CYC-Online 104 SEPTEMBER 2007
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Articulating a Child and Youth Care approach to family work

Lahn Jones

Within the context of Child and Youth Care, there seems to be an ever-widening gulf between the theory of our practice and its functional application. I believe this disassociation is the result of Child and Youth Care practice lacking a consummate identity, as its practitioners struggle to define themselves at the exclusion of other humanities. The definition and distinction of Child and Youth Care methodology from traditional counseling approaches is essential if its practitioners are to take their place upon the political and world stage. Though this is necessary to the health of the profession, solidification of identity should not be achieved through the denial of its benefactors, but rather by embracing and acknowledging them. Child and Youth Care practice is dynamic, adaptive, fluid, and founded on a uniquely relational orientation towards its clients. It is possessed of the ability to incorporate into its practice the best that can be offered from all other disciplines, particularly psychology and social work, without losing its own identity in the process. One of the greatest benefactors to current Child and Youth Care Practice is Solution-Focused Therapy. This approach has become integral to the instruction, creation, and methodological implementation and conception of present Child and Youth Care practice. The term solution-focused is touted and espoused amongst Child and Youth Care practitioners regularly, manifest in team meetings, program planning, service delivery, individual program plans, and common technical jargon. But how alike are these two methodologies really? There are definitive similarities and differences between these two paradigms, explicable through a discourse of their relative approach towards their respective theoretical basis, conceptualization of change, and the role of the practitioner.

Theoretical Overview and Orientation

Theoretical Basis: Solution-Focused Theory
Fundamentally, solution-focused practice is indicative of a divergence from traditional psychoanalytical models by focusing exclusively on solutions to current presenting issues, rather than resolving pathological maladies rooted in the clients' past. It is founded upon an open systems concept, which embraces cooperation between the therapists' sub-system and the clients' sub-system; creating a supra-system which encompasses both (De Shazer, 1991). This cooperation is a conceptually redefined manifestation of traditional “resistance", which accepts this “resistance" as an inevitable cornerstone of the two subsystems' interaction, rather than endemic of family subsystem inflexibility (De Shazer, 1984). It is not uncommon for this approach to be utilized from within an ecosystems framework as a form of brief therapy, and for the purposes of this discussion, brief family therapy. As such, the therapeutic experience can be short, intense, and costly, spanning between 5 and 10 sessions (Gladding, 1998).

Conceptualizations of Change
Solution-focused theory holds to the belief that all clients both have the ability to change, and actively seek out that change to correct their maladaptive behaviours (Gladding, 1998). This theory maintains that large change is counterproductive to the encouragement of the change cycle, considering small change to be a more immediate reminder of identified successes in many areas of the clients' life experience. This “ripple effect" (Spiegel & Linn, 1969), or ability to recognize and apply perceived competence from one aspect of life to another, supports both parties' expectations of success and change. Another fundamental belief of this theory is that families and individuals are capable, being possessed of intrinsic competencies that enable them to manage the complexities of their lives. Central to the effectiveness of solution-focused therapy is the inclusion and consideration of the cultural and social context within which each client originates. It anchors each therapeutic intervention within that family’s experience, and constructs solutions in collaboration with the client in order to change the family’s organization and structure (Gladding). This orientation is consistent with social constructivism, which is a philosophy that identifies the construction of individual realties as emanating from the extrapolation of personal experience. It was De Shazer’s (1991) belief that brief family therapy focuses on: interactional sequences in the present and is aimed at describing exceptions to the rule of the compliant and prototypes or precursors of the solution that the client has overlooked, thus intervening to help the client do more of what has already worked (p. 58).

Role of the Therapist and Relations to Power
Within Solution-Focused Theory, the therapist is conceived of as a facilitator of change. Gladding (1998) wrote that solution-focused therapists constantly convey “positive assumptions about change" (p.261), as this theory holds to an Ericksonian position that individual change is inevitable (Gladding). The therapists' collective focus is on the identification of competencies, and moving the clients to a place of understanding and acceptance of these skills. From this place, the therapist shows the clients how to use these abilities creatively to solve their own problems. The therapist focuses throughout the sessions on helping the clients maintain an outlook that is future-oriented, empowering, and hopeful. This theory utilizes an active team approach, which usually entails the presence of other solution-focused therapists. During clients' sessions, these additional therapists remain concealed behind one-way glass providing additional feedback to the attending therapist (or conductor) during scheduled breaks (Gladding). Though there are variations to the application of this theory, the fundamental principles remain the same. Solution-focused therapy is considered to be over when the clients have reached the agreed-upon outcome specified at the beginning of the therapeutic process (Gladding).

