CYC-Online 27 APRIL 2001
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On being a child and youth care worker

Leanne Rose

Note from the Editor of the Journal of Child and Youth Care in which this article was first published:

Is child and youth care something you do? Or is it something you are? Can you describe one without the other?

Somehow even the best of the academic definitions of child and youth care work fall short of effectively describing what it is that we do. Usually that's because they leave out the person of the worker and try to describe the experience in terms that speak of tasks, behaviors and activities. While this type of description is obviously necessary, it misses the point that child and youth care is an interactive process within which each party to the interaction reacts, changes, grows and develops in response to their experience with the other.

In this piece Leanne describes some of her evolution in to being a child and youth care worker and calls on some of what she has done to indicate how the process of discovering hers elf depended on how she was, or wanted to be, with the children with whom she worked. She shares with us some of the personal experience which must inevitably accompany our professional development if we can only allow ourselves to be open to it. As you read her account, we would ask you to reflect upon your own experiences with children and try to remember the ways in which your encounters with them have contributed to your development.

It is often said, in our field, that we learn from the children. Leanne gives us a striking example of how this is so.

My immediate task is to define exactly what it is that I do in my profession as a child and youth care worker. A working definition could be that I provide “therapeutic care for children and adolescents within their life space." Although this definition is perhaps rather vague in terms of my actual duties, it seems to capture the essence of my day-to-day job. As well, I sense that it reflects the core of who I am. In what follows, I will attempt to track my development as a professional through my encounters with the children with whom I have worked, for it is they who have taught me the truth of being a child and youth care worker.

"Therapeutic caregiving" has not always been the way that I would describe my work with children. I began working with this impressionable age group when I was still only an adolescent myself. Employed as a playground leader in a small Northern British Columbia town, my duty was to provide recreation and summer activities to children in the community. I know that I was not aware of how important and huge this task was, nor were those in charge of the programs aware either. My first experience was with Andrew.

Andrew was a boy of seven years who was full of energy, somewhat defiant, and very vocal. He derived pleasure from ruining other children's art work, physically overpowering the younger children, and driving the playground leaders almost to the point of insanity (or at least that's how we viewed it at that time). On one particular day, in our wisdom, we decided that in order to maintain control of the playground, Andrew had to be “dealt with!" That day Andrew spent approximately two hours gagged and tied up in the corner of the gymnasium while the other children participated in the fun activities. He didn't cry, struggle, or display anger; he only sat there until we untied him, and then he went home without a word spoken.

The next day Andrew arrived at the playground in a large blue car which poured out black smoke from its exhaust. The man behind the wheel was rough and unclean looking and my immediate thought was to go to the washroom and let my co-worker deal with any possible confrontations which might arise. To my amazement, the car drove away leaving Andrew standing on the sidewalk looking boldly at me. It was only when he approached me that I noticed the bruises on his face, and it was only later that day when we all went swimming that I noticed the welts on his back.

I won't begin to make excuses for the abhorrent act for which I was responsible that summer. I can only recognize the shift that I made after my experience with Andrew. My passion became to understand children; those who came from difficult homes, those who lacked love, and those who needed more than a “summer playground." It was through this experience that I knew I was a child and youth care worker.

Despite this knowledge, I find it very difficult to explain what it means to be a child and youth care worker. To me, it is the core of my being. It is reflected in how I live my life and how I value those human beings with whom I share the world. This notion of being a child and youth care worker is now integrated into my very existence; but it did not enter my consciousness overnight.

Throughout my university days, I was fairly unaware of myself. My life was colored with the struggle to mold myself into the academic structure and pump out information in a way that would be conducive to receiving good grades and eventually, my Bachelor of Arts degree. Although the information was of interest, I was struggling at some level with what the “real" world of child and youth care looked like. With the attainment of a formal hop on the head and the ceremonial shifting of the tassel on my mortar board, I was ready to hit the world as a “qualified" child and youth care worker.

