CYC-Online 15 APRIL 2000
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What exactly is child and youth care work?

Helen Starke

We continue this series in which we consider the essence of child and youth care work ...

How do we define what it is that we do as child and youth care workers? I suggested two areas:

  1. Services to the child: To provide neat, clean and attractive buildings and facilities; to provide a caring, predictable, consistent and structured environment for children; to meet children's needs – physical, emotional, social, spiritual, educational. The children's home should be a place in which the child can develop to his full potential and be prepared to take his place in society.

  2. Services to the family: To see and accept the family as an integral part of the child's life; to share with the parents the responsibility of caring for the child; to facilitate child-parent contact. As contacts between the child and family occur at the children's home, and the home receives information from the child concerning his family, it is necessary that the children's home play a role in helping the family.

Ferguson and Anglin (1985) continue these themes, but take them a little further. They suggest four elements as being the essence of child and youth care.

  1. Child and youth care is primarily focussed on the growth and development of children and youth. While families, communities, and organisations are important concerns for child and youth care professionals, they are viewed as contexts for the care of children. The development of children and youth is the core.

  2. Child and youth care is concerned with the totality of child development and functioning. The focus is on persons living through a certain portion of the human life cycle rather than with one facet of functioning, as is characteristic of most other human service disciplines. For example, physiotherapists are concerned primarily with physical health, psychiatrists with mental health, probation officers with criminal behaviour, teachers with education, and so on. Only the emerging field of gerontology appears to share child and youth care's concern with the life cycle as a totality.

  3. Child and youth care has developed within a model of social competence rather than within a model of pathology. Child and youth care workers view the behaviour of children and youth from a developmental perspective and they design interventions that build on the existing strengths and abilities of the individual. Therapeutic relationships require a high level of personal and professional development on the part of the practitioner and require the integration of a complex constellation of knowledge, skills, and elements of self.

  4. Child and youth care is based on (but not restricted to) direct, day-to-day work with children in their environment. Unlike many other professionals, child and youth care practitioners do not operate in a single setting or on an interview or session-oriented basis. Children and youth are worked with in their own environments, whether they are residential centres, schools, hospitals, family homes, or the street. Although child and youth care workers also assume supporting roles such as supervising, directing, training, policy-making, and researching, they remain grounded in direct care work. Caring and professionalism are not mutually exclusive entities, and the challenge to the child and youth care field is that of evolving in a manner which acknowledges both the human and technical aspects of professionalism and maintains a good balance between them.

Everyday life events
Thom Garfat explains that the method of intervention of child and youth care workers is unique – “the use of the events of daily living in the systems of which a youth is a part – including family." There is a paradox here. The words 'everyday events' suggest the routine, the non technical and the unimportant tasks. Yet it was here, in the everyday events, that the child's development and function became impaired and problematic, and the child and youth care worker's skill lies exactly here, in getting the youngster's days to start going right again.

Ainsworth emphasises that basic care is the core requirement of the children and the cornerstone of child care practice. He reflects the 24-hour nature of the work when he goes on to remind direct care workers that they “are responsible for these things all the time. They are the people who have the most power to influence what happens to children. It is, in fact, strange that direct care workers often feel the reverse about this and express powerlessness. It is even stranger that programmes should sometimes disregard their importance and their powerfulness."

Knowledge and skills
Work in what Fritz Redl called the “life space" of troubled children is about creating and managing caring and helpful environments – but it is so much more. One look at the curricula for the various child and youth care courses suggests a wide range of specific skills and techniques: child development, behaviour management, communication, relationship building, counselling and activity programming to name a few.

Ainsworth warns that this is not merely basic knowledge about children – “practitioners themselves have to acquire a great deal of special knowledge. The assumption that they will acquire this knowledge as a consequence of working with children, or derive it from their own childhood, is not valid. In the main, sophisticated knowledge about child development is knowledge acquired first through study and is only secondly tempered by direct experience."

One of the reasons why the formal development of child and youth care work is so necessary today, is that in the past, without any professional or career structure, we relied on those few inspired and charismatic leaders who seemed to have a natural ability to “do" child care work – but who left no systematic theory and practice base behind when they moved on. We are now in a period of accountability, both in terms of what we do and what we spend. It is no longer acceptable that we fail to build a more reliable practice and career structure. Gains made in knowledge and skill must be recorded, documented and preserved, thus available to those who come after us.

Ferguson and Anglin, in addition to the four elements mentioned earlier, refer to three levels of child and youth care work: front line worker, supervisor and director. The work must not only be able to be applied horizontally across a number of practice settings, but must also be extended in this way vertically so that our practitioners, our teachers/supervisors and our leaders share common, developing, theory and practice reference points.


Ainsworth. E (1985) Direct care practitioners as promoters of child development. Journal of Child and Youth Care Work, 1.2

Ferguson. R.V. and Anglin, J. (1985) The child care profession: A vision for the future. Child Care Quarterly, 14: 85-102

Starke, H. (1989) Consumers' expectations of children's homes. The Child Care Worker, 7.3

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