Theoretical Basis: Child and Youth Care
The theoretical basis for Child and Youth Care is the creation and maintenance of the therapeutic relationship from within the life space of the client. All other intervention strategies and theoretical applications are secondary to the creation and maintenance of this vital element (Phelan, 2003). The reality of Child and Youth Care family work is that the majority of clients do not initially want practitioners to be involved in their life, having had interventions imposed upon them by societal intervention rather than resulting from individual assent. In light of this, practitioners embrace a strength-based approach to practice, one that is enlightened by the majority of practitioners having spent time honing their skills in residential settings. Succinctly, the Child and Youth Care approach to family work means “being with [families] while they are doing what they do. It means the utilization of daily life events as they are occurring for therapeutic purposes" (Garfat, as cited in Shaw & Garfat, 2003, p.43). It also acknowledges the families as the experts, holding to the belief that families should parent their own children. Client behavior is contextually anchored within the family, including the determination of what needs are being met as a result of these behaviors. This information is garnered through the practitioners' active interactions with the client from within the life space. In others words, the practitioner observes behaviors and co-creates intervention strategies from within the family by “hanging out and sharing experiences" (Shaw & Garfat, 2003, p. 49). Once problematic areas are co-defined by the client and practitioner, common experiences are created by the practitioner to help challenge, and offer alternatives to, self-defeating dynamics. During this process of being with the family, exceptions to identified problematic areas are highlighted for the family in the moment of their occurrence, immediately reinforcing their in-context significance, while simultaneously offering support, guidance, and alternative methods of coping (Phelan, 2003).

Foundationally, there is a belief that boundaries within the family subsystem are necessary for healthy differentiation to occur, and it is therefore the helper’s role to become the personification of appropriate boundaries for that system (Minuchin, 1974). In order for the helper to succeed in this endeavor, it is necessary to learn both the implicit and explicit rules of the family system (Shaw & Garfat, 2003). This learning, extrapolating, and application, is rendered from within an ecological systems perspective. Child and Youth Care methodology is invested in creating healthy functioning individuals capable of maintaining a self-sustaining existence within the community context in which they intend to function. As such, all interventions are founded from within that context, with additional focus on co-creating healthy connections and functioning for the client within that community.

Conceptualizations of Change
Child and Youth Care practice holds the belief that each family and youth possesses the potential for change. In this light, there is a perception that “families are open systems, [which] means that they are adaptive and goal-directed and therefore have the potential to find solutions and affect [sic] change" (Shaw & Garfat, 2003, p. 46). This potential for change is not relegated solely to the client, as an integral part to practicing Child and Youth Care is personal change, reflection, and development. The method of this change is not focused on isolated academic reflections, but rather on the constant learning that is gleaned through the dynamic inter-relationships among people. Child and Youth Care workers believe that there is as much, or more, to be gained in personal development through these interactions, as there is for the clients they serve. For the client, change is conceived as the creation of learning experiences focused upon small progressional change. Interventions and change are seen through a long-term lens founded within developmental theory; meaning that interactions and interventions are designed to address clients at their current developmental level. Practitioners actively engage in the creation and maintenance of situations designed to challenge and encourage clients to move through developmentally necessary milestones. It is understood that in order to create healthy human beings capable of sustaining continued positive growth throughout their life cycle, challenging behaviours will have to be endured (Phelan, 2003).

Role of the Helper and Relations to Power
Child and Youth Care practice is intimately concerned with the appropriate management of power. This theoretical paradigm focuses upon accepting and valuing the beliefs inherent in each family system as unique and necessary (Shaw & Garfat, 2003). Shaw and Garfat (2003) strenuously point out, “[w]e do not do therapy" (p. 49). As such, skilled practitioners become mindful of the rhythm of the family, and learn to integrate their presence such that it becomes a therapeutic function of the family’s living landscape (Shaw & Garfat, 2003). This approach necessitates awareness and competence to be able to support the family’s need by being physically available during times of crisis rather than distantly respondent (Shaw & Garfat, 2003.

Generally Child and Youth Care workers do not emerge from their academic training prepared to enter into family work. Much of the skill base and hands-on practice required for successful family work is first gained through participation in residential settings (Shaw & Garfat, 2003). It is here that the essence of the workers and their sense of personal practice is honed and incorporated with their chosen practical and theoretical orientation. There is great stress placed in Child and Youth Care work on having a strong, available, and supportive team within which to grow. It is the function of this peer group, in the absence of a professionally legislated body, to help the practitioner maintain healthy personal and professional boundaries, growth, perspective, and focus (Shaw & Garfat, 2003).

