CYC-Online 57 OCTOBER 2003
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care workers

Child care workers should be seen and not heard?

Child Care “zealot” Michael Demers considers the Child and Youth Care Worker’s role on the treatment team

The team approach has received a great deal of attention in the last couple of years as more and more Child and Youth Care professionals are responsible for helping to coordinate services to children and youth.

Although we are often asked to be a part of team conferences, there is often confusion as to the role of the Child and Youth Care worker in these meetings. In writing this brief article I am not proposing to offer a definitive answer, but rather to ask some questions which will help me – and perhaps you – to clarify what our role should be.

Before I get into a discussion of the team want to reflect a little on what I think the nature of our work really is.

Special work
A friend of mine, who at the time was a client, came over to my house at three in the morning. His father, who was a life-long alcoholic, had just pushed and pushed my friend to the point that the boy finally turned on his father, pushing him into a wall and breaking his father’s collar bone. This boy was now sitting on the floor in my bedroom with his knees up to his face. Because it was late his sobbing sounded all that much louder.

And what did I have to offer? Insight? Interpretation? Reflective listening? The challenging of faulty beliefs? No, all I could do was listen. His pain was so deep that it seemed that only time could heal. All I could offer was my space and time.

In a later case management meeting, the other professionals involved with this teenager had a hard time looking past his behaviour. One person even suggested that the fact his father was an alcoholic was used as an excuse sometimes. I think it was because of attitudes like this, that the underlying pain the boy was experiencing was only understood when he was with his friends and a few adults. I knew this, but I had a hard time saying anything. After all, I was hired “to change the kid”, not the professionals working with the kid.

A child care perspective
When I get together with other professionals involved with clients I am working with, how can I present my perspective on helping which focuses on relationship?

Clients can’t be friends, can they? If my job is to “do nothing other than provide relationship” (as if this is “little to do”), then how can I ask for the type of respect given to the professionals who have well-articulated theories and laboratories and experiments and hard data? Remember, what I have is my guitar, a soccer ball, a movie pass and two swimming suits (just in case I forget one in the car). What is my role within the team, when the team focuses so heavily on answers at the expense of first searching for the right questions? When everyone gets together to make decisions, what do I have to offer? And if, when I do speak, I am not heard, what am I to do?

Work or practice?
When thinking about these questions I have to ask myself, “Why is my work 'work', when the others around the table get to 'practise' ”? And how is it that they end up giving me direction when what I need is support – because I am the one spending the time with the kids and their families? I find few aspects of Child and Youth Care more frustrating than being told what the kid and/or family needs, when I have been the one spending most time with the family. I don’t think that I am incapable of listening, but rather that these other professionals need to recognise my need for support so that I can get on with the job of supporting the clients.

A child care “culture”?
I know that I may look and talk differently from other professionals, and that I share with other Child and Youth Care workers a certain culture. How do I know that we have a culture of our own? Well it is the way that other professionals say that we put on the best conferences, that’s how! What I think they are trying to say is that we have a culture, a way of being together which is alive and full of life. Child care, one of the most difficult jobs in the world, makes us play as hard as we work. But if we’re so cultured, then how come we get to make the type of input the quality of our work would indicate?

The lack of input to the team from the Child and Youth Care professional is very apparent when we look at the process of assessment and the setting of clinical goals. All too often the social worker is left with the responsibility of “conducting” an assessment (often completed in a very short period of time because of unreasonably large case loads), then creating goals before contacting an agency to find someone to work with the client(s).

The Child and Youth Care professional then comes onto the scene and may either change the assessment or manoeuvre around the stated terms of the contract so as to provide the intervention that is needed. This approach to case management often, in my experience, results in a great deal of time and energy being wasted, rather than engaging in an efficient and effective process.

I would suggest that every Child and Youth Care professional should work toward sharing the responsibility for assessment and goal setting with the social worker, since the Child and Youth Care worker can provide a perspective which is rooted in day-today observations of the child, youth and family. We have the time.

Improve skills
Another suggestion is that those Child and Youth Care workers who don’t feel confident about conducting an assessment and/or creating a case management plan, should move to improve their skills in these areas. If you are one of these people, then ask your employer and/or your regional association executive to bring in someone to conduct professional training in these areas and ensure follow-up through on-the-job case supervision.

