adequate information; careful diagnosis; cooperation; and finally, and after sufficient reflection and assimilation of this, action (4).

It was from my child guidance days that I also gained the experience of continuously working together in a small team drawn from different disciplines, and the disciplined regular meeting of the staff group to bring experience together. It was here that I came to appreciate the need really to know one’s colleagues as real people. A belief in the treatment of the individual – because most of the problems with which we deal are not responsive to mere external environmental change; the individual is stuck inside himself and severely damaged. A belief in the treatment of the whole situation in so far as this is practicable and realistic and not merely a woolly ideal.

I also learned that there were certain families (or alternatives to families) in which a child could not survive, and where if internal obstacles and impediments to his evolving and integrating were to be removed, special additional security in the environment would be required. It seemed also too often true that residential placements were made which were a mere collusive and temporary dispersal and distribution of a family or social problem. It was absolutely clear that if a child could be treated within his own home, then that was where he should be.

I learned that there were certain very intractable treatment problems, particularly centring on the most panicky and disruptive children, who could not be treated in a group, and who as adolescents became exceptionally violent, anti-social and delinquent. With the slightest disruption of environmental containment, security, or communication, acting out would be dramatic. All their excitability was always put into the other children with whom they came into contact.

These ‘intractable treatment problems’ were not ‘environmental’ problems – that is, merely reactive to here and now environmental circumstances. They were those children who had been the most grossly emotionally deprived and bashed up, particularly in the very earliest stages of infantile separation and development. It was equally clear that we placed most of these children in residential settings, that their placements broke down very rapidly, and that they were then simply off-loaded from one residential setting to another, eventually landing in an approved school.

I remember a simple and telling explanation which was given to me in the earlier stages of my own experience by Dr. Robert Moody (5) of what constitutes a ‘problem’. Dr. Moody described how, if a factory worker was continuously getting headaches, an investigation might show that he was working near noisy machinery. The worker would constitute a particular treatment ‘problem’ only if, when removed from the noisy machinery or when the machinery was quietened, he continued to get headaches.

In the cases with which I was particularly concerned, and which were particularly intractable, mere change of environment effected no inner change; these children were ‘stuck’, emotionally, at very early stages of development.

It was also at this stage of learning and experience that I began to discriminate between problems which it seemed useful to differentiate as primarily 1) emotional; 2) intellectual; 3) environmental; and 4) multiple. It was clear that we in child guidance referred for residential placement primarily children who were either unintegrated or neurotic – whose problems, that is, stemmed from severe emotional damage in the earliest years.

It became equally clear that as one unit off-loaded its residual ‘intractable’ populations into another, a rag-bag population was created made up of children with emotional, intellectual, environmental and multiple problems all mixed up together; for whom there was no clear primary task in terms of their treatment; and who descended in an unselected avalanche onto the approved schools, at which stage they were all ‘safely’ locked behind the iron curtain – undifferentiated and undiagnosed.

I saw that if all these distinctly different problems are jumbled together in a single unit then of course it cannot define its primary task: nor does it have to work out what in the child’s make-up is damaged, what the treatment is, or to discover whether or not this treatment is being undertaken. Such rag-baggery, in other words, provides a wonderful opportunity for a collusive re-distribution and evasion of clear responsibility: the more muddle and obscurity one has, the happier one is (though only in one sense; this happiness is short-lived, since to survive, a unit has in the end to perform a necessary task); everyone colludes in this highly motivated confusion and in this collusive distribution of responsibility. No clear boundaries or control systems need exist, no clear-cut structures. There persists a nice, readily available off-loading system in which residential staff can feel at home: moaning, and at the same time justifying their moans.

As far as the children are concerned such systems, rather like those for old people, have no clear intake control structures. This in the past has, in one sense, suited the approved schools very well, and they have in fact developed a sort of pride and dignity in undertaking just this totally impossible task. The only way it has been possible for them to manage it has been by simply containing and holding enormous quantities – in large and unselected groups – of acting-out, violence and destructiveness. They have developed superb and effective techniques for undertaking this, not all of which have been negative.