Critical Analysis and Comparison

Theoretical Basis
There are many similarities between the methodology of solution-focused therapy and that of Child and Youth Care practice. Fundamentally, there is an abiding belief in the creation of hopeful futures and solution-focused alternatives to client-identified issues. Both of these theories anchor their methodology and interventions within ecological systems theory, developmental theory, and within the cultural and social contexts of their clients. They believe in a functional “stuckness" that causes families to temporarily stagnate within dysfunctional behavior. This “stuckness" is collectively believed to be the result of insufficient data, support, and options, rather than an inherent obstinacy.

The primary difference between the theoretical orientations of these methods lies in their unique practical delivery. Solution-focused therapy is a form of brief therapy, thus interventions are short, intensive, implemented from a structured office locale, and can be costly to prospective clients (Gladding, 2003). This makes them ideal for clients who are either sufficiently willing and/or able to commute, or who are locally situated. This situation causes issues for clients who are not mobile, motivated, and/or medically capable of travel. Conversely, Child and Youth Care is not therapy, being focused on the creation and maintenance of therapeutic relationships, and is delivered without cost to the family through local non-profit organizations. As the foundation of Child and Youth Care practice is based within the living space of the client and therefore mobile by nature, client location becomes virtually irrelevant. This does, however, create a transient practice without the benefits of an established place of practice, making Child and Youth Care interventions unfavorable to those clients who expect or seek this clinical environment.

Conceptualizations of Change
Both theoretical orientations share a belief that clients posses the ability to change, and that this change should be created through modest incremental stages focused on positivism and hopefulness, though some differences are apparent. Child and Youth Care practitioners operate under the assumption that, while clients have the capacity to change, they may not be predisposed to either doing so or actively seeking it out, while solution-focused therapists believe in the inevitability of change, and the inherent interest clients have in achieving it. These assumptions are functional within each method's particular paradigm, respectively creating expectations complementary to their methodology.

Role of the Therapist and Relations to Power
Within the context of solution-focused theory, therapists are perceived as facilitators of transformation; as being the instrument through which clients are guided towards Ericksonian change. In contrast, Child and Youth Care practitioners perceive the families themselves as the experts, and instead co-create a supportive milieu through which the family’s expert conceptions for change are realized through the subtle interventions and activities introduced by the practitioner. By necessity, both methods employ a strong team-based approach, one in which peers are utilized to support and inform the individual in direct contact with clients. The benefit of the solution-focused approach is that peer support is immediately available to the therapist. This same support for Child and Youth Care practitioners must be postponed until the worker is able to return to his/her peer group. Immediate peer intervention, support, and therapeutic suggestions are not available.

Solution-focused therapists use diagnostic methods in order to clearly and concisely articulate useful intervention methods to clients while they are in the office. These therapists typically employ client screening, requiring particular social aspects to be in place before acceptance into counseling. On those grounds, clients who are challenged in this manner may find brief therapy intimidating, frustrating, and exclusive. Differentially, since Child and Youth Care practice is founded on working from within the life space of the client, no predetermined barriers exist to intervention. This conceptual involvement allows practitioners to be on-hand to observe the cultural, spiritual, and home environments of clients, whatever their social situation may be. As a final note on the social effectiveness of these two theoretical methods, the availability of both male and female workers within each of these paradigms is essential for the balanced deliverance of therapeutic services. At present, Child and Youth Care practice is a female-dominated field, which vastly limits this field's ability to serve the needs of our society’s masculine segment.

Both Child and Youth Care family work and Solution-Focused Family Therapy represent potentially powerful therapeutic intervention methods. Both orientations are unique within their own conceptualizations regarding their respective theoretical basis, conceptualizations of change, and practitioner role; however, the analogous essence of their respective practice remains constant.


De Shazer, S. (1984). The death of resistance. Family Process, 23, 11-17.

De Shazer, S. (1991). Putting difference to work. New York, London: W.W. Norton.

Garfat, T. (1995, 1998). From front line to family home: A youth care approach to working with families. In T. Garfat (Ed.), A Child and Youth Care approach to working with families (pp. 39-53). Binghamton, NY: Hawthorn Press.

Gladding, S.T. (1998). Family therapy: History, theory, and practice (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Minuchin, S. (1974). Families & family therapy. New Fetter Lane, London: Tavistock Publications Ltd.

Phelan, J. (2003). Child and youth care family support work. In T. Garfat (Ed.), A Child and Youth Care approach to working with families (pp. 67-77). Binghamton, NY: Hawthorn Press.

Shaw, K., & Garfat, T. (2003). From front line to family home: A youth care approach to working with families. In T. Garfat (Ed.), A Child and Youth Care approach to working with families (pp. 39-53). Binghamton, NY: Hawthorn Press.

Spiegel, H. & Linn, L. (1969). The “ripple effect": Following adjunct hypnosis in analytic psychotherapy. American Journal of Psychiatry, 126, 53-58.

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