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109 MARCH 2008
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The profession called Child and Youth Care Work

Jack Phelan

The South African Council for Social Service Professions is in the process of designating Child and Youth Care as a distinct profession, which is the next step in a long process including public hearings, designated research , and many descriptions of practice-based data and educational frameworks. Yet we still struggle with professionals in social services questioning the legitimacy of Child and Youth Care as an area of practice which qualifies to be designated as a profession. This article will present a defence for the position that Child and Youth Care is indeed a separate profession that is internationally recognized.

Mark Smith, a Scottish author, addresses this issue thus: “(there is) a dissonance between much social work theory and the realities of child care practice." (p 261) “Workers tend to draw primarily on their selves in action and to operate in a group as well as an individual FM context.” (p264) “The social work task with children and families has assumed a primary focus on child protection, which introduces real tensions for those in direct care settings where the work is inevitably relational and intimate (Kendrick and Smith, 2002). Such trends accentuate the gap between social work and residential child care.” Smith concludes with this major point; “There is a significant epistemological point to do with this difference between residential child care and social work. Austin and Halpin claim that “the caring interaction provides direct knowledge” (cited in VanderVen 1993, p272). Thus, much of what counts for knowledge in residential child care needs to be located within what goes on in the relationship established between children and youth and those working with them. Currently, that kind of knowledge is largely unexplored within social work, where knowledge drawn from the social sciences is privileged” (Smith, 2005).

The same author noted, “[a] majority of workers entering residential child care settings from social work training courses do not feel suitably prepared for the task, in comparison to those moving into other social work settings (Triseliotis and Marsh, 1996). This is perhaps not surprising, as the experiences of many workers, qualified and socialized in social work, will not have introduced them to fundamental conceptual material on group care such as lifespace" (Smith, 2002).

James Anglin, a child care worker with a social work degree, teaching at the University of Victoria in Canada, has also explored this issue; “... the reason for tension between social work and child care work (and such tension is discernible in all of the countries I have visited – England, Hungary, Israel, Sweden, as well as in the US and Canada and, it seems, in South Africa as well) is the presence of two underlying and eternal ways of understanding human society and social change.”

He goes on to state that social work emphasizes political pressure for societal change, including the elimination of poverty and the primacy of social concerns over economic concerns, along with equity in legislation and policies – and thus all will be well in the world. Child and youth care work focuses on helping people achieve order within themselves and in their daily lives. Child and youth care work is not so much focused on political dynamics as on facilitating growth, development and the learning of life skills. Anglin continues, “[t]here is a degree of incompatibility between the two approaches, and attempts to combine Child and Youth Care preparation within the social work orientation, both in Great Britain and North America, have resulted in the Child and Youth Care role being devalued and deemphasised, with the result that children and young people are not well served.”

“The apparent similarities between the two professional approaches can be misleading. While both work with families, for example, the social work profession is involved with the family per se, as a social agent, ensuring that the family receives appropriate social benefits and that the family unit is not abusive to any of its members ...” “While many social work leaders would like to see social work education provide the type of training characteristic of Child and Youth Care or social pedagogue programmes, the fact is, in practice, such a focus tends to be watered down and displaced by the demands for more generic preparation of a much broader scope.” (Anglin, 2001)

Anglin wrote an earlier piece that is often referenced in this discussion where he listed the unique orientations of Child and Youth Care work and describes seven differences between social work and Child and Youth Care work, among them social problem and social influence emphases in social work and individual growth and needs in Child and Youth Care work (Anglin,1999).

Another Canadian opinion on the educational preparation, “Child and youth care education is a complex process of creating self-awareness, developing relational skills and attitudes, learning change strategies and dynamics, and valuing the struggle of separation and closure. Safety, strength building and self-control are supported through a process of using the events of daily living and strategically constructed experiential moments to role model, support change, and be present to validate what is happening. We work in “the natural place, not a neutral space”" (Garfat, 2003) and (Phelan, 2005).

A graduate of the Child and Youth Care Masters program at the University of Victoria reflects on the issues for himself in a child protection office, in a team of mostly social workers. He states that the relationship focus and life space locus of practice in his training suited him best in dealing with guardianship roles for supported independent living youth. He was less comfortable doing short term assessments and intrusive abuse investigations where a relationship was not as important. He describes social work education as being based on challenging oppressive social structures, not relationship building (Bates, 2005) . Another Child and Youth Care graduate describes having her professional values and Child and Youth Care philosophy challenged when being required to use a structured interview technique (Kipling, 2007).

For more than twenty years the literature has supported the complementary role that social workers and Child and Youth Care workers can have in working with families. “The team of social worker, child care worker and family is also underscored by their involvement in one another’s sphere of activity” (Garland, 1987). The issue of a separate professional identity has also been contested for years. “For more than 20 years Child and Youth Care workers in South Africa have struggled for recognition by our colleagues in professions such as social work, education and psychology” (DuToit, 2000).

There are tertiary educational programs in Child and Youth Care around the world offering diplomas, bachelor’s degrees, and graduate schools offering both Masters and Doctoral credentials. South Africa is lagging behind, but do offer programs for the four year degree and potentially a Master’s credential. Why does the debate continue?

