CYC-Online 68 SEPTEMBER 2004
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Working with families: A reflection

Sherry Migliaccio

In my twenty five years as a child and youth care worker, the field has changed from treating children and youth mainly in residential settings to working with the youth in their school, in their community and even in their homes. The evolution from client-focused child and youth work interventions to incorporating the need of the client’s family (Garfat, 2003) seems to have been reflected in my own career as a child and youth care practitioner. The shift in focus within my practice has been more a response to my perception of what is in the best interests of my clients rather that my awareness of the changes happening within the field.

I graduated from a local community college Child Care Worker program in 1980. At that time family work was a small part of the program, a course that we took in our fifth or sixth semester. Some of us had the opportunity to practise family work in our practicum, but it was our belief at the time that it was the role of the social workers. Our skills were mainly being developed within residential or day care settings. Our skills as child care workers were felt to benefit the children who were taken from their families and communities. I knew that I had benefited from not only my education as a child youth worker but from my upbringing in a large family with parents in a mutually loving role. I wanted to share my parenting abilities with needy children. I saw myself in the benevolent parent role. My competitor, at the time, were the clients” parents and to some degree the social workers who brought the clients to us. In fact it seems common that child and youth care workers learn the basics of nurturing while caring for youth in residential programs. (Phelan, 2003)

My first year working in a children's aid operated home reinforced my aversion to dealing with families. We dealt with children who had been removed from their families because of ongoing abuse or severe neglect. It firmly reinforced my role as rescuer. These clients were not allowed access to their families during the assessment period. I personally felt that if the child, at the end of the six-week assessment, wanted to reunite with their family, that we had somehow failed this child. It is not uncommon for the parent of these children to be blamed for the problems of the client. (Garfat, McElwee, 2001) My hope was that they would eventually connect with a good foster family. My professional reaction was based on personal biases. Looking back on my early career, I have difficulty accepting that I could have operated with such na–ve beliefs.

It was during my second year that I began to notice the differences between clients who had access to their families and those who did not. At the time, I worked in an inner city multi-agency contract service. Among my caseload were two youth who had ongoing contact with their families. I discovered, through the course of helping these clients, that having access to their families provided them with opportunities for recovery that many of the children and youth I had worked with in my short career had never had.

As a worker learns to build trusting connections with the youth, they develop a deeper understanding of their layers of needs, and begin to view new ways of meeting these needs. It was during the second year of my career when I noticed the benefit of working with family systems, but the reasons for this was still not clear to me. Child and youth care professionals often reach the realisation between their first and second year that accepting parents and families as partners will aid the client in the therapy process. (Phelan, 2003)

As I began the process of making connections with the parents and families of my clients, I felt like a fish out of water. I needed to understand why these families weren’t the monsters that I had envisioned earlier in my career. I needed to develop the ability to see the family with a systemic point of view. (Phelan, 2002) I failed to understand how these seemingly well-intentioned people could have such out of control, rebellious children. One of my referrals at the time was a youth with an aboriginal background who had been adopted at one year of age by a nice British-Canadian couple. This child had defied these parents throughout his life. In spite of the fact that they had provided him an apparently loving home, and many luxuries, he had repeatedly defied them, run away from them, and had more recently stole their new car. I had unintentionally switched sides. I was most surprised by his immunity to my skills as a Child Care Worker. This, I realised was in direct conflict with my belief in my parenting skills. It was unfathomable that I could not form a relationship with this client. I became aware that the clients who I had worked with that had been adopted at a vulnerable age were not only hard to connect with but had resisted their parental bonding as well. Now, while still researching family systems theories, I also began to research attachment theories. I discovered that I had lots to learn about my chosen career.

Years later, I found that I was able to develop and practise my understanding of family systems theories while working within a board of education. While being called in by a teacher or administrator to assist students who presented problematic behaviours within a class I always asked myself “what need is this behaviour meeting at this time?"(Garfat, 2002) For example, I often enjoyed meeting the new junior kindergarten students as they entered into the education system. Many times I helped both the young children and their young parents separate for what was often the first time in their lives. I felt honoured to participate in this milestone. Occasionally separation caused a stronger reaction and I was able to assist the parents in not only supporting their youngsters” separation but in being able to accept the separation themselves. During one of these separations, a boy cried bitterly for hours. When his father came to pick him up, I reported that the child cried for his mommy all morning. His father tearfully explained to me that they had recently immigrated to Canada from Trinidad and because of immigration problems their mother was not able to join them. The family decided that the best thing to do was to get the children settled into school and allow the father to work in their new country until the mother could join them. This separation from his father intensified his fear of separation from his mother. It meant a lot to this family to have someone understand and to support both of the children until the mother was able to join them. During these years I came to realise that often, the child's behaviour serves a purpose. (Garfat, 2002)

I began to pay closer attention to purposeful behaviours, which may meet an individual need or may meet the need of the family. What I discovered again and again was that through my interviews with my clients and my subsequent phone calls or interviews with their parents that the problematic behaviour often called attention to a significant concern or problem within their family. In order to help their child to behave better in school, many parents will choose to work with me, the school social worker or an outside agency to address the family issues and provide a more supportive environment for their children. While accepting therapeutic intervention with their family I typically invite the parent to call me if anything new arises. The families who have accepted this invitation would call me to report a conflict with their child that may have caused them to come into school late or come in a defiant mood. They may report an incident involving the client in the community or in the home from the prior evening or weekend. Their expectation is that I might support their efforts to effectively parent their child or youth through the difficult times. They also support my efforts to counsel the student in coping with the incident or problem-solve through it. Even though I am never physically in the home with the family, it is possible for me to utilise family life events to provide a therapeutic intervention with the family. (Garfat, 2003)

As Child and Youth Care Workers we often have the luxury of forming relationships with the client that we work with on a daily basis. (Garfat, Shaw, 2003) We have the opportunity to understand their abilities as well as their needs. We have the opportunity to meet and also form relationships with other members of their families. We have unique access to potential life-time support systems of our client; their family. Our interventions should be developed for the best interests of the family unit as well as the best interest of our client. (Garfat, 2003) Child and Youth Care Workers have unique access to clients and their families. We are called to help them recognise the purpose behind the behaviours that they find challenging, identify new and effective ways to support each other within the family unit. We have opportunities to join in family life events to model new ways of coping and enjoying their family. (Garfat, 2003)


Garfat, T. (2003) Working with Families: Developing a Child and Youth Care Approach, Child and Youth Services Vol. 25 No.1/2

Garfat, T., McElwee, N. (2001) The Changing Role of Family in Child and Youth Care Practice

Shaw, K., Garfat, T., From Front Line to Family Home: A Youth Care Approach to Working with Families, Child and Youth Services Vol. 25 No.1/2

Phelan, J. (2003) Child and Youth Care Family Support Work, Child and Youth Services Vol. 25 No.1/2

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