After child guidance experience I moved into residential work with maladjusted children. Again, certain quite basic principles seemed to me to emerge more clearly.

  1. The importance of defining the primary task, and the significance of task confusion and its effect on staff.
  2. The need for continuous accurate assessment, and total co-ordination.
  3. The need for a clear baseline: the need not only to know what was damaged in the population, but for whom each unit and each structure and each part of each unit and part of each structure was suitable or unsuitable and what the criteria of satisfactory performance were.

In fact, that to survive one had to know (a) what is damaged; (b) what the treatment is; and (c) for whom the unit is suitable or unsuitable. And one had to know the criteria of satisfactory task performance.

At this time, especially, the off-loading element in residential work became clear to me, as did the importance of the power to off-load – the power within the unit itself to say yes or no to what it could or could not undertake, and the dangers when this boundary control function was castrated or morally dominated or subjugated from outside.

From that realisation emerged a rather painful truth which is so often evaded, especially at the moment when there are so many fantasies of providing equally for all people. The realisation was a Napoleonic one: that is, the concept was originally devised by one of Napoleon’s surgeons, who called it ‘the triard system’.

This surgeon recognised that where there was massive injury and wounding but limited surgical resources it was necessary to quickly patch up as best one could and send back to the front those who could totter back there; to use one’s surgical resources realistically where they would be most likely to be effective, for the very few who might recover; and for the remainder of the wounded to be discarded to a scrap-heap to fend as best they could (though perhaps without withdrawal of concern and with prayer).

The ‘triard system’ is painful and readily evaded, especially in social work, simply because of the fact that if there are units which are selective (which is necessary if we are going to talk in terms of treatment), then some units will continue to be required to cope with the residual rag-bag populations of unselected quantities of damage which – going further down the line – is something which prisons and (in the past) lunatic asylums have had to do. Also given is the fact that in these rag-bag receptacles the majority of inmates will not be placed according to their need, but will be there simply because of the lack of suitable resources. This reality must be accepted and faced. (6)

What became clear in my residential work, in short, was that selection must be a boundary function of a residential unit – though external assessment must take place outside, in a separate system. It is where these two functions meet that the most pressure, stress and conflict exists, and this has really got to be worked at until the boundary control function of the leadership of residential units is fully understood and respected – understood and respected in terms of the protection of the performance of the of the specific primary task of the particular unit, the needs of the children (or adults) already there, and the survival of the staff.

Thus it became clear that in fact the majority of children referred residentially were not just violent, continuously acting-out, given to unspeakable panic anxiety, needing continuous containment and provision geared to the gaps and spaces in the earliest stages of life, needing opportunity to work through depression, extreme excitement, oral greed and so on – but that as soon as the defences and masks of self-made self-sufficiency (which the child had erected in order to survive) could be slightly put aside, the child behind the scenes was immensely weak, immensely fearful, immensely uncertain, and the main problem was always and everywhere to work through an absolute crocodile of emotional dependency. And by work through I really do mean work though in a highly professional way.

The basic problem can be stated fairly simply: the child has a weak or non-existent super-ego; a weak or non-existent ego; a high unconscious (id) charge – which so easily, without additional security, swamps and dominates the whole personality. For the child’s defences to be dropped at all, the environment has to provide especial additional security – having worked through a massive and often group negative transference of hate, mistrust, negative feelings and aggression (7).

On top of this, many of the adolescents with whom we work have additional symptoms which make them continuously a special danger to others and to themselves – for example, repetitive fire-raising, sexual interference, sophisticated forms of violence (often displaced into sometimes subtle forms of verbal sadism), and delinquency (that is, the taking from other people as if what was being taken was one’s own by right).

It became clear that in many cases where such symptoms existed those special and additional elements and difficulties had to be seriously considered – and there was no gain if one became woolly or sentimental about them. All that happened in that case was that one took on what one could not manage and then rejected the child (or someone else, as when staff left or lost morale).