What we do and where we do it does not need further articulation. However, describing the sophistication and professional complexity required to do it well is lacking at times. Other professional groups clearly don’t have a desire to replace Child and Youth Care practitioners in the daily lives of hard to manage youth or to spend hours in the life space of struggling families, yet there is a belief, particularly among some social workers, that Child and Youth Care practice is just a specific version of social work.

Child and youth care family work can include doing things that most professionals would consider quite extraordinary and too intimate to fit the boundary ethics prescribed by their professional body. Child and youth care family workers may help families bury children (Umbumbulu Isibindi project, 2007), or fix appliances in the course of their daily interactions with families (Phelan, 2004). The use of life space interactions to create connection and change requires the Child and Youth Care practitioner to be experiential and physically present in a way that most other professionals avoid. So it seems that even though no other group wants to do the Child and Youth Care job, there is a need to claim that this expertise falls within someone else’s scope of practice.

Hopefully, describing the skill set and knowledge required to be a competent Child and Youth Care practitioner and articulating the complexity involved in effectively utilizing life space interactions will create clarity.

Relationship is a multi- dimensional concept in Child and Youth Care work. The first layer is the ability to establish safe, equal relationships with suspicious, poorly attached people. This is the obvious, yet very complex, first step required to do effective Child and Youth Care interventions. Safe relationships then create the possibility of connecting with people’s strengths, and developing the direct knowledge referred to earlier by Halpin and Austin (VanderVen, 1993). This does not occur in an office, but in the life space, a sometimes wildly uncontrollable place. The next layer of relationship is the relationship between the person(s) being helped and their social context. Child and youth care practitioners relate to the relationships that people have with the coercive systems around them; schools, jobs, social workers, police, etc. as well as the spousal, parental, friend and familial connections in their lives. As a person increases the desire for positive relationships in his/her life, and develops the ability to have positive relationships through the physical experiences provided by his interactions with the Child and Youth Care professional, he becomes more capable of functioning effectively.

Developing the professional expertise to do these levels of relational work is the core of the Child and Youth Care educational/experiential process. Initially, physical skills are stressed and doing things that establish trust are key. Then emotional strength is emphasized as you are required to join people in their despair and fear. In addition, reflective practice and even spiritual resilience is required as the Child and Youth Care professional connects at a more intimate level. Personal change theory and strategies to increase competence and hope become part of the knowledge base, within the context of gender, attachment, loss and family dynamics. The parallel process of separation and closure, which is essential and yet potentially devastating to the person who has finally learned to trust another being, demands clear boundaries within this intimate connection. Few professionals engage at this level.

Utilizing everyday experiences in people’s life space to create growth can look simple and unsophisticated to the outside observer, yet competent Child and Youth Care workers know how much strategy and deep thinking is required to do this well. We work with people who don’t respond to the demands of normal life capably, generally because they are developmentally stuck at levels which create poor judgement and behaviour. The ability to join people in these seemingly immature viewpoints and not lose direction requires a thorough knowledge of developmental theory and a creative, often playful, mind.

Joining with people demands a non-expert stance, a respect for sometimes very personally challenging behaviours and beliefs, and clear, yet intimate boundaries. There is no safe office, desk, couch, or threat of social control to buffer the worker. Professional child and youth work requires consulting with a well trained team and receiving sensitive supervision as a support for the reflective process. Competent, experienced Child and Youth Care practitioners cannot imagine being labelled as nonprofessional, or belonging to social work, psychology or any other allied group. But to the untrained eye, sometimes there is still an ongoing curiosity.


Anglin, J. (2001). Child and youth care: a unique profession. Child and Youth Care Online, 35.

Anglin, J. (1999). The uniqueness of Child and Youth Care, a personal perspective. Child and Youth Care Forum, 28, (2). pp. 143-149.

Bates, R. (2005). A search for synergy: the Child and Youth Care educated child protection worker. Child and Youth Care Forum, 34, (2), pp. 99-110.

DuToit, L. (2000). Legislated professional boards: Child and Youth Care soon to achieve full recognition as a profession in South Africa? Child and Youth Care Onine, 16.

Garland, D. (1987). Residential chid care workers as primary agents of family intervention. Child Care Quarterly, 16, (l). pp. 27-29.

Kipling, M. (2007). A clash where personal philosophy meets practice. Child and Youth Care Online, 97.

Phelan, J.(2003). Child and Youth Care family support work, pp. 127-137. In T. Garfat (Ed). A Child and Youth Care approach to working with families. New York. Haworth.

Phelan, J. (2005). Child and youth care education: the creation of articulate practitioners. Child and Youth Care Forum, 34, (5). pp. 347-356.

Smith, M. (2005). Applying ideas from learning and teaching in higher education to develop professional identity: the case of the M.Sc. in advanced residential care. Child and Youth Care Forum, 34,(4). pp. 261-278.

Smith, M. (2002). Stands Scotland where it did? Perspectives and possibilities for Child and Youth Care. Child and Youth Care Online, 47.

Trisiliotis, J. & Marsh, P (1996). Ready to practice? Social workers and probation officers: their training and their first year in work. Aldershot. Avebury.

Umbumbulu Isibindi project team discussion, personal communication, (July,2007).

VanderVen, Karen.(1993). Program in Child Development and Child Care, School of Social Work. Child and Youth Care Forum, 22, (4). pp. 263-284.

This feature: Phelan, J. (2007). The profession called Child and Youth Care work. Child and Youth Care Work, 25, 11. pp. 4-6.

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