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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 72 JANUARY 2005 / BACK
Listen to this

residential care

The Child Care Worker – I

Peter Righton

No child care worker, no worker in direct contact with children, would or could dispute that the child, the child who speaks, the child to whom we should listen, is the beginning and the end of our work, and at the end of a period of care, however long or short, and of whatever kind, it is of supreme importance that we listen to the child telling us – on the one hand: curse you, my traitorous country, for enclosing me in a strait-jacket, or on the other: thank you my beloved country for providing me with signposts. What I am going to urge is that the guiding principle for us as child care workers is the provision of signposts and not encasement in strait-jackets.

I want to start with three quotations from the publication Who Cares? which actually sought the views of children themselves who had passed through a period in residential care. “You know, there’s a lot of parents of kids who aren’t in care who use a kind of threat: I'll phone the welfare and they’ll take you away.” This automatically gets associated in the public's mind with a place of punishment, doesn’t it? “People think that if you’re in care, you must have done something wrong. The first question they ask is 'What did you do?' It's not just teachers and kids in school, but it's staff and kids in children's homes too. When you go to a new place, before you've got your foot in the door, they say 'Hey, what are you in for?'“ “Being in care, you feel you've got a cross on your back; you feel marked.”

I make no apology for starting with three somewhat negative comments on residential care. There are plenty of positive ones in Who Cares? but I start like this because my starting point in what I want to share with you about the child care worker is his need to recognise that children coming into care stand a really grave risk of being doubly deprived. First because of separation from parents and/or familiar environment, however that separation was caused or whatever the behaviour in the child or whatever misfortune brought it about. The second source of deprivation is contained in the words of those children, the appalling risk of institutional stigma, a cross on your back, feeling marked, because as a child you do not feel that you are in an environment of which the world approves. And you know also that the world is making assumptions about why you are there, as well as about the nature of the place, which, while they may be false, speak very eloquently of the ignorance, misunderstanding and devaluation of any form of care of children outside the family.

This double deprivation affects children's feelings and their behaviour, particularly at the time of first entry into a residential place, and those feelings and behaviour indicate the particular way in which children's needs manifest themselves, and from these we can build a picture of what is needed from the child care worker.

Feelings and Behaviour
Much has been written, very movingly, about the feelings of a child coming into care. Loss, grief, anxiety, sometimes, though often deeply buried, furious anger – projected both ways: back at the situation I am leaving and forward to the unfamiliar situation which I don’t wish to enter – though of course not always without feelings of relief at quitting an intolerable situation. Now these feelings can sometimes be so immensely powerful and overwhelming that they are quite literally intolerable with the consequence that they are not manifested neat or raw but denied, displaced, rejected, projected onto the staff of the home, and this projection or denial has such a profound effect on a child that one of the easiest things to do is to misinterpret and misunderstand, because a child who has suppressed his feelings can appear on the surface as though everything is perfectly alight, and I am enjoying this place all right thank you.

One of the first lessons the child care worker has to learn is the difference between the surface and the underneath in relation to a child's feelings. Parents have to learn this too, but there is marked difference between what a parent has to do with his own child, and what a child care worker has to do, intervening in a situation where already, very often, marked damage, emotional damage, has been done or is at risk of being done. And we have been talking of both behaviour and feelings, and often the behaviour is the concealment of feelings.

But more about the projection of feelings: If children have come from a family situation in which they have had very painful experiences, possibly of rejection, neglect and maltreatment, or they have been labelled by psychological or psychiatric services, one of the strongest tendencies will be to invest in the staff of the home either all the bad feelings which he dare not show or, conversely, a magic wish that the staff turn into the ideal parents. The danger is that the child care workers may be either sanctified or scapegoated, neither of which permits him to feel fully human – and this is a powerful source of stress.

