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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 68 SEPTEMBER 2004 / BACK
Listen to this


Starting fires

Brian Gannon

Gary, a colleague in this work for some years, called to say that he wanted to talk something over with me. I hadn’t seen him for some time and, whatever he wanted to talk about, it would be a welcome excuse to put the kettle on. We caught up on each others” family and career news, and eventually moved through to the sun porch with our coffee mugs. He began.

"Mark has been in our program for a few months now. He seems to have no family who are interested in him, and hasn't for years. His life for the past six years seems to have been a series of failed placements (twelve at last count). The reasons for him leaving his placements read like a book of the doomed: shows no commitment; won't engage; walks around depressed all the time; isn't motivated to participate; never puts in any effort. Staff, it seems, become frustrated with their inability to 'help him along' so instead they 'move him along'.

During the time he’s been with us, he shows little interest in anything at all. Nothing seems to strike a spark with him. It's just the same old pattern repeating itself.

But today ... today he came to me with a sparkle in his eye, for once a little energy “I even think I saw him skip as he made his way across the lawn to talk to me. And he asked if he could have a kitten. Polite, but with a little ... enthusiasm ... excitement maybe?

The rules in our program are clear: No pets. Rationale for the rule: allergies, abandoned animals, youth stop caring for them. You know the sort of thing.

So the question is: What to do? How to respond?"

I let this mull around in my mind for a while. Mark himself worried me more than whatever hypothetical allergies he might arouse. Good Lord, I thought, the kid would be better off with one leg than to have been six years without some locus of meaning in his life, without a relationship which fired him up! This happens to us when we are administrators of programs like Gary and I are: we too easily see kids” problems, meetings and reports in relation to staff issues and program rules and government regulations “and we forget that the program is there for the kids “and not the other way around! How often have we sailed close to the wind and made decisions which we knew would earn the ire of some departmental inspector because we knew that they were in the better interests of a child or youth? More, how many times do administrators blot their copy books in the eyes of their committees or governors because we know that we know more about the needs of a child than they do?

Gary and I talked about this. We agreed that in Mark we had a child who was clearly unmotivated, discouraged, fearful, self-denying, unconfident “oh hell, let’s face it: depressed “and his time was passing him by, yet we hadn’t found the key to the door which locked him inside himself. I reminded Gary that he had (almost) used the magic phrase which Al Trieschman would have used to signify the genesis of a helpful relationship with a troubled child: a sparkle in his eye (Trieschman, I think, used “gleam"), and that this was the Holy Grail in child and youth care work, preferably when the gleam was reciprocated in the eye of the child and youth care worker.

"But the gleam is for the kitten," protested Gary.

"A gleam is a gleam," I insisted. “Is it conceivable that what has been missing for this boy in the months you have known him “and seemingly for six years before that “is a gleam? And, in twelve placements nobody succeeded in generating a gleam? And now that you have a gleam, you quote some questionable regulation within your program to extinguish it! Who wrote that silly rule, anyway?"

A pause. “I did," he admitted, “Well partly. Years ago one of our kids got scratched by an over-enthusiastic Border Collie who couldn’t read the “No dogs allowed” sign. Kid sustained a two-inch superficial scratch on his leg. Mother threatened to sue. Committee told me to shape up. Legislation followed."

We sat in silence for a minute.

"I know that kids don’t do this sort of thing any more," I went on, “at least I can’t imagine that they do. But as a child did you ever have to start a camp fire?" Gary bent his head a little to the right. The non-sequitur had him looking at me as though he had missed a ten-minute slab of conversation.

Eventually: “Hell, yes," he remembered, “it was the twentieth century equivalent of today’s kids learning to send text messages. They gave you three matches and led you to think that the survival of the whole gang depended on your getting that fire going!"

"Then you'll remember what it was like to get a reluctant glow in some kindling ... and how you blew on it and fanned it and prayed that it would stay alight and maybe spread to some straw and then some bigger twigs ..."

Gary sipped at his coffee, playing out a little more of the campfire scenario in his mind. “Sometimes we cheated," he reflected. “Paper was verboten. No self-respecting cub scout or wilderness student would use paper, but to get the darned fire alight we would sacrifice a dollar bill! Dollars were paper in those days, and that was also illegal “to destroy money I mean."

We smiled together at the quaintness of life when we were younger. And Gary had already connected the dots ...

"You know, it’s true," he observed. “As administrators we can easily attach altogether the wrong meanings to a kid. I keep seeing Mark as a problem which eventually everyone parcels up and sends on to the next place. And through each placement the expectations people have for Mark seem to get less and less, because all the previous placements didn’t make any progress. I get to feel apologetic when I schedule Mark into a staff member’s group “I can almost hear the sigh as I make the decision!"

He stretched his legs and looked at his watch, as though he had an appointment to keep.

"You know, as I think of the look on his face when he asked for a kitten, what is amazing about this kid is that there is still a glow in the kindling! And there is a question of survival, isn’t there, if we can’t get this fire lit “and soon? One of the adults in our program has to earn the appeal of the kitten to spread the fire to the rather tougher logs of ordinary human beings. I must go. I have work to do!"

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