Enumerated as simply as I can, the various elements of the problems of ‘delinquents’ which I first encountered residentially are:

  1. The persistent and often senseless-seeming destructive acting-out and taking what did not belong to oneself as if by right, which is their major continuous and repetitive symptom.
  2. Their proneness to infections of extreme excitability, always followed by destructive and often violent acting-out.
  3. Their negative and rejecting and totally mistrustful attitude to authority and control
  4. (They need to test a human containing environment to destruction for reliability and confidence and it has to survive. A staff and structure are required with sufficient authority and faith in themselves and their structure to bring in a helpful and secure order over against the terror of chaos. Incidentally, there is more ‘permissiveness’ in traditional approved school than in almost any other institution – behaviour is simply not confronted nor interrupted; it is left and only repressed by ritual talion),
  5. They seem almost wholly to have rejected any need for help and are, on the surface, self-sufficient, pseudo-independent, brutalised, extremely nasty and often extremely cruel and bestial. Having been hurt by dependency and environmental failure, they are not going to make themselves vulnerable again or place themselves at risk by moving into relationship or trust.
  6. On top of any other difficulties the majority are severely institutionalised already. (Some of them being institutionalised within their own homes).
  7. In the majority of cases the family situation or the character disorders in the parents are such that modification is a very remote possibility and could certainly not take place whilst the child is in the home.
  8. They all present massive remedial teaching problems, and furious denial and resistance to learning and the acceptance of their weaknesses and need for help.

During these last four years at the Cotswold I have been concerned in attempting – and by that I really do mean attempting – to effect some change within a traditional and orthodox approved school structure. The object has certainly not been to attempt to produce dramatic results or smokescreen formulae, but rather to stay with the task and try to understand the substantial problems involved and to learn from this experience (and survive).

During these four years I have become increasingly conscious of increasing anxiety and seeming helplessness among residential workers – as the magnitude of their task increases, so do the doubts and uncertainties of residential workers and residential work generally. And residential workers have developed a general malaise which they describe as ‘being buggered about by social workers’ whom they believe to be in incredibly powerful positions, while they see themselves as vulnerable, likely to be engulfed and swamped and unable to survive. (There is, of course, a reverse set of fantasies too).

They feel paranoid and unprotected because they have not really hammered out and worked on and clarified their own tasks, and are unable to state with absolute belief and conviction what their structures stand for, what their philosophy is, what their task is.

Equally it is true that residential workers have practically no help whatsoever in terms of good, sound consultancy. On the whole, residential therapists can neither be trained nor helped by non-residential workers since those who have not experienced residential do not know what residential work is – at least not in a way in which they can really help. Furthermore, much of our training of residential workers is irrelevant, contributing more to an intellectual ‘knowing about’, which leaves the person out, than to role learning, which must primarily be learning from experience with the skilled supervision of another residential worker, who has insight and authority. Nor does much of current training help the residential worker to formulate and develop his own authentic personal philosophy – that in which he really believes and for which he stands on his two tiny residential flat feet.

Residential group living needs to be formulated much more clearly as specific treatment – I like the title ‘environmental therapist’ to refer to someone who is skilled in planning and creating a healing structure and environment.

If residential workers are to achieve a professional dignity, then, what are beginning loosely to be described as ‘communities’ will have to be directed by a number of people who share in and contribute to a common and clear aim and task; who are positively identified with that aim and task; and who have a real belief in it. They will have to pull themselves out of the bog by their own shoestrings.

And since our primary task is to help emotionally damaged and difficult children and adolescents not towards mere conformity or mere ‘adjustment’ but towards that kind of freedom, real responsibility and adaptability which is absolutely essential to modern day living, to help them to take a more rational authority for their own behaviour – what to accept, what to reject, when to conform, and when to deviate – the kinds of authority structure which such large institutions as are at present being created and the kinds of authority structures which they engender are all too likely to create those very patterns which are likely to destroy any form of creative or therapeutic work. This, too, at a stage when the absolute need from the social service institutions is for what the Americans call ‘running interference’, to defend the residential unit from outside pressure and attack so that there may be experiment and opportunity within a secure framework of authority for these children and adolescents to learn from choice and from their experience of making mistakes. This form of ‘permissiveness’ is strictly governed by the needs and welfare of others (the child must not be permitted to make such mistakes that responsibility becomes split and one-sided and the child is rejected. The structure must always be secure and firm enough for him, never woolly – permissive).