There are first of all the needs associated with nurturing: this will include security and continuity. Security is a very double-edged concept in the rearing of children; it is possible to have too little of it and too much of it. The risk of too little or too much is very much greater for the child care worker than it is for the parent. Clearly, a child coming into a group care centre with the feelings – and the behaviour which either reflects or denies those feelings – is in need of an environment which makes him feel secure but not so secure that the possibility of growth is denied. It is impossible to over-emphasise the need for continuity in a child's life. Not very long ago, even in Britain, it was felt that admission to care would provide a child with a new start, as though every experience in his previous history had somehow been discounted! But do we take sufficiently seriously the feelings of a child at a breaking point between an experience which, however traumatic and damaging, was at least approved by society, and his experience in a completely new environment which on the whole is not approved by society? What this does to a child's sense of self, of identity, adds an enormous sense of risk to the child – of feeling fragmented between a past self which is not acknowledged, and a present self which is acknowledged in a totally wrong or insensitive way. What challenge there is, therefore, to us as group care workers, in ensuring experiences of continuity, of wholeness.

Secondly, still speaking of nurture, there is the need within the child for “the good-enough adult”. Note that I have not said “the good-enough parent”. I make the distinction because what I want to combat is the notion that, except by metaphor, a group care worker cannot be and should not pretend to be a parent to a child, albeit the group care worker will do many things that the parent does. I am not even happy with the term substitute parent or alternative parent; I prefer the term adult. I feel like saying “mature adult” but concepts of maturity are themselves ambiguous. What I am concerned to share with you is a view that all children, whether m families or not, from early in their lives, actually need a wide range of adults available to them, partly as models, partly as warning (and how far are we models or warnings?) partly as signposts (not strait-jackets) to a future from which contacts amongst numerous adults children eventually grow to be able to choose.

The third nurturing need is that for acceptance and approval. I am very well aware that these are needs of children out of residential care as much as of those within it. I am not here concerned with differences of kind but with differences of degree. It seems absolutely clear that if a child comes to an environment, as the Who Cares? children said so eloquently, into a way of life that is considered by others peculiar, odd, unnatural or even disapproved, the need for acceptance and approval which all children have anyhow for their growth, is redoubled.

Then we have a cluster of needs around what some would call treatment and which I prefer to call strengthening. I choose the word because I don’t see the circumstances which brought a child into care as “sickness”. Also, words like therapy and treatment are so associated with medical models, that I would prefer to discard them. There is, firstly, a need for a balance between control and freedom. This balance becomes quite wickedly difficult to achieve in many group care environments because quite unwittingly the forces of control can dominate the forces making for freedom. This is because management bodies expect – and the public expects – that whatever else child care workers do, they must keep the children under control. They are, often for the sake of those who disapprove of residential care, to keep embarrassing behaviour invisible. To do this, you have to shut children up in walls and not let them out, a practice so shocking that I cannot believe any of us here would countenance it, but the pressure from outside to exercise greater modes of control than those in a family, is very great.

Some more extracts from Who Cares?: “When we’re in children's homes we think that we’re just like puppets, taking orders from everybody.” “The trouble with care is there is no place to sulk.” “Stupid little rules. We need to get somewhere where a group of kids decides the rules, then if anybody breaks them they have to answer to the group.” If we want to avoid that kind of response from the children, then we have to achieve a better balance between control and freedom.

The second need under strengthening is the keeping alive of feelings. This is complicated for we have seen that the feelings of a child upon admission to care are so powerful and painful that they are intolerable and have to be suppressed; and yet we live more through our feelings than through our intellect, so the keeping alive of feelings is a major need in group care. Keeping alive feelings, digging feelings from subterranean depths, can, as we all know, produce explosive situations. Do we as child care workers have the strengths to face what follows on releasing, rather than sitting upon, feelings?

The third need is help in working through difficult and unacceptable behaviour and overwhelming emotional stress. That work of helping children work through difficult behaviour, and work through such stress, is dependent on the second need. Here we come to what is perhaps the most difficult, the most skilled, and the most stressful task of the child care worker.

Letting Go
The third cluster of needs (which I shall be dealing with in part 3 of this series) is grouped under the heading of letting go. Nurturing, strengthening ... in order to let go. How eloquent children have been about the inadequacy of the letting go experience of group care. There are two needs here: the need to explore and the need to link with the child's significant community. But first, in part 2, I shall explore further the skills and qualities of the care worker.

This feature: Extracts from Righton, P. (1983) “The Child Care Worker” and “Going Out” in The Children's Home: A place in which to grow, a place from which to go. Papers delivered at the 1981 Biennial Conference of the National Association of Child Care Workers. Cape Town: NACCW

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