“Feeling at home” in out-of-home residential care

This blog post is written by Suzie Attiwill.

Suzie Attiwill is a designer, curator and Professor of Interior Design in the School of Architecture and Urban Design, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

We have invited selected scholars, who presented at our conference ‘STAY HOME: New Perspectives on the Home’ in November 2022 to publish on our blog in 2023. This blog post is based on the conference presentation by the author.

“Feeling at home” in out-of-home residential care

Every child or young person who is removed from their parents has the right to live somewhere that feels like home. For many of the children and young people the Commission spoke to in foster and kinship care, being in care felt safe, stable and homely. For the majority of those living in residential care, however, being in care felt unsafe, unstable and not at all like home. (Commission for Children and Young People CCYP, 2019: 25).

The juxtaposition of “feeling at home” and yet out of home embodies the complexity of the situation of residential care in relation to the idea of home as both a feeling and a physical location. In 2018-19, the Australian Government developed a nationally consistent definition of out-of-home care as:

“… overnight care for children aged under 18 who are unable to live with their families due to child safety concerns. … Children are placed in out-of-home care for many reasons, including: being the subjects of substantiations and needing a protective environment, having parents who are incapable of providing adequate care, needing alternative accommodation during times of conflict, having parents or carers who need respite. Consistent with the principle of keeping children with their families where it is safe and appropriate to do so, out-of-home care placements are considered as a last resort.” (AIHW 2023)

In Australia, there are five types of out-of-home care: home-based care, residential care, independent living, family group homes, and other. Home-based care is accommodation in the home of a nominated and approved carer such as a relative/kin or foster carer. Like family group homes, there is a sense of family in the way relationships work and how the environment is set up. In contrast, residential care is a different arrangement. Some houses are purpose-built, and some are existing domestic suburban houses which have been adapted. Residential care houses are usually group houses with up to 4 young people living together and staffed 24 hours by care workers on rotating shifts. The report In our own words. Systemic inquiry into the lived experience of children and young people living in the Victorian out-of-home care system by the Victorian Commission for Children and Young People documents that many young people living in residential care describe these houses as feeling “cold, an institutional living environment” (CCYP 2019: 131) and the “physical living environment was sterile, impersonal, dilapidated or ‘like a prison’” (CCYP 2019: 162).

The environment of residential care houses has been the focus of a series of undergraduate interior design studios and currently, a research project at RMIT University. In 2008, Gregory Nicolau, a consultant psychologist in the out-of-home sector and founder of Australian Childhood Trauma Group, approached me as head of RMIT Interior Design to see if students could become involved in offering design ideas to transform the environment of residential care units into a more therapeutic experience. The outcome was a series of interior design studios titled Beyond Building (Attiwill 2010; Attiwill 2012).

More recently in 2022, a research project engaged the potential of spatial design in relation to the expectation that out-of-home residential care should provide a sense of home. This project titled Developing spatial design know-how with and for young people living in residential care involved young people who have lived experience of residential care. It is a pilot project to explore the potential of bringing spatial design and lived experience of residential care together to focus on the environment of residential care in relation to questions of belonging and home.

Coming from a design background as distinct from social sciences, I was keen to explore a different approach to one of interviews and/or surveys. While the initial intent was to engage the young people in a design-led process through design charettes1, other practices also emerged and entwined with design techniques. For example, trauma-informed practice2, co-production defined as “inclusive convening to share knowledge and power” (Y-Change 2020, 6), and the process of gaining ethics approval3 influenced the way the design charettes were set-up and the way we worked. The design charrettes, which are usually intense periods of brainstorming and drawing, were slowed down and became more conversational as we shared our different expertise in and experiences of spatial awareness over plans and photographs of houses.

The charrettes were held at the Design Hub at RMIT University; a space dedicated to design teaching and research. The set-up of the space was important; three large generic suburban house plans were arranged on tables together with photographs taken during the Beyond Building studios. This enabled us to imagine moving through the environment, from the outside and street-views through doors and across thresholds, into rooms and around arrangements of furniture and decoration, projecting sightlines and recollecting atmospheres.

Following is a selection of comments made by the lived experience consultants during the charrettes. They are presented here – as quotes – to offer insight into specific details regarding the question of home and the physical living environment of residential care. In between these quotes, I have added some of my own observations that connect with and/or expand upon the points being made.4

“You can’t settle in as you can be moved anytime and without warning.”

“Resi care homes definitely feel impermanent. That’s the whole intent of them anyway. It’s not meant to be permanent. I feel like that’s the entire experience of a lot of spaces. Like no matter where I go, it’s where it feels very impermanent. Like this isn’t a space that you’re meant to stay.”

“I don’t unpack. Because I move so often.”

“Someone else has left their mark before you … like when you open a cupboard, you’ll see graffiti in the inside that people have left there. … It can also really indicate that it’s not a permanent space. Like it’s a place where you pass through. … So, it doesn’t really feel like a home.”