Thus, this is a critical period of potential danger – which also means that it is a period of existing challenge.

From a residential worker’s point of view the dangers seem especially great at a time of social worker-centring of powers of unilateral decision-making; and at a time when the predominant fantasy of therapy involves the mere dismissal of the treatment needs of the individual, and concentration on the treatment of ‘total situations’ and families.

In this fantasy the individual is simply seen as reflecting symptoms which are ‘put into’ him as the unwanted parts of the sickness and weakness of a total situation to which he is simply a scapegoat. Alter that situation, so the fantasy goes, and he changes. In the majority of cases with which I have worked residentially over about 22 years this has certainly not been the case, and without specific treatment such environmental change would have effected little change in the individual. Nor is it realistic to talk of such ‘social’ treatment as if it were a reality, because neither the training, skills nor resources for it are available, except quite exceptionally.

Thus the residential worker increasingly, rightly or wrongly, in fantasy or reality (it is certainly an inner reality) feels helpless and vulnerable in a new and growing power structure within which he feels himself to be the least protected member and in which he or she feels, rightly or wrongly, that whilst everyone else seems to be free to flit from one position or job to another, he or she is left literally carrying the baby. There is a real danger of a lop-sided social work philosophy that is far too ‘other’-centred, and too little ‘inner’-focused or centred.

Here again I feel a need to state some, to me, basic and first principles of treatment. I feel these must apply within the whole ‘planning’ superstructure.

  1. Always central is the decision making of the individual client as a free and choosing person and one who needs help to choose – not to become over-dependent; a person who has, in fact, to be ‘let down’ and betrayed into himself. This is ‘stern love’, not a child care sentimentality. It is best illustrated perhaps by the Jewish (not anti-Semitic) story of the father who was playing with his little boy jumping down one stair after another. Finally, he jumped and the father stepped aside. The little boy crashed, shocked, bruised and shattered. His father said, ‘Never trust your father – especially if he is a Jew’. All treatment centres on the freedom of the individual to choose and learn from his mistakes, insofar as he does not harm others – which is the opposite of bureaucratic, autocratic, or hierarchical ‘advice’ and decision making.
  2. That (following Mary Richmond’s straightforward principles) casework always and everywhere centres on respect for the delicate, often very vulnerable, and always demanding relationship with an individual. Central is the treatment of the individual within the security of secure therapeutic and individual group relationships. Again, the concept of the treatment of a ‘total situation’ may be a reality or may simply become a mere catch phrase, mere power words, a smokescreen for in fact doing nothing, and for camouflaging the weakness and inadequacies of the reality situation: the total situation can so seldom be controlled!
  3. Not treating people as if they were temporarily submissive zombies and without respect, dignity, and clear boundaries. An utter respect at all levels for the person, for territories and sentient boundaries – and knowing and respecting who is inside and outside what, so that people draw the same lines in the same places; boundary skirmishing is continuous and destructive.

If that is the case, then how can we work towards the situation in which each person in whatever ‘section’ or compartment of the whole begins to know and respect and understand his colleagues, to test their reliability or otherwise and to experience them as essential colleagues and friends and workers?

