How safe do youth in residential care feel?

teen boy in a blue hoodie

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Feeling safe is an important part of youth development – especially for youth in residential care settings. A new study by BCTR’s Residential Child Care Project examined feelings of safety among youth living in in group care settings, and assessed whether feeling safe was enhanced by high-quality relationships with staff members. The research article, “Child Feelings of Safety in Residential Care: The Supporting Role of Adult-Child Relationships,” was published in the journal Residential Treatment for Children & Youth.

“As children in residential settings have explained it, there is a difference between ‘being’ safe and ‘feeling’ safe,” explained Debbie Sellers, director of research and evaluation for the Residential Child Care Project.

Many youths who live in group care settings have experienced trauma through neglect, abuse, poverty and instability in their lives, she said. “These traumatic experiences actually effect the development of children’s brains, so they experience problems such as heightened vigilance to threats and difficulties regulating emotions and forming supportive relationships.”

What they need the most, Sellers said, is a trusted adult who creates a supportive environment without fear that mistakes will jeopardize the relationship. “So, particularly in residential settings, ‘feeling’ safe is a prerequisite to taking the chances that are required for social and emotional learning,” she said.

The data for the study came from surveys of 715 youth living at 24 different agencies across the country. Researchers asked the youth about their relationship with direct care staff during specific scenarios, including when they were feeling very sad or angry, or after they misbehaved. They also asked youth how often they felt safe over the past month.

Sixty-four percent of the youth participants reported usually or always feeling safe and 16 percent reported never or rarely feeling safe. Researchers also found that staff overestimated youth’s feelings of safety.

“In over half of the agencies, the percentage of staff who agreed or strongly agreed that ‘Children feel emotionally safe here’ was at least twenty-five percentage points higher than the percentage of children who reported ‘Always or Usually feeling safe,’” Sellers said. “One important implication is the need to monitor regularly the extent to which children themselves report feeling safe.”

The most important factor associated with how safe children felt was the quality of relationships they had with the staff members. That means by focusing on building high-quality relationships between youth and staff members, facilities can improve feelings of safety and ultimately promote healthy youth development, Sellers said.

“Staff practices and, importantly, the organizational policies, procedures, supervision and expectation that support those practices, need to focus on the development of high-quality relationships with the children in their care,” she said. “Doing so will help increase the children’s sense of safety and thus maximize the therapeutic benefit of residential care.”