In residential care, a young person is placed, and this is referred to as a placement. While place and place-making in design have associated meanings of specificity and connection, placement in residential care has a negative inflection. Depending on the situation, a young person may stay for several months, even years or could be moved within days.

“You can tell a resi-care house from the street, it looks different.”

“Often the grass is a bit patchy and it doesn’t look like it’s been looked after.”

“They all look the same; not in terms of building style but other aspects, such as the grass is barely there, the windows are covered.”

“Like no-one lives there.”

Residential care houses are usually located in residential areas. Many of them are houses that have been previously lived in by families and have been adapted to residential care specifications such as including an office and overnight accommodation for workers; some are purpose-built.

“The problem with the purpose-built houses is that they are built for this purpose; whereas the adapted houses have a sense of a previous life; of being lived in.”

The interior atmosphere is described as institutional. The yellow-cream colour of walls is the same colour used in institutional spaces experienced by young people such as hospitals and government offices. The communal spaces such as living room, dining area, and kitchens are referred to by the young people living there as public spaces.

“Resi care is really clinical, like the common room spaces don’t look nice. You walk into the space and it just doesn’t feel like a home. … the tacky lino on floors and the furniture in general.”

“Safety is sort of over emphasized. And so, it’s just really institutionalized. That’s what institutionalizes them in lots of ways is to make everything safe. But it’s in a standard safe safety way.”

“The fact that every single wall is plaster board feels like you are living in a world of cardboard.”

“It doesn’t really give you any incentive to want to take care of things if it’s always cheap and nasty.”

“I remember plastic flowers like the $2 shop ones that are obviously plastic.”

“It’s not something you would choose for yourself.”

“I feel like people are less likely to value things if it’s not something that they personally had a choice. It feels like a stranger’s place essentially.”

“When I would go into a resi unit, they’d already have the bedroom set up with things that I didn’t resonate with. You know they would just consider if a female or a male is coming to a space. … I think they got it right to some extent with one of the resi because it was just black and white; and I was like, thank God it’s not pink. But it still had like butterflies and things on the bedding. It isn’t really my sort of space.”

“At least to be able to have your own belongings in a space where you can see them and have somewhere to hang things up and organize your space. Or even a space where you can go and take 10 minutes just for yourself. Like somewhere you can play musical instrument or read a book; somewhere where you don’t hear what’s going on in the next room.”

Following are two lists which outline expectations of the environment of residential care in relation to providing a sense of home. One written by the Victorian State Government, and one created by Ella, one of the young consultants bringing lived experience to the design charrette. The comparison of these lists clarifies that the need and desires of young people in residential care is not purely material, but also aesthetic, social, personal, and functional.

The Victorian State Government has a policy titled Program requirements for residential care in Victoria. In Section 3: Environment and material goods requirements, there is a “principle statement” that reads “Despite some children needing to live away from their home and families in residential care, Child Safety Officers must ensure where ever possible a home-like environment is created to ensure children receive nurturing and a positive care experience”; a summary of expectations states “The physical living environment will reflect community expectations of a ‘home’” and lists the requirements to ensure a “home-like environment”:

“Home environment:

    1. Each child will be provided with their own bed and linen.
    2. Each child will be provided with accommodation that reflects their need for privacy and space.
    3. Each child will be provided with a space in which they can safely store their personal belongings.
    4. Child Safety Officers will provide children with personal items, household provisions and educational items (including books and toys) that are culturally and developmentally appropriate.
    5. Children will be clothed in a manner that complies with reasonable community standards and expectations.
    6. Children will be provided with a diet that promotes good health and complies with reasonable community standards and expectations, as well as with their cultural and religious background. Children will have reasonable access to a variety of food while residing in placement.
    7. Children not already receiving an income will be provided with a weekly allowance that meets reasonable community standards.” (DFFH, 2023)

The following list is by Ella, one of the CREATE Young Consultants participating in the charrette:

“Residential unit interior design workshop (6 September 2022):

    1. Inbuilt cupboard with drawers and hanging space for clothes.
    2. Heavy duty door without it looking clinical.
    3. Windows with locks.
    4. Doors with locks.
    5. Mandatory for ALL rooms to have a desk (inbuilt or not) to do things that bring them joy or for practical reasons such as homework.
    6. Somewhere to display meaning items.
    7. Locked cabinet for personal items (photos, meaningful objects etc.).
    8. Neutral colour palette without looking clinical or like we are in an institution (hospital, jail cell).
    9. Separate living areas for young people and carers/workers that is open to both.
    10. Swing outside/inside – movement may help a young person feel less distressed.
    11. Fixing holes in the walls IMMEDIATELY – promote feelings of safety for other young people.
    12. Mould and interior design breakdown (pests, paint flaking, structural damage) to be addressed IMMEDIATELY.
    13. Dining room table is a must to promote a sense of unity.
    14. Enable young people to choose their own style – get allowance to go shopping for decorations etc.
    15. Space dividing rooms for privacy reasons.
    16. MAXIMUM of 3 young people in each residential unit.”

