They can grab a child and take 'any action immediately necessary' where there are good grounds to believe that the child would commit serious offences, such as burglary or car-stealing. Besides physical restraint, care workers can require a disruptive child to remain alone in a room for indeterminate spells.
Department of Health guidelines on control and restraint in the 1,000 children's homes in England and Wales were drawn up in response to concern among professionals on how best to deal with the most difficult children.
The public outcry over the 'pin-down' regime in four Staffordshire children's homes, when 130 children were kept in solitary confinement for weeks on end, left social workers uncertain about how far they could go to control bad behaviour.
About two-thirds of the 11,500 children in residential care suffer emotional or behavioural problems and one-third have experienced sexual abuse. The guidelines released yesterday spelled out for the first time that staff are able to cuddle those in their care, if it is appropriate.
Tim Yeo, Under-Secretary for Health, said the guidelines laid down general principles and it was for staff to use their judgement on how to interpret them in detail. 'You don't want to ask people to consult a 300-page manual every time they are confronted by a difficult child.'
Allan Levy QC, who chaired the Staffordshire pin-down inquiry, welcomed the guidance, but was worried at lack of clarity over measures to restrict liberty. 'Control relies on good judgement and reasonable reaction to any incident. That can only come from staff who are properly trained, properly instructed and properly supervised.'