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122 APRIL 2009
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Child and Youth Care Workers: Telling our story

In the field of public relations it is becoming increasingly clear that the public image of an organisation is its own responsibility. Waiting around for some other body to form an opinion of who you are and what you do is both passive and risky. As Karen VanderVen has suggested, we have to “tell our story.” ( /CYC-Online -feb2009-karen.html)
For our part, we worry that our field's “story” is too often written by the headline grabbers whenever something goes wrong in the system of which we form a part. And don’t get us wrong: It is right that the headlines are written and that attention is drawn to any failings which result in terrible things happening to even one child or youth. It’s just that such a story, by itself, results in very poor sampling of our whole story, which in reality is far fuller and richer than only its failures and mistakes.

From within the relatively limited purview of CYC-Net, we scan the world's headlines and literature daily, and there is a very noticeable discontinuity between these two bodies of writing. On the one side are the “bad news” stories (which the world reads), the crises, the politics, the blaming, the recriminations, the regrets; on the other side is our technical writing (which people in our field read) which reflects what we are doing, what is informing and motivating our practice, how well we are doing, ways in which we can do this better. In our technical writing, our research literature helps us keep the score, tells us what is working and what is not working – and why, while our practice literature shares our philosophies, our methods, our stories.

The headline news is very “spiky” (representing only extremes) and loud (written in 50-point type) and dramatic (fingers are pointed, satisfaction is demanded, heads roll). But then it is over and forgotten until the next minor chords emerge. The technical news within the field (and here we come to the heart of what we want to write about) continues – day by day, week by week, month by month, term by term – never stopping in its searching, questioning, discovering, sharing “but incomprehensible and no doubt boring as hell to Mr and Mrs Jones in the suburbs who are seduced by only the most stringent of writing.

We don’t mean to prejudge any current issues here, but just as an example we think of the recent “Baby P” outrage in Haringey in the UK. Whatever might have happened to Baby P, did anyone dig deeper into the daily goings on in that Social Services Department, into how many workers and children and families were woven in to the complex fabric of organisation and planning and discussion and decision-making and treatment and trying and retrying and failure and success which makes up such an agency? And multiplying all those factors by the number of families and children and days of involvement? Did someone add up the plusses and minusses and tell us the score? Did the balance sheet, when it came to be drawn up, reflect any of the gains and successes? Did anyone put into their equation the constant demonising of the social work professionals who are “too quick” to break up families and unnecessarily take children into care? How often do such professionals take their eye off the ball because they are so often having to watch their backs? To repeat, we are not wanting prejudge this; just to compare the two bodies of writing and information which might emerge were someone to write the real “stories” of these two aspects of this agency.

Shifting our attention from social work to our own work with children, youth and families, which is no less complex, there are several kinds of stories which we write. A major genre is the process writing which is, of necessity, confidential and not for public consumption. These are the reports which record the details and histories of young people who are sent to our programs; the internal reports between various levels of professionals within our programs during the course of placement or treatment; the reports to referring agencies, after-care services, state departments, etc., all of which will say to what extent we have progressed or failed to progress in our stated aims and goals, and which may make recommendations about possible future interventions.

Another genre of writing in our field is the public relations writing which most often consists of appeals to individuals, private organisations and communities for support of one kind or another, telling them (often in sentimental, if general, terms) of the unhappy histories, sad plights and hopeless futures of the kids who find themselves in the system. (The language of these “stories” is usually repetitive, predictable and wearying.) Another genre will also include the laudable protest and advocacy writing arising from our dissatisfaction and anger at society for failing to provide (in budgets, legislation and planning) for certain groups of young people and families – and which can also suffer from many of the weaknesses as the previous genre!

Lastly, there is the professional and practice writing which we find in the books and journals of our field and which in general has nothing to be ashamed of: it is honest, robust, thoughtful, thorough, inventive and inspiring – and sadly never in the reading domain of the common citizen. If anyone “out there” were regularly to see the range and quality of this writing we would have little to worry about in terms of our public image and reputation. Which brings us to the heart of this present argument.

Lots has been said throughout the history of Child and Youth Care about its need for professionalism, and indeed some of the most sustained “threads” on the CYC-Net discussion group recently have been on this topic. We regret the low status and the low opinion of this work – not to mention the low rates of pay – and there are many groupings within our field which have worked tirelessly and creatively towards improved professionalism.

As part of our professional consciousness over the past few years, CYC-Net has tried to “run” with the idea of an annual “Child and Youth Care Workers” Week”, early signs of which we found in the first week of May each year. This was simply meant to be an annual reminder and celebration of who we are and what we do as child and youth workers around the world, rather like a “birthday” when we mark another year of life and growth. Many associations, colleges, agencies and programs have come to the party by arranging some function at this time of the year (a dinner, a party, a one-day course, a lecture). It has also been a time when some of us have made a point of telling our local communities about ourselves – one opportunity for “telling our story” ourselves, not waiting for the media to latch on to the negative stories.

It is barely a month before the first week of May in 2009. We are suggesting that, whoever we are in this field, we might use this opportunity to talk, seriously and frankly, with our local communities about who we are and what we do – telling our story. And on this occasion, we should avoid the officialese which we so easily have spoken in the past, and the sentimental pleading and placating “fund-raising” tone, and rather share some of the professional discourse which characterizes our journals: where we learn to do this work, what we learn and how we are trained, who refers children and youth to us, what types of problems we meet, what methods we have developed to bring to these problems, how we have increasingly widened our purview to include families, communities, schools, systems, how we have enlarged our definition of “life-space” so that today it includes not only residential programs but also family homes, neighbourhoods, street corners.

If we paint a more complex and realistic picture of Child and Youth Care work, along with our own self-criticisms and optimisms, we think we will be one step nearer to the professional recognition we seek as a serious body of committed people who have an established role to play in our modern societies.

* * *

The above has been offered just to kick the ball into play. It is hoped that associations, agencies, schools and individuals will wish to move the idea forward and consider how they can approach such media who might be interested and help to “tell our story”. The media (newspapers, magazines, radio, etc) are usually pleased to receive copy, and journalists/editors will generally agree to a meeting to discuss such a matter for publication in the first week of May. If you plan to arrange a function of some kind yourselves to mark International Child and Youth Care Workers' Week in your area, invite some members of the media to come along. At a meeting or function, have at hand some copies of journals in our field, a prospectus of an upcoming course or conference. Feel free to demonstrate some material from CYC-Online or CYC-Net. We might even get into the habit of telling more “good news” stories ourselves, and to this end why not send some of these to CYC-Net, for the discussion group or for CYC-Net or CYC-Online. It might help to get us into the habit of polishing our own public image.

Brian (Cape Town) and Thom (Montreal)

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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