CYC-Online 107 DECEMBER 2007
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Child and youth care family support work and the Isibindi projects

Jack Phelan

There has been a great burst of writing and thinking in the past few years about Child and Youth Care family support work. The development of both training programs and a body of literature which describes the effectiveness of Child and Youth Care approaches when you work in people’s homes and communities, has changed our field. In North America and Europe there are many examples of Child and Youth Care practitioners and Child and Youth Care family support programs creating successful outcomes where no one else has been able to do anything useful.

South Africa, through the NACCW, has also been a participant in developing a Child and Youth Care family support approach. The Isibindi projects and the training of Community Child and Youth Care Workers, is a major stride forward in creating help for families and communities. I will attempt to discuss the ingredients that have been seen as key parts of the Child and Youth Care family support approach which Child and Youth Care practitioners continue to refine as they mature in professional skills.

How you think about what you do changes everything. Seeing individuals as a part of a larger system, family and community, makes our working reality take on a whole new meaning. People don’t just behave based on personal motives, but behave as a part of a larger group and the job they have in that group. If we try to influence a person to change based on personal benefits, we often will fail. Each person is also part of a family that has a culture, history, and way of dealing with the world that can be quite different than the worker’s family. The “meaning-making" process will be complex, especially if the worker is unaware of the family’s dynamics.

A story may help to explain
I was a new Child and Youth Care worker, living and working in a poor neighborhood in New York City. I didn’t have many theories, and my greatest skill was realizing how little I really knew about living in this new place. I had a group of children in a recreation group which included two brothers, Kenny and Benny. I was trying to help Benny learn to read, he was 9 years old and still not reading. He liked me and tried to please me by memorizing short pieces, but he couldn’t really read. I had met his mother, who worked in the local school, and she was worried about Benny’s school progress. Kenny was younger and doing well in school, no problems. One day, out of frustration and with no clear plan in mind, I asked the mother if I could visit the family at home in the evening. They lived in “the projects", public housing for poor families. When I met the dad, I saw that he looked like Benny, while Kenny, the good student, looked like his mother. The parents and I sat down to talk about Benny’s reading problem. The dad let his wife do all the talking, as she discussed her concerns. I wanted to hear the dad's point of view, so I asked him to comment. He stated that he had grown up in a small village in Puerto Rico and had worked from a young age to support his family. He had not learned how to read himself and was proud of his wife and her education. When I asked him if he wanted Benny to learn to read, he hesitated. His wife jumped in saying that he did, and he agreed. Somehow I knew that this wasn’t enough, so I asked him again. He slowly said that he wasn’t sure, because he had been successful without this skill. I asked him to take a minute or two and think about it, he replied after a bit that this was New York, not Puerto Rico, and so Benny should learn to read. I asked him to say that to Benny, so the boys were called into the room and he talked to Benny. I left soon after. Benny was reading within a week.

If I had continued to work only with the boys, no change would have occurred. The family story, not even fully realized by the mother, was too powerful. My logical belief that everyone wants the best for their children, didn’t include the father’s reality. Also, if I wasn’t already doing useful things with the family and had a safe relationship with them, no conversation would have occurred.

The families we attempt to help have already resisted normal community pressures to behave well and manage their circumstances. We often see the children first, because they are more visible and available. Our ability to notice the way these families operate without making judgments is a key skill. Culture, family history, local conditions and stress often create behavior among family members that seems abnormal, yet it is very functional for this family. Locally based Child and Youth Care practitioners, as in the Isibindi projects, can often be more effective. There is a need to have ongoing training and support for Child and Youth Care family support workers, because the task is so complex and personally challenging.

Some of the areas that I believe a mature Child and Youth Care family worker needs to master as they develop:

This list seems intimidating, but there are good practice principles which can be learned.

The Isibindi projects include the development of a safe park, which identifies families in distress by creating a contact point for children, who are the most visible members. It allows workers to establish safe relationships with the children through play and to give the children the opportunity to have a “free space" to let down their fears and be able to be hopeful. As Child and Youth Care practitioners become more skillful over time, the safe park will exert enormous influence in the community.

Parents and parental figures need our support and nurturance. We need to care about and care for these parental people before we can expect them to be helpful to others. There is a concept called “the Oxygen principle" familiar to airplane travelers. In an emergency, you are instructed to place the oxygen mask over your own face before you attempt to assist anyone else with oxygen. We mistakenly provide parenting skill teachings to people and wonder why they don’t follow our guidance. Many parents have not felt that anyone cares for them, so how can they be expected to care for others. Effective workers can create a safe park inside each family’s home for the parents to be nurtured with fun and a free place to let go of fears.

Poverty is a crushing reality for our families, so Child and Youth Care workers need to provide real, tangible relief, not just talking. We need to create a generous spirit in the community as well as provide actual physical support ourselves. This is a major challenge that can be done badly if we aren’t connected to the life space. Child and Youth Care practice is done in the natural space of the family and community , not a neutral place or an office. The Child and Youth Care practitioner comes across as a non-expert who doesn’t have all the answers, but believes that people can solve problems with their existing skills and resources. We teach people to fish, and don’t just give them a fish, to quote the old proverb. The better you are as a noticer and fellow participant in the life space, the more strength and skill will appear to emerge from people.

Child and Youth Care practitioners become skilled at staying out of the family dynamics that balance the family system, because they want families to eventually function independently. We get good at relating to the relationships between family members, helping each member to do what is needed. Effective family support workers rely on a team and good supervision to develop these complex skills. I believe that it takes at least three years master these skills and that there is an endless learning curve that keeps even the most competent worker challenged to develop further “which is the joy of Child and Youth Care work!

This feature: Phelan, J. (2007). Child and youth care family support work and the Isibindi projects. Child and Youth Care Work, 25, 4. pp.4-5.

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