For those who think that they are capable of handling an assessment and case plan development, my suggestion would be that you sit down with other workers in your agency and create a blueprint for assessments and case management.

In my experience, many social workers are run off their feet and would appreciate the opportunity to be partners with someone who is in regular contact with the client.

Working for change
Complaining that we don’t have input will only create bad feelings and a general lack of communication. When this happens, then the pattern of communication follows the hierarchy of power, resulting in those of us near the bottom, the clients and the caregivers, being seen but not heard. Changing this pattern is the responsibility of all of us. Does Child and Youth Care lack a clearly articulated philosophical base? When I was talking to a number of different persons involved in the practice of Child and Youth Care, the one theme that kept coming up was the general inability of Child and Youth Care professionals to put into words, in a convincing manner, what they are trying to do and the reasons behind these ideas. What I love about conferences more than anything else is listening to Child and Youth Care workers talk about their work; how they come to find the strength and power in being able to reach that one kid that nobody else could. But in reaching that kid, is the worker then able to tell others about the process of connecting with another person? And is being able to tell others about the work really as important as the work itself? We would all like to hear from others regarding this question. This question is an important one for professional associations, because there must be some value given to talking about the work, in addition to the actual work with kids.

Out of our past as custodial workers in large institutions, there remains an attitude that as child care workers, need to be directed and heavily supervised ... in the technical sense of these words. In the state where I work, many professionals receive far too little supervision, and most of what there is, is inadequate.

For too long now we have been expected simply to do as we are told, and when we offer a different perspective, we are told that our reasons for wanting to act in this manner are not supported by “hard research”.

How many of us are working with kids because working with kids has somehow been “proven scientifically”? In the recently published Child and Youth Care book Challenging the Limits of Care, there is an article which discusses research regarding high staff turnover in residential programmes. There was one comment that really struck me as being reflective of the historical attitude towards line workers.

The quotation concerned comes in the context of a discussion of characteristics of workers in relation to high staff turnover. The author says:

“The lowest percentage of controllable turnover was found in high school graduates with no post-secondary education in the Post-OJT [On the Job Training] group. This concurs with Ross' findings that less educated child care workers are more amenable to interventions in job-related factors because their expectations of the job are more in line with the reality of the job than more educated counterparts.”

My interpretation of this statement is that workers who have no post-school training know less, and therefore are more likely to go along with what the administration wants from them “a compliance which is interpreted in the quoted paper as being an indication that workers are “more realistic” about the job. What do they think “the job” is? Their answer to this question could be very interesting.

Clean thy backyard
This idea, that Child and Youth Care workers are to be seen but not heard, is apparent in professionals of other other disciplines, and by a small number of administrators of Child and Youth Care agencies. More importantly, this attitude towards the practice of Child and Youth Care exists in Child and Youth Care workers themselves.

We need to purge ourselves of our biases towards the work that we do, before we can expect others to give us this level of respect. Now some would say “Well at least we are seen”, but I say:

“Until we are valued, by being heard by other professionals, as having a perspective which attempts to understand the world of our clients, then I think that we will continue to be treated as a group of workers who are willing to do the dirty work for the more respected professions”. Say “no more” to approaches and practices which are against your principles and beliefs about change. More critically, learn how to express your point of view and argue, rationally and convincingly where necessary, for approaches to services which are empowering rather than debilitating and dependence creating.”

One final point (for those who are still reading). It seems to me that the level of respect and financial support given to a professional relies, to some degree, on the respect given to the clients of those professionals.

The kids
If the people we are serving are weak, confused, poor, undereducated, and generally unable to advocate for themselves, then the conclusion I would reach is that we won’t have the type of respect we so often talk about until our clients receive this respect first. Maybe this is why so many Child and Youth Care workers go on to other areas of practice where the benefits, financially and in terms of status, are greater.

So hang in there. This work may not be the road to fame and fortune, but in my eyes (and in those of your clients) you are in one of the most important jobs in the world.

This feature: Demers, Michael. (1994) Child Care Workers should be seen and not heard? The Child Care Worker. Vol.12 No.7 pp 6-7

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