My first job was in a compulsory care unit for adolescents in a small southern Alberta town. “Compulsory care" was a component of the Juvenile Delinquents Act in existence at that time, which allowed for the confinement of children and youth. Children under these compulsory care orders were often quite emotionally disturbed and violent. The combination of these two elements, in addition to locks on every door and window to prevent children going outdoors, was deadly. Quickly, I began to see that textbook child and youth care was much different than the real McCoy!

Enter Darren. Darren was the most violent and distressed child that I have worked with in my career. He was assigned to me, with the mandate that I was to complete a behavioral/social assessment and make recommendations as to a placement which would be appropriate for him at the end of his “locked" period. I set out to perform the proper “core" component of good child and youth care: establish a relationship. The first two weeks, often referred to as the “honeymoon' period, were a successful “relationship building" venture. Darren and I became real friends and he began to open up and share with me the hardships of his life. Through our discussions it became apparent that he wanted to be loved unconditionally by someone in his life. Wanting desperately to prove my dedication as a child and youth care worker, I vowed silently to be the one.

Over the course of the next five months Darren ran the gamut of behavior, from running away from our “secure" unit, physically assaulting staff with a curtain rod he had ripped off the wall, and punching the walls till the blood flowed from his hands, to being a wonderful, fun-loving child who sought out affection from the staff and contributed actively in what seemed to be his progress towards becoming emotionally healthy. Despite all these setbacks in my attempt to “cure" this child, I still vowed to be the one that didn't give up, the one professional that didn't desert this lonely boy.

The recommendations I made to the Department were well investigated and well thought out, and represented many months of first hand exploration into the life events and personal struggles of Darren. None of them were acted on. Darren was moved into another region of the province where he knew no one and I was discouraged by his social worker from staying in contact with him. I ignored this request and diligently wrote to Darren to let him know (and to prove to myself) that I was going to be a “true" child and youth care worker.

I soon learned the reality of the child welfare system, as well as how the system hinders the therapeutic nature of child and youth care. Darren did not receive the treatment that he needed; he had never been able to form a meaningful and lasting bond with someone, nor did he receive the unconditional love he yearned for. It was through Darren that I realized that my position as a child and youth care worker is dependent upon a bureaucratic system. I also came to understand that the therapeutic nature of child and youth care has to exist primarily in the here and now, and that somewhere the consistency of care for children, and our responsibility as a society to our youth, was lost in a politicized system.

My passion changed. No longer was I committed to just one child; I began to understand the need for me to be clear about who I was and what child and youth care was for me, so that I could effect change for all children in care. It was through Darren that I began to understand that child and youth care is who l am, it is not just what I do. I'll have to thank him someday.

My movement within my professional career from this point on became very calculated. I began to check out my perception of myself as a child and youth care worker in other settings and alongside fellow co-workers. My next professional experience in Alberta can be summed up in one word: Kenny. Kenny was nine years old, a skinny kid with thick glasses and a wonderfully warm smile. Kenny's mother and father had both died in a car accident and he had been placed in our receiving and assessment home until an appropriate placement could be found. The “system" immediately took over his care, deciding that he should have no contact with his older sister and should not be allowed to attend his parents' funeral. We, the lowly child and youth care workers, obeyed and promptly set up a case management plan for Kenny. Kenny was the first younger child that I worked with ma residential care setting and his innocence about life and his need for a different level of caring was immediately apparent. Much time was spent reading bedtime stories to Kenny, helping him wash his hands and face at night, and running bubble baths for him. The flip side of caring for Kenny was exhaustive and troubling. Over the next three months he was physically restrained at least once everyday. On some days the staff would be “holding" him for a greater part of the eight hour shift. Our professionally designed case plans, intervention plans, behavior management plans, etc., were all destroyed by Kenny within a few days, leaving us with an immense feeling of being unable to properly meet this child's emotional needs.

