The day I embarked on this journey comes back to me vividly. When I asked at my interview what my job will entail, I noticed the three people sitting in the room look at each other and the Principal replied, “You will be responsible for taking care of a group of children in a cottage.” At that time nobody seemed to know exactly what we were called. Our species were commonly known as housemothers. Some of us of course wanted it to be fancy and called ourselves “counselors”, but today, I am proud to say that I am a Child and Youth Care Worker.
It was a Sunday in 1984 when my journey began. I was requested to come in that afternoon and report to the house parents who were on duty. When I arrived, everything was quiet and peaceful. I was informed that the young people were placed with their families and hosts for the weekend. Little did I realize, that this was part of the re-unification process. This contact helped to maintain relationships with loved ones, so that eventually young people could be reunited with their families and communities – where they belonged.
The peace was short-lived! I was soon thrown into confusion when suddenly there were children of all sizes and ages all over the place, some carrying pots and pans and using them as drums, causing quite a racket in the process, while others were carrying bags arriving from their weekend! A meal was being donated, and that particular unit had the responsibility to distribute the food to all the other houses. That evening after supper, I was to receive a further shock! There was a mountain of dishes and I was requested to wash them with the assistance of one of the boys.
The children of course, were another experience, some very friendly, others somewhat curious. But to be surrounded by so many young people at once, was a bit too much! That night I went to bed exhausted and had a very troubled sleep. I had a decision to make!
I am not sure what prompted me, but I decided to give it a try. I started at a time when the organization was in the process of employing single people. Involving single people facilitated the move towards professionalism, with supervision structures and training being introduced. The idea of house-parents somehow left children thinking in terms of a mother/father figure.
My experience of working with young people was challenging and at times frustrating, but also humorous and enriching. Child care work involves basic yet complex day to day issues that are pertinent to the healing and development of young people. We must never assume anything, or take things for granted. This I learnt from Rebecca, a 13 year old. I asked Rebecca to put the kettle on and a few minutes later, there was a smell of burning rubber and smoke coming from the kitchen. I dashed in, only to find the electric kettle sitting on the hotplate with the rubber at the bottom melting away.
Then there was Leo, who was four and profoundly deaf. Between us we managed to concoct our own sign language and so understand each other. To my horror, I found that Leo could swear quite fluently. I discovered one day that he had a good teacher, a youth, who taught him to lip-read these words. Later, Leo was transferred to a special school that would meet his needs. I visited him three years ago and he engulfed me in a bear hug, a young man towering over me, a far cry from the frightened child I knew.
My understanding of child care work expanded over the years, through supervision, in-service training, courses in child care and my studies for the Tech. We now have clear guidelines to work from: the Practice Principles, the Minimum Standards for the Child and Youth Care System, as well as the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child.
We need to be creative and respect each individual’s uniqueness and not use the mentality of one-size-fits-all. Each young person's needs are different and we need to take this into consideration in their permanency planning when drawing up their individual developmental plans. In the multi-disciplinary team approach all the role-players are significant members of the team, including the young person and families. We need to consult with each other when important decisions regarding the young person need to be made. We need to be accountable for our service delivery and to hold others accountable for what they do. Who are we to judge a mother who is sex-worker, or a parent who is an alcoholic?
Child and youth care is finally recognized as a profession. Child and youth care work is just not limited to residential facilities. Workers can now offer services in a much broader context, with the goal of ensuring families are re-united and preserved wherever possible.
On reflection, I made many mistakes and learnt from them through guided supervision and consultation. It’s been a long walk to professionalism, and this is where the challenge unfolds. These are exciting times to be in this field. There are so many opportunities. Child and youth care work is hard work, and requires commitment and dedication. But I know that the decision I made those many years ago, was not a mistake ... it was meant to be!
This feature: Naidoo, D. (2005) Reflections of my journey in Child and Youth Care. Child and Youth Care. Vol. 23(1), p. 23