Experience has taught me the absolute need for all workers concerned with any situation to meet continuously in very small (sentient) groups. This is absolutely and essentially the key. No staff can help clients unless they first learn to help each other, unless they first wash their own hands, and unless they begin to recognise and accept a special form of ‘stern love’ in relation to belief in a task and in maintaining a firm structure which they man and operate, designed to perform that task. Unless there is to be loss of integration (an out-centring or ‘them’-centring, a complete loss of the individual stand-point and the individual’s belief in himself and his work) it will be necessary for each of us, especially at present, to keep our real small inner circles ordered, and to develop the critical attitude to it and to the outer circles; certainly we must not play to the gallery. (8)

I want to end on the simplest of all notes, from my experience. Our task in both residential and field work is one of daily increasing uncertainty, confusion, complexity, doubt and anxiety. Unless we can meet regularly with our colleagues in small, intimate, face-to-face working groups, and unless we experience security in both sharing and holding the painful realities and limitations of our work, we shall not survive. If residential workers are to survive they must hammer out the boundaries and control systems and the nature of their own tasks; failing this, they will increasingly be used simply as convenient off-loading systems in their establishments. (9)

So, to practical examples of what is painful and evaded, and must be accepted and faced:

The residential treatment of a young offender will be expensive. Staff/child ratios will need to be about 1 to 1. Groups and Cottage Group Living Units for treatment must essentially not be more than 8 – 10 in size. Unintegrated adolescents – that is, those who have achieved no capacity for reflection or control and are continuously swamped by id impulses – cannot be treated with integrated adolescents, and these (that is, the integrated neurotics who can benefit from shared responsibilities, self-government and so on) need to be clearly differentiated in terms of treatment need and environment.

Perhaps more painful still is the act that without selection along clear-cut principles no treatment unit can survive and also perform it’s primary task – staff will become id-soaked, or stressed beyond tolerance. And it must furthermore be absolutely recognised that selection must primarily be a function of the boundary control of the unit itself and cannot be externalised (though it may be shared, and help given). Change within a residential unit is so unpredictable that such selection can only proceed on a continuous basis as the internal dynamic evolves and develops. A treatment unit cannot really have a waiting list.

Whereas in a ‘residual population’ institution (such as prisons) one must accept about a 70% breakdown rate afterwards – the client slides on through borstal and prison, becoming further institutionalised and pseudo-independent and more delinquent either in a conformist, expedient or a belligerent way – with treatment the adolescent reaches substantial over-dependency and gradually relatively more normal inter-dependence, and is thus more in need of continuing ordinary care and support in a living context. A high and increasing proportion have no such base and there are no suitable places for them. So-called ‘after-care’ is irrelevant (except to maintain information and contact, and at present even that has almost completely broken down). This, of course, is bound to have a disheartening effect also and we have to do something about it.

But centrally and critically, unless there is a determined, non-permissive, and really authoritative and firm insistence on working groups really meeting regularly, there will never develop that inter-personal and inter-dependent confidence and security which is needed in order to look at the painful and real actualities.

There is no security without such open communication, reality confrontation, and relationship. The magnitude of the difficulties are such that aloneness evokes a basic terror of engulfment and loss of being (powerlessness) and so this, the very simplest of all human needs in this work, must be met. Only so can directness and confrontation with the reality of the effects of one’s own behaviour on one’s colleagues become possible and tolerable – it is essential also so that the freedom and necessity to say what one really feels and actually experiences really can develop. This takes a long time and the process is hell on wheels – so there is much motivation to evade it. But we must insist, for only so can the real sources of fears, suspicions, and anxieties be located and faced, rather than projected outwards or upwards into a convenient ‘them’ in a paranoid way.


Freud, in his introduction to August Aichorn’s famous book Wayward Youth says of the application of psychoanalytic insight to the residential treatment of the young offender: ‘In my youth, I accepted it as a by-word that the three impossible professions are teaching, healing, and government…’ (10)

We do not believe, I think, that we belong to an ‘impossible’ or ‘hopeless’ profession – not, that is, unless we are deluded or omnipotent. If we seek reality, if we are modest, small, bunchy and truthful in relation to the magnitude of the problems, we can fall back, again and again, on a very simple faith.

Such a faith was expressed recently to me by a struggling new Area Director – a very experienced family caseworker. She was writing about a boy we all felt we had utterly failed to help:

I still cling fervently to the idea that the seeds of genuine concern for a child never totally fall on stony ground and that the odd one takes a very long time to germinate. Unfortunately, (she went on) during this present period of re-orientation as far as the new services are concerned, we find ourselves in such a confused state and so full of anxiety that this is bound to have serious repercussions on the people whom we call our “clients‟.