I could write a novel about the lessons that I learned from Kenny. He taught me how afraid we are to deal with loss, how we devise curriculum that is behaviorally oriented and expect that it will deal with the root of our humanness: our emotions and spirit. He also taught me how resourceful we become when we need to have our physical and emotional needs met. You see, I know that Kenny did not need to be restrained physically every day; he was in total control. What he did need, which he got, was someone to hold him and spend time with him while he grieved. Unfortunately for Kenny, and for all the other kids in our facility at that time, few of us had an understanding of what it meant to provide therapeutic caring for children and adolescents in their life space.

My work with Kenny also heightened my awareness of the true value of child and youth care. The psychological assessment of Kenny was completed by a psychologist who spent two hours administering psychological tests. From those two hours came a report which made statements about the “functioning level" of this young man. They pegged him as emotionally disturbed, attention seeking, lacking in self-esteem, and so on. When I read the report I began to realize the critical nature of my work in the “life space" of the child or youth. I was the one who ate with him; I was the one who played games with him; I was the one who held him; I was the one who read him stories at night; I was the one who disciplined him; I was the one who dealt with the school when there were problems; I was the one who took him shopping for new clothes. Yet the psychologist had all the impact, all the status to affect this child's life. It was somewhere in the midst of this realization that I made the decision to be a true therapeutic caregiver; I made the decision to understand the child or youth, not as a “case" to be solved, but as a victim of circumstance who needed some human understanding and support to overcome the barriers that lay before him or her. I began to see the children and youth I worked with as possessing power, and as being fortunate to have child and youth care workers to help guide them. I don't mean that they should be grateful that child and youth care workers are a part of their lives, but rather that we should begin to view our role as the most important and essential role for children in care.

With this new outlook on my worth as a child and youth care worker, I ventured out to find a workplace that held the same philosophy as I did. I moved to a large city and began my directorship of a community program, where I met Heather. As with Kenny, the lessons I learned from her were numerous. This particular encounter added to my understanding of “therapeutic caring of children and youth in their life space."

Heather was a young lady who had lived most of her pre- and early adolescence on the street, a victim of female oppression, selling her body as a means to survive and belong somewhere. Heather had been described in all previous reports as “sexually promiscuous," “emotionally disturbed," “displaying inappropriate sexual behavior," and soon. Heather and I quickly developed a relationship and spent long hours just talking as two human beings, rather than as professional and client. We discussed the various sexual acts that she had been forced to perform in her job as a prostitute (such as dressing up in strange garments, or being with clients who wanted to urinate on her); we discussed the money that was paid to her and the percentage that she got after it was turned over to her pimp; and we discussed the physical and mental abuse she received from her pimp. All this was done with little or no emotion displayed by Heather.

Heather met Mathew through our program. The attraction was instant and within a week Mathew had asked her out for a date. She was excited but we all assumed that this sort of thing would be “old hat" to Heather given her past occupation. The day after the date Heather came into my office and closed the door. She didn't take my chair this time, which had become a ritual of ours, but rather sat in what we had termed the “client chair," She look at me sheepishly, blushing and avoiding eye contact, and then said in an innocent, child-like voice: “He kissed me." I hugged her.

I have paused a long while since writing this account with Heather, and it has brought tears to my eyes again. To me, that is what being a child and youth care worker is. That is “therapeutic caring of the child and youth in their life space." That is what no other human service profession appears able to do: understand the child or youth as a person, as another human being, by sharing with them their living space, developing a relationship, and providing therapeutic caregiving.

When I look at what I have just written, I realize that it is only through this process of identifying and exchanging experiences that I have come to an understanding of whom I have truly learned from: the children and youth. They are the ones who have fostered my growth; they are what being a therapeutic caregiver is all about. And because of that, I want to end this with a poem which was written by a young girl and shared with me in order to help me understand her as a person just a little bit better.


Natasha dances upon her toes;
for every heart but her own.
She cries tears of snow;
for everybody's pain but hers.
And at night as she lays down to sleep
She wipes the smile off her face...
And soon begins to weep.

Acknowledgements to Journal of Child and Youth Care Volume 5 Number 1, 1990 p. 161-166

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