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28 MAY 2001
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readers' questions

What do we mean by 'developmental'? – III

“Child and youth care programs – particularly the residential ones – are constantly encouraged to adopt a developmental approach. What does “developmental” mean in our context?” This is the third of three parts. (See Part I and Part II)

In answering this question, we suggested that there are probably three senses in which the word “developmental” is used in relation to Child and Youth Care work.

  1. That our interventions take into account and are paced by what we know of human development;

  2. That our interventions themselves have a “life span" along which they must grow and move; and

  3. That what we learn about “problems" and “solutions" as we work with individual children, youth and families, must be reinvested in the development of families, communities and societies so that we can move beyond a repeating or “revolving door" clientele.

Tertiary interventions are always best kept as brief as possible, firstly because they too easily upset responsibility and dependency balances while we are all agreed that we should always be moving clients towards autonomous function; and secondly because tertiary interventions have to be justified in terms of cost.

When we undertake an intervention in respect of youth in our program, we are always concerned about two things: the first: their personal development and function, and the second: the contexts or systems within which they are living and growing. So, for example, attention to the young person's family, school, neighbourhood and society are as important as our clinical focus on the individual.

The family
The primary group in which most of our young people are trying to manage is the family. Inevitably the families we work with are often themselves in difficulties. They may be single-parent families, or families struggling with poverty, unemployment, addictions, discord, illness or some other incapacity. This has resulted in shortcomings or interruptions in the meeting of the youngster’s needs – for care, safety, affection, support, discipline, etc. From the day we include a youth in our program (whether it is residential or community-based) we have an eye on the capacity building which is needed if the family is to be able to reassume responsibility for that youth.

So while we are working “developmentally” with the young person (see Parts I and II of this series), we are also working to develop resources, attitudes and skills within the family so that they may be able to function independently again. Enhancing resources may mean discovering and enlisting the help of extended family members, relations or siblings. It may mean “plugging leaks" in existing resources, for example, recognising other family members who are a drain on the family’s strengths so that “our" youth is being short-changed in the economy of the family. Often there is a situation which can be remedied relatively easily (attending to an illness, finding a job for a family member) so that some energy is freed up for the young person in our program. (Families often become submerged by the weight of problems, and they start to use survival methods of coping instead of problem-solving methods).

The community
There have been many studies which identify the characteristics of the communities from which children and youth are most often referred to service agencies. In Cape Town a street children's project went so far as to pinpoint specific streets from which a significant proportion of street children were coming. Such knowledge is vital to agencies working in these communities since it gives clues for the prevention of family breakdown and the removal of children. Many agencies will extend their own preventive services into such communities which are in any event “feeder" communities for their services. It is an important developmental task for an agency to find ways to “shore up" vulnerable attributes of a community, allowing it a better chance to sustain itself without needing help from “outside". Very often a particular community might have been able to manage satisfactorily had it not been for intrusions or changes in its social or economic ecology which were beyond its control or no fault of its own – alterations in city bus routes, closure of a factory, shifts in gang territory, the arrival of a liquor outlet or a drug round – and an agency may be able to plant seeds which alter the balance of the equation for that community.

These “seeds" may be very simple and practical (a transport plan, home industries) or the assembling of resources and leadership in an accessible program (a community house, after-school care). The agency may wish to do this itself or in partnership with another service organisation – but will always do so from within and in co-operation with the community. In this type of intervention NGOs frequently quote the principle of Lao Tse (700BC):

Go with the people
Live with them
Learn from them
Love them.
Start with what they know
Build with what they have.
But of the best leaders,
when the job is done,
the task accomplished,
The people will all say
We have done this ourselves.

Developmental community interventions usually operate from the principle that any local neighbourhood has the right to certain sub-minimal resources and structures so that it can sustain its own adequate function with dignity and self respect, without requiring “help" and “intervention" from outside. An honest tertiary service, rather than indulging in “empire building" or justifying its existence on the grounds of its “growing clientele", would want to ensure that its “feeder" communities at least had the chance to function independently. If our program is honest about children's rights, for example, one of our goals would be to be able to close down our child and family services because they wouldn’t be needed!

Also, what this third level of “developmental practice" is ultimately challenging us to do, is to become involved in the politics and strategies of advocacy on behalf of all children, youth and families – not only those we work with at a curative and rehabilitative level in our agencies.

Society needs to be kept informed about what we discover in our work “on the floor" with troubled kids and their families – and we are the people who should do this.

One of our most important duties is to document, objectively and thoroughly, what we learn from our experience with each youth and family. We are quite good at doing this within our field, as the serious journals devoted to Child and Youth Care practice, together with our regular regional and national conferences all over the world, will attest.

But what we document, we also need to broadcast to the world beyond our field. One thing which devalues our profession is that we are not articulate about the lessons we learn. We short-change ourselves and our society if we fail to report back on the understandings we gain from our practice. I believe, for example, that we should make a practice of including in all of our conferences a slot in which we address ourselves outwards to our society. We can say to ordinary children, youth and families; to school pupils, teachers and educational administrators and theorists; to those who work in related fields, to academics, to government and policymakers, “This is what we have learned from our work. Here are some ideas and recommendations – and offers of partnership and help. And here are some issues which we see as critical, so expect us to continue to express ourselves on these with vigour."

In summary, what the word “developmental" means in the context of Child and Youth Care work, is that