It is my belief from my experience that meetings and decisions must be made in the open, not in little pairings and threesomes. Staff must learn to work openly together in small groups – which means openness rather than split-off ‘power pockets’ in systems and agencies. With this there may gradually be real hope and opportunity within the new social services. Gradually there may develop less collusive non-communicating, which is highly motivated by the denial of reality and anxiety. Then, as with approved schools, so also with sub-normality units and old people’s homes – less would be covered up and there would be less need to pretend that the impossible was being done. A more objective and honest picture of reality would emerge, and at least there would be some security in facing, for example, the fact of residual and rag-bag residentially-placed populations, and in differentiating them from treatment units. A valid if painful picture of a residual population ‘hierarchy’ of units – in a true sense of differentiation of function – might begin to emerge.

Only so will staff find confidence in each other, and confidence and belief in what they are doing (the task); only so will the structures and cultures they are developing grow creatively. Failing this, any enterprise will become dead, static and anti-life.


(1) David Wills, ‘Closing Address to A.W.M.C. Conference 1968 on the occasion of his retirement’, quoted in Maurice Bridgeland, Pioneer Work with Maladjusted Children, Stales Press, London, 1971, p. 342.

(2) The transformation of The Cotswold School, in Wiltshire, into The Cotswold Community began in 1967 under the direction of Richard Balbernie, and is the subject of David Wills’ book Spare the Child, Penguin, Harmondsworth, (Middlesex), 1971 (ed).

(3) Or vice versa. The situation is easily reversed.

(4) Mary E Rchmond, Social Diagnosis, The Free Press, N.Y; Collier-MacMillan, London, 1965 (originally published, 1917).

(5) Dr. Robert Ley Moody trained in child psychiatry at Guy’s Hospital before the war; was Consultant Psychiatrist with the EMS from 1940-1945, Clinical Director of the Child Guidance Training Centre from 1946, Psychiatrist to St. George’s Hospital and the Victoria Hospital for Children from 1948, and at the time of his death in 1970 was Physician-in-charge, Department of Child Psychiatry at Saint George’s Hospital, London. (ed.)

(6) Incidentally, we might spend some time differentiating between the true lunatic asylum which was really intended as an asylum and what came to be called the ‘bin’ in the same way as approved schools were originally designed to protect young people from prison and to help them but more recently have been labelled as ‘dustbins’.

(7) Perhaps a story might illustrate what I mean. In the earlier stages of change at the Cotswold we had the invaluable help of a young 18 year old blind community service volunteer. She described an experience in which she was sitting beside a grossly institutionally damaged boy (and I mean doubly institutionally, for the majority of boys we work with have not only been in institutions for most of their lives and been kicked out of one after another, but are additionally institutionalised within the traditional approved school as well, not only by the regime of the institution, but by the split sub-cultural system of sadists and victims which any punitive environment engenders). She was sitting bedside this boy in the evening and said she wished she could roll cigarettes like he could. He was immediately abusive, angry, defensive and offensive about it; ‘Yah, you silly blind bitch’ etc., etc. Then there was a silence and then he said, ‘Well, you can.’ She then asked him how he could know that and he said, ‘Well – I practised for two hours last night with my eyes closed.’

(8) The great new social service juggernauts, where the individual increasingly counts for so little, in this our sophisticated ‘social work’ era – and in a service which is essentially set up to help just this respect for the individual in society – could so easily run over all this.

(9) So much of the ‘violence’ from staff (which in the past was ritualised in the form of beating) is engendered by a sense of ‘helplessness’ – violent reaction to a fear of annihilation. When they are anxious residential workers may become aggressive, assertive, difficult and stroppy, or as delinquent as any other delinquents.

(10) Sigmund Freud, Introduction to August Aichorn, Wayward Youth, preface by K.R. Eissler, (rev. and adapted from the 2nd German edition of Verwahrloster Jugend),. Imago Pub. Co., London, 1951, pp. vii-ix.