My name is Maddy and I am a youth worker. I work in a co-operative community centre in the poorest postal code in Canada (according to Statistics Canada Census 2001). I am also a student completing my degree in Child and Youth Care with a specialization in Child Protection. As a part of my studies, I have been encouraged to explore the similarities and disparities between the field of social work and that of Child and Youth Care. I have dealt with a substantial number of child protection concerns throughout my few years of practice. Most of what I have learned for handling child protection scenarios has come to me from the wise words of our head youth worker who has dedicated about 30 years of his life to the families of our community. I have learned from my mistakes and I have learned through the guidance of the people (staff and clients) alongside whom I work. I have become confident and humble in my approach to child protection and have helped guide others in turn.
However, after recently taking a course that instructed me how to use a particular structured interview technique currently used by Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) child protection social workers, I felt a fool. The model challenged the values and philosophy that my Child and Youth Care practice is built upon. This formal model encourages the gathering of objective information, while stressing the need to withhold interviewer emotion via empathic gestures and reactions that could taint the interview. I feel the majority of my Child and Youth Care training has focussed on incorporating empathy skills into every aspect of Child and Youth Care practice. In fact, research (Miller, 2000) has shown the importance of empathizing and connecting emotionally with clients is to increasing successful interventions.
Recently I received a disclosure from an adolescent girl who had been physically, sexually and emotionally abused. During our time together, the girl cried on my shoulder and received hugs from me as per her request, while I just allowed her the space to tell me whatever she needed. When I did not quite understand something she told me, I would ask her to clarify. After I documented what she had disclosed, I gave her the report to read over to ensure I had not erred. In that situation, I had unintentionally followed the clarifying steps of the structured interviewing model (as I had not yet heard of the model), but I was able to incorporate my personal style of caring, empathizing and therapeutic counselling techniques, and as far as we were both concerned, it worked out well.
My response I am sure would be questioned by many practitioners, as hugging is not a skill we are taught, and is considered taboo by many in professional Child and Youth Care practice. But my response was influenced not only by the fact that I had a pre-established relationship with this young woman, but also by a cultural component. This youth is Aboriginal; my Child and Youth Care training has taught me that traditional Euro-Western approaches that are objective and devoid of emotion lead to distrust and silence from Aboriginal clients (Fournier & Crey, 1997). I work toward becoming an increasingly culturally sensitive and aware practitioner by exploring the cultures of the clients I work with. By understanding the historical and political influences that have shaped each family’s dynamics, I will become increasingly empathic and sensitive to their stories and how I respond to their dilemmas.
I personally find that the structured interview mentioned above contradicts this perspective in that it is narrowly focussed, impersonal and weakness-based. When focusing solely on risks, we risk slipping into traditional reactive measures such as placing children in foster care and placing others into the criminal justice system. According to Thomas (2005), when we don’t focus on building on a family’s strengths and protective factors, we risk future protective involvement.
I understand that my role and practice as a Child and Youth Care worker in a community setting differs from that of a child protection social worker working within MCFD, though we both deal with child protection scenarios. So why such different responses? I have come to understand that there are people who see some differences in core philosophical beliefs between the Social Work and Child and Youth Care professional; examples offered by Jim Anglin (1999) and Robert Bates (2005) include a difference in focus: social problems versus youth development, gaining power versus self-awareness, and building policies versus relationships respectively. However, if the “social work worldview can be summarized as a relational approach dedicated to social justice, equality (is anti-racist), and feminism” (Beattie, 2005, p.8), and if the Child and Youth Care focus on human development takes into consideration these external influences, then I believe that these two professions are more alike than not.
It seems to me that most human service professions are becoming increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of the people, cultures and professions that make up this world. Merali (2002) discusses how the medical and social work professions are becoming increasingly aware of how different cultural practices affect our previous misconceptions of what defines acceptable parenting practices. He uses the example of the Vietnamese practice Cao Gio, which is considered a healing pressure massage, but leaves bruises that may confuse culturally ignorant practitioners who fear for a child's safety and well being.
I believe that same ignorance can often be found when human service professionals come into contact with Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Since the time of the first foreign settlers, Euro-Western professionals have viewed Aboriginal parents as neglectful and ignorant (Fournier & Crey, 1997). The abuses found within Indigenous communities today are directly linked to oppressive and abusive practices performed by Euro-Western practitioners, for example, the endless removal of children from their communities and the abuses they suffered in residential schools, foster and adoptive homes, and juvenile detention centres.
I believe there needs to be more flexibility in every approach we take to working with the diversity of the families and cultures we will meet in the field. For example, how would the formal interview model have worked in a situation at my workplace where a Latina girl used her best friend to vocalize the sexual abuse she had been experiencing. She refused to talk about it herself, but sat with her friend as her friend shared the abuses her friend had disclosed to her. The structured interview asks that if the client wants a friend present, that the friend stay quiet and out of the client’s line of vision. In this situation, I believe it would have been more traumatizing, insensitive and disempowering to follow this rule.
I realize that I have more learning and exploring to do in relation to how comfortable I feel with structured investigative techniques when addressing child protection concerns. My classroom experience with ministry mandated techniques was disconcerting. The only conclusion I have come to is that child protection interviews and approaches to child protection concerns could potentially benefit by becoming more flexible in order to respect the diversity of people we will work with.
Anglin, J. (1999). The uniqueness of child and youth care: A personal perspective. Child & Youth Care Forum, 28(2), 143-150.
Bates, R. (2005). A search for synergy: The child and youth care educated child protection worker. Child & Youth Care Forum, 34(2), 99-109.
Beattie, G. (2005). Dirt road social work: Developing a social context for change in an isolated community. Perspectives: Newsletter of the B.C. Association of Social Workers 27(2), 8-9, 15. Retrieved on March 26, 2006 from http://www.bcasw.org/Images/PDFs/2005_03_Perspectives.pdf
Fournier, S., & Crey, E. (1997). Stolen from our embrace. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyreLtd.
Merali, N. (2002). Culturally informaed ethical decision making in situations of suspected child abuse. Canadian Journal of Counselling, 36(3), 233-244.
Miller, W.L. (2000). Rediscovering fire:Small interventions, large effects. Psychology of Addictive Behaviours, 14(1), 6-18.
Thomas, M. (2005). A resilience-based model of reunification and reentry: Implications for out-of-home care services. Families in Society, 86(2), 235-243. (Online)
Yuille, J. (1997). The step-wise interview: A protocol for interviewing children. Resource paper in Ministry for children and Families, Investigative Interviewing: Instructor’s Manual (pp.175-184). Victoria, BC: Author.