The difference between the two lists is poignant – the first list outlines minimum expectations of needs to make a “home-like environment” and Ella’s list outlines, as she said “what we’re really entitled to”: an ability to arrange and organise one’s surroundings; to feel secure – one’s self and personal items; to be able to display and do things which give a sense of joy; to be able to relax and settle; to have the ability to find privacy and to be private; to not live surrounded by evidence of neglect, damage and violence; to have choice in terms of one’s setting such as furniture and bedroom furnishings; to be able to freely access food and to engage in everyday rituals such as sharing a meal. Ella’s list expresses not only needs but also desires which are aesthetic and ethical as well as functional.

At the time of the STAY HOME conference and now writing this text, the research project is still in process and while there will be more to consider, environments that create feelings of comfort and the ability to settle have emerged as critical. The question of home shifts from one of how to make an environment “home-like” to a consideration of conditions that will support young people to make connections that enable them to settle, to feel secure and stable; to have a sense of being somewhere.

“Like home is a place where I do not have to deal with the rest of the day. Where you just relax.”

Illustration by Hayden Daniel

Thank you to the following for their support and contribution to the project: CREATE Foundation and to CREATE Young Consultants – Ella & Hayley – and to Berry Street Youth Exchange and the Y-Change Lived Experience Consultants – Natasha and others; and Gregory Nicolau, founder Australian Childhood Trauma Group and Ripple. Thank you to Dr Sheena Elwick, Charles Sturt University, for her insights. This project continues the work of the LIVEability project, a collaboration with Mary Featherston.

This research has been made possible with the assistance of the Alastair Swayn Foundation Design Thinking Grant. A report will be published on Alastair Swayn Foundation website in July 2023. https://alastairswaynfoundation.org/

Notes

  1. A design charette is like a co-design process where the solution to a problem is sought through a collective design process.
  2. Trauma-informed practice is not about the treatment of trauma but a recognition that anyone may have an experience of trauma. It is based around 5 principles: safety; trustworthiness; choice; collaboration; empowerment.
  3. Universities require academic researchers to gain ethics approval if their research involves human and/or animal participants. Key ethical considerations to be addressed in the application are respect, justice, beneficence, research merit and integrity.
  4. At this stage in the project, quotes have not been attributed to an individual. The reasons for this are that not everyone gave consent for their name to be used and, as the project is still in process, we have not yet discussed how best to process the full transcript of the recordings from the charrettes. Neither have acronyms nor numeric codes been used as the conversation roamed and often people would finish each other’s sentence or drop in and pull out a key point.

References

Attiwill, Suzie, ed. 2010. Beyond Building. Melbourne: RMIT Interior Design, viewed 10 June 2023, https://www.academia.edu/103031768/Beyond_Building_Design_Studio

Attiwill, Suzie. 2012. “Beyond Building: Interior Designs”. Interior: A State of Becoming, IDEA Symposium, viewed 10 June 2023, https://www.academia.edu/4758484/Beyond_Building_Interior_Designs

Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (AIHW). 2021, Young People in Out-of-Home Care 2021, viewed 10 June 2023, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/young-people

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). 2023, Child protection Australia 2021–22, viewed 10 June 2023, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/child-protection/child-protection-australia-2021-22

Commission for Children and Young People (CCYP). 2019. In our own words: Systemic inquiry into the lived experience of children and young people in the Victorian out-of-home care system, viewed 10 June 2023, https://ccyp.vic.gov.au/assets/Publications-inquiries/CCYP-In-Our-Own-Words.pdf

CREATE Foundation https://create.org.au/ CREATE is the national consumer body representing the voices of children and young people with out-of-home care experience.

Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (DFFH), State Government of Victoria, 2023. Program requirements for residential care in Victoria, viewed 10 June 2023, https://providers.dffh.vic.gov.au/program-requirements-residential-care-victoria-oct-2016-word

Y-Change. 2020. “Beyond Giving Voice. Partnering with Young People with a Lived Experience to Imagine and Create Radical Change.” Y-Change’s Submission to the Victoria Youth Strategy, viewed 10 June 2023, https://www.berrystreet.org.au/uploads/main/Files/Y-Change-submission-to-the-Victorian-Youth-Strategy-December-2020-FINAL-01.07.21.pdf

Youth Engagement Y-Change https://www.berrystreet.org.au/what-we-do/young-people/youth-engagement-y-change Youth Engagement Y-Change, an advocacy group connected to Berry Street, one of Australia’s largest independent family service organisations (operating since 1877) and a service provider for “out-of-home” care.

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