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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 68 SEPTEMBER 2004 / BACK
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Limiting liability

Mark Smith

Recent discussion on CYC-NET around how we sustain ourselves in work with children and youth got me thinking. It seems to me that how we sustain ourselves must bear some relation to why we came into this field in the first place. Like many people I sort of stumbled into it. My mum, keen that I should do more with my degree than work in a bar, trawled the papers far more actively than I did to get me a real job. She succeeded in finding me a temporary position as a social worker in a residential school. I had little idea what social work was or what the job might entail. I just knew once I started that there was some kind of ďfitĒ. This was a job that could fulfil some of my deeper aspirations, not just around what I would do for the rest of my life but also who I was.

Although you canít be in Child and Youth Care for any length of time without it changing you, there remains some constancy in who I was then and who I am now.

Some of that comes from my own background. I was brought up a Catholic and despite the fact that the old certainties of such an upbringing are long since gone there are still some essential messages that I hang on to. Itís a Readerís Digest sort of Catholicism I suppose, not rooted in much of a theological understanding or scriptural referencing but in some simple injunctions:

Do you love me? Feed my lambs

Whatsoever you do to one of these the least of my brothers, you do unto me

When I was hungry you gave me to eat. In prison you visited me

It can be a bit unfashionable nowadays to assert any religious motivation to be involved in care work but I suspect itís there more than people are prepared to admit. And it can be a powerful driver.

A sermon I heard recently prompted me to reflect on connections that might be made between scripture and care work. The gospel was that of the Good Samaritan. Most people will know the story Ė A rich man asks Jesus what he has to do to enter the kingdom of heaven. The priest, Fr Paulís interpretation of the sermon suggested that the rich man was trying to test Jesus, to find out what was the minimum he could do to achieve this end. He was trying to limit his liability. Of course, the parable suggests that you canít limit your liability to care. You canít walk by on the other side of the road. Caring involves going where you donít really need to go, where you may not want to go, where youíre not really expected to go and where you risk suspicion and vilification.

It seems to me that care, as it has developed over recent years, proceeds on the basis, not of reaching out to the other, but of limiting liability. What is the least we can do to fulfill our statutory responsibilities? And in seeking to limit liability we offer no care worth the name.

I was teaching a group of student Child and Youth Care workers a couple of weeks ago. One of them recounted how he played a regular game of football with a group of friends. One of his friends, who was a foster carer, brought along a 14 year old boy placed with him. He did this for a couple of weeks. The third week, the boy didnít turn up. The social worker had put a stop to it ďno doubt on the basis of some ill thought through concern about the lad having contact with adults who hadnít been vetted by the police. No consideration of the healthy intergenerational experience such activities provide for adolescent boys. No consideration of his rights. No consideration that when we donít provide such normal experiences, we force kids to channel their energies into the peer group and then panic about them hanging around in gangs and being anti-social. But of course we know how to deal with them when theyíre anti-social. We get tough; we tag them, we lock them up; we even lock their parents up. My God weíre getting really tough in Scotland.

Iíve given up on expecting social workers to think in a joined up enough way to see these connections. The bean counters have taken over in our town halls and their concern is, not to provide care but to make sure the organisation doesnít get sued Ė to limit liability. To that end a whole morass of bureaucracy called child protection has been put in place to make sure we donít reach out to others in any meaningful way.

Fr Paulís conclusion to his sermon was that to reach out to others, to truly care, we need to put aside considerations of how we might limit our liabilities and allow ourselves to be driven by a sense of love and compassion. That powerful desire to reach out to the other is surely one that all of us have felt, and hopefully still feel Ė even if the prevailing discourse can make us feel that itís somehow unprofessional to feel that way.

Irrespective of the spiritual, political or straightforward humanistic roots of such compassion, the desire to reach out is what draws us towards child and youth care and thatís whatís going to sustain us in it. And as new cohorts of Child and Youth Care workers embark on training courses over the next couple of months, welcome to the community. Remember who you are and why youĖve come into this game. And donít let the bean counters grind you down!

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