Rebecca Fowler visits two children's homes doing their best to provide warmth and security for highly vulnerable children
The shouting gets louder, the ground begins to shake and an army of children storm the garden, making for the swings, at the back of two converted council houses on a Merseyside estate. "James is injured," shouts a breathless young boy in school uniform. "What's new?" is the calm response from a maternal-looking woman at the backdoor.

It as typical a scene of school home-time as any at the rows of houses on the outskirts of Liverpool, although this is two properties knocked into one and the garden is twice the size. Minutes later James, a mischievous six-year-old, appears in the cosy dining room, knocking the Welsh dresser with his grazed elbow. "I'm the trouble-maker," he says proudly, thrusting another cup-cake into his lightly freckled face.

But this home is not typical. It stands out from the others in two quite different ways. First, it is a residential care facility for children who have often been exposed to traumatic abuse, physical and sexual, and have been unable to stay with their own families. Sometimes they are separated from parents who cannot cope, due to mental illness, or they have been severely neglected. A number have also been fostered unsuccessfully.

The home has also been singled out by childcare experts as an example of good practice in one of the most neglected areas of the social services. More than 10,000 children are in care in Britain at a cost of up to pounds 2,000 each a week. But as one scandal has followed another, the crucial question is how to make homes work for the country's most vulnerable children. In homes that have failed, which have received no less financial support than those that have struggled to succeed, workers were untrained, morale was pitiful, children were neglected and often exposed to harsh discipline. At worst, they were targeted by networks of paedophiles who have worked undetected for years.

The team that runs the Merseyside home under Knowsley local authority, is under no illusions that it will always be second best to a real family. But within those confines, the workers are determined to offer the children as stable and happy an environment as they can. They aim to teach them social skills that may allow them to return to their own families, with whom the home works very closely, or to foster parents.

Joan Whitfield, the manager, is anxious to break down the stereotypes of children's homes, and to make it blend in with the community. The children play with friends on the street, they invite them in for tea, and they go to local clubs, dancing, cadets and football. The home moved from a larger, more institutional building to its current location three years ago.

"One of the first things we did when we moved in was invite the neighbours in, because a lot of them were worried, and we wanted to be part of the community," she says. "A lot of people think we lock the children up and hang them at dawn. One parent said to me when their child came to us, do what you have to do, then when he comes out in a fortnight he'll be fine. It's as if they think we're a conveyor-belt, and the children roll off wonderful at the end of it."

The home has only six places and the children vary in ages from six to 12. Each has a "key" worker from a staff of 10, all trained in the residential care of children. They have their own rooms, covered in football posters, Walt Disney wallpaper and bright duvet covers; and there are meetings each week to discuss house issues with the children, dominated last week by "toy swapping", which was causing too many fights.

Stephen, a thoughtful 11-year-old who arrived six months ago peers over his glasses, which have earned him the nickname "Brains", and explains that the trips and the food are among the best thing about the home. But he stresses the attachments are also strong. "It's like we're all brothers and sisters, but we're not, we're just here with each other. The staff are dead funny as well, and they tell really funny jokes. What's the fastest cake in the world? It's scone!"

The scene at tea-time is reminiscent of any large family gathering. Bangers and mash with mushy peas are shared around, manners encouraged at the table, plates collected, semolina greeted unenthusiastically for desert. Permission to go and watch television is requested immediately afterwards in the living room.

Despite the reassuring atmosphere it is still impossible not to see the children's vulnerability. Sally, 11, is anxious to show a photograph of her baby sister, and the presents her mother has bought her. They meet twice a week in a move towards Sally returning home, and on Wednesdays they cook a meal together. Her mother, who is also fighting to hold on to custody of her two year-old daughter, says: "When she comes to me she doesn't want to come back. She can't wait for that day to come when she can come home."

But it is one of the home's strengths that everything is talked about. The team is clear that the ideal is always moving the children on to a real family situation as quickly and painlessly as possible. Terri and Brian Kennedy, who have been fostering children for more than 20 years, and are currently caring for a 15-year-old boy from the home openly discuss how the system works as the children run in and out around them.

Brian says: "In an ideal world, children would be fostered straight into a family, but you can't do that to a child after what it's been through. You have to find their needs. This is an ideal place to do that, it's as close to home as you can get."

The approach to the Caldecott Community in Ashford, Kent, could not be more different to Merseyside: the rolling hills of the North Downs, the lake, the horses, the converted stables and the mansion house. But lunchtime is reassuringly similar, as the six to 11-year-olds collect up their plates, chat enthusiastically in between being told not to talk with their mouths open.

The community, which cares for 68 children in groups of eight from the ages of five to 18, was set up 84 years ago. It takes on the most disturbed children within the care system, many of whom have already been through a host of failed foster placements and other homes. They are often intensely violent when they arrive, and almost all have learning difficulties. Caldecott is unique in having its own school, designed specifically for the needs of the children.

Greg, who is nine and arrived three months ago, throws himself off the swing and is coaxed into acknowledging a recent victory in his behaviour. On Sunday he had lost his temper furiously on three occasions, and lashed out at one of the residential social workers in the home who was working closely with him. But on the third occasion, he controlled his fury for the first time.

The methods of the home has been tried and tested, says Babs Seymour, assistant director. "The basic philosophy is that these children know we can survive them, and they can't destroy us. They believe that every time something has not worked out for them - and some have had upwards of 10 foster placements - it's their fault, and they test that out all the time. It is frightening sometimes how much hope they put in us."

Whatever their hopes for finding a successful family placement, at Caldecott all the children are given a family model to work with, including a male and female co-worker to allow them to work through problems they may have had with both genders and parents, and a "sibling", who shares the same workers.

Charlotte, a shy and dreamy 11-year-old, who used to drift off into a fantasy world with disturbing regularity, acknowledges to Sam Morgan, her female co-worker, that she has changed in the three years she has been at Caldecott. "I'm more grown-up now," she says. "I used to have strops. Then I spoke about it, and they've got better. I used to hit people, but I don't do that any more. Unless it's joking."

The key to holding the community together is the quality of staff, says Ms Seymour. Caldecott has its own training college which is recognised nationally. Although recruitment remains a potential nightmare with no statutory register to help to weed out paedophiles, the vetting process is rigorous and the directors have fought for high staffing levels. There are triumphs: several children have gone on to university, but victory for the most part is simple. "Success is when they go and join the mass of normal people and lead normal lives," says Ms Seymour. "They are good people, who struggle. They may not have made it yet, but one day they will. And they are people who know how to care for others."

The names of the children have been changed to protect their identities, and the name of the Merseyside home has been withheld.