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36 JANUARY 2002
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Grant Charles

It has been 30 years since I first started to work in our field. By any standards that is a long time. Over thirty years you will have expected to have seen lots of change. Indeed there have been lots of changes. Thirty years ago the term “child care” was fairly new. The orphanages in Canada were closing and being replaced by residential treatment centres and group homes. Reform schools and training schools were being closed and replaced by more modern forms of lock-up. We were making the first tentative steps in reaching out the community. Kemp had helped popularize the term child abuse and neglect although, of course, we had always known about it. It would be a number of years before their was a general acceptance about the extent of sexual abuse. In the field the term was known but few of us knew that many of the kids we worked with were victims of sexual abuse.

The strap was still being used in schools although not with the frequency of a few years previously. The use of quiet or isolation rooms was very common. The use of physical restraint as a means of ensuring compliance on the part of the kids was reportedly widespread although I must admit I didn’t see much of it. The use of medications was just coming into it’s own.

Child and Youth Care workers (still called child care workers in those days) were poorly paid. The foundations of the profession had been laid but we tended to be seen by our colleagues in the other helping fields as being paraprofessionals. There were a few Child and Youth Care programs at the college level. Undergraduate programs, let alone higher degrees, were still a dream.

The theoretical roots of the interventions were there, although they tended to be a confused combination of pseudopsychoanalytical and encounter group throw-offs. Kids were the recipients of treatment rather than being active partners in the process. Families, if they were acknowledged at all, tended to be seen as the villains. Fathers were bad but mothers were worse. Many of us thought the best way to deal with kids was to isolate them from their family, friends and community so as to remove them from all the bad influences. This was considered important so as to permit the tearing down of old destructive patterns. Given time, so the thought went, and any kid could be rebuilt into our image. Relationships were more about reparenting than making a human connection. All of this was of course backed up by solid theoretical frameworks although not by any recognizable research.

Children's rights were almost nonexistent. In fact, even if some of us believed in the concept we would not have ever heard the term. Avenues of reporting complaints were few. Indeed, if a kid or a family had a concern, however valid, it was likely to be seen as evidence of their resistance to treatment, rather than something that needed to be heard or addressed.

There were few dedicated treatment programs. Sometimes kids in residential treatment centres were separated by age or gender but for the most part they were lumped together based on bed vacancy. Intervention plans were around but they tended to use vague terms like “will improve self-esteem" There was little attempt to measure success or even be introspective about how we were doing on a day-to-day basis. Accountability was weak even in the best of programs. Discharge decisions were often based on fancy-sounding rationales that basically meant that we didn’t want to deal with this or that kid anymore. However, all decisions were, of course, made “in the best interests” of the child.

So how much has changed over the past thirty years? Certainly the language has changed. We talk a lot more about partnerships, inclusion, family and community work, children's rights. However, I wonder if talk is always action. Are we really different from the way we were thirty years ago? Have we grown? Of course we have. However, have we grown enough? I'll leave that up to you to answer.

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