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CYC-Online Issue 25 FEBRUARY 2001 / BACK
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talking to graduates

The child care profession and its responsibilities in the future

In the early 1990s, Canon Eric Richardson, one of the best-known pioneers of the field in South Africa, came out of retirement to speak at the Graduation Ceremony for new child and youth care workers in Johannesburg.

I have wondered if I am really the best person to address you this morning, for these days I am feeling increasingly out of date. The child care scene has changed so much since I was full-time involved in it, and although I am still involved with children it is more as a grandfather figure (amiable and accepting and undemanding, even to the extent of a relaxed attitude to the failure to do homework) than as someone concerned with treatment goals. It is even possible that I share the attitude to children attributed to the village elder – “Have “em; love “em and leave “em be!" – though I think I appreciate that in these days one dare not do that any more, for the environment in which they grow up no longer has the security of past generations, and is threatening, even generally inimical, to slow and healthy development.

There was a time when I longed for the more professional development of child care workers, when we first began to move towards the training of children's home staff. We often found ourselves saddled with helpers who were only in child care by accident; some liked children because they were lacking in the ability to relate to their peers, others merely looked for a job and accommodation – not that these provisions were, in those days, of any decent quality. There were among them a few who had what was needed but lacked any basic training other than a heart for the work. Most were well on in years.

If I were in the field at present, in this generation of a “less than the basic" family unit, I think I would press for a basic knowledge of child care to be included as part of the necessary qualifications for a number of related fields: in schools, certainly for all who work in boarding establishments, for nurses specialising in children, for accreditation of foster parents, and even training courses for Scouters and Guiders – and particularly training as part of preparation for parenthood.

In the early days we held before ourselves the ideal of a staff professionally equipped for the job with a recognition from society and a pride in their specific expertise. l rejoice in what has been achieved over the years, and am humbled that you who are to receive your certificates today are probably far better qualified than those of us who, some thirty or forty years ago, suddenly found ourselves in charge of children's institutions.

One problem arising from “qualifications" is that you are probably inspired to go on in the development of your career, and whilst that is wholly admirable, what so often happens is that you tend to move out of the front line to become “back-up" or administrative specialists, with the result that the front line becomes constantly denuded of its best workers. It means that we have to start again, and the workers in the front line tend to be young while the contribution of maturity is removed to the desk and the case conference. I presume that this is a problem in most professions but, as yet, we do not in child care have the benefit of a long waiting list of aspirants. It seems unfortunate that the deliverers of the face-to-face service are the lowest paid and the least qualified. I shall hope that you who are receiving your certificates today will not soon be removed, or remove yourselves, from the work face, but that you will continue to serve there in some capacity for some time. I hope also that the administrators will continue to seek to reward your essential involvement with the child, so that your job satisfaction is such that you have no need to move out. I should like to see some consideration given in the child care field to the sort of development beginning in the private schools where financial reward and assistance accompanies the obtaining of further qualifications “and in our case not merely professional qualifications but those that will enhance staff members' capacity to enrich the lives of the children in their care: sports coaching, environmental involvement and skill, and hobbies.

I have retained a deep appreciation of the value to me of the front line staff, and I believe that however able and well qualified the administrator and supervisors in a children's home may be, it is the child care worker who is the key, and who alone can negate or fulfil the plans and aims of the former. In the early days, and possibly still, we were inclined to put the cart before the horse and push for social workers and psychologists before we appointed suitable child care staff. However I suspect that this was largely due to a lack of confidence in our ability to find suitable “coal-face" workers, not to mention the economic pressures.

Child care as a vocation?
I find myself ambivalent in some respects about this, for whilst I want well-paid and qualified child care workers, I balk at their becoming too “professional". I imagine such creatures, armed with qualifications, advancing upon the children with treatment plans to perform “procedure" and then retiring to the professional's lounge to evaluate results, write reports and plan the next operation! I exaggerate the parody to make the point that so much of your important work lies in simply “being" and “living" and “doing", making up in human terms for the deprivation of a child's family life by creating an environment for real growth.

I sense that I am allowing “my slip to show" when I confess that I do not really wish child care work to be so much a profession as a vocation. I would hope that I am not just being sentimental, but I have seen it happen that a vocationalist becomes a professional and at once loses contact. The child becomes a “client" and no longer a gift of God to love and cherish. I suggest that the professional attitude may be legitimate for a social worker or consultant, but more cautiously so for a child care worker. I am sure that in the field these ambiguities are being addressed, and when they are I should hope that we will maintain our priorities, for the child in our organisations is the apex of the edifice and not to be dethroned by over-attention to structures or career prospects or conditions of service, as I fear in some respects has affected the general social work scene.

We should be seeking qualifications that we may be better enabled to serve than to fulfil personal ambitions. We need to remember sometimes, as a corrective, that in providing helpful environments for children, “qualifications" are sometimes secondary to character, and motivation needs to be directed to service before self.

Personal growth
The perceptive among you will notice that my clerical collar is beginning to take over! Our Lord's priestly prayer was “For their sakes, I sanctify myself" “and so personal growth becomes as important as academic and practical knowledge. Most of our best work with the children is done, I suspect, unconsciously by being ourselves, by the example we set and by our own responses to stress, to crises, to tiredness and the day-to-day experiences of living.

I am out of touch with the current syllabus for your training courses and the emphasis that it places on personal growth and self-awareness, so that I can only express the hope that it has not nor will in the future be neglected. The secret of so much of what you may achieve for the children lies in the relationship that you manage to build, and the love and concern that you can communicate. I have seen shortcomings in expertise becoming insignificant in the face of the child's knowledge that you really care, and I suspect that the latter is the foundation for the success of any specialised “treatment" process. Somehow or other you have to convince the child of this before anything can be effective. But I guess that having come so far you already know that – just as you know that no punishment, of whatever kind, has any value or effect unless it is imposed by someone whom you know cares for you above the rules and customs.

I suggest that we need to assure ourselves that the motivation for seeking qualifications is that we may better serve the children, and as I close with my congratulations to you who graduate today, let me wish you increasing satisfaction in the work that you are doing, and give you my assurance that your supervisors and administrators and fellow professionals see themselves as supporters and sustainers of all of you who have accepted this primary responsibility of working in the front line of service to troubled children.

And in your work please always remember that God loves you, both when you do his work and when you don't. That is above any reward one might desire.


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