CYC-Online 142 DECEMBER 2010
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Evidence-Based Cynicism

Kiaras Gharabaghi

For quite some time now, I have struggled with the rise of “evidence-based practices”; on the one hand, I can’t deny the obvious logic that it makes sense to do things that seem to work well. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that what seems to work well for some might not work for others, and at any rate, isn’t the whole point of what I do to explore the possibilities? It seems to me that evidence-based practices put the answer before the question, and somehow that doesn’t sit all that well with me. But alas, I have discovered an entirely different use for evidence-based anything.

As the December holiday season is once again approaching, I have been reflecting not so much on the upcoming events of Hanukah, Christmas and Kwanza, but more on that other event that tends to happen on the last day of December; New Year’s Eve, marking the end of yet another 365-day cycle. Except that this year, New Year’s Eve will mark the end of a decade; and not just any decade, but the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. I distinctly remember sitting on the Mount of Olive in Jerusalem with my brother on December 31, 1999, waiting in anticipation for the coming of the new millennium. Between the possibility of a Second Coming and the predicted catastrophe of Y2K, we figured it would be an all around interesting moment. More importantly, I remember feeling somewhat optimistic that the twenty-first century might be a little better than the twentieth century, which surely would be an easy feat to accomplish given various genocides, two world wars, Vietnam, Steven Segal and various other disasters during the century that was about to end.

As it turns out, I was wrong. So far, the twenty-first century has hardly been any better than the one preceding it. Between 9/11, the reactive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on-going conflict in Sudan, Congo, Burma, Palestine and many other places around the world, it seems to me that we have learned nothing at all from our histories. And when I look at Child and Youth Care practice as well as the research that provides its foundation, I hardly find reason for optimism. In fact, I am increasingly growing comfortable in my cynicism, and with the afore-mentioned respectability of evidence-based anything, I finally feel sufficiently safe to say so. You see, I am not just any sort of cynic; I practice evidence-based cynicism.

So what is the evidence, you ask? Well, here it is, at least as it applies to North America:

  1. In spite of enormous efforts to effect change, it still sucks to be gay, black, aboriginal, vegetarian, vegan, artistic, alternative, different, unique or an individual in just about any service for children and youth in North America or Europe.
  2. Young persons with mental health challenges, learning disabilities, impeded mobility, hearing/sight or speech challenges continue to be blamed for not being like everyone else;

  3. Young persons still are denied the right to experience grief, such as the loss of family relationships, staff members who mattered to them or peers who were prematurely discharged; if they do, they have a behavior problem;

  4. We still pay for psychiatric services; for what, I don’t know;

  5. Youth engagement still means giving young persons a Twinkie for telling us how to do our jobs in a focus group;

  6. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child still does not apply to 3000 children and youth in Ontario, 8000 in Canada and just over 100,000 across North America; they continue to be housed in institutions. Yes, staffed residential care might be the right choice for some of them, but there still are no criteria to make that decision, and child or youth participation in that decision-making is non-existent;

  7. We still incarcerate youth for making mistakes, and then release them thinking that they've learned something by being insulted, mistreated, disempowered, and sometimes outright abused;

  8. When social workers, teachers, doctors, psychiatrists, chemists and psychologists fail to control a young person, we ask that young person to go live with a bunch of other young persons with similar challenges and be cared for by individuals (who often but not always are in their early twenties) often with zero relevant training who get paid a fraction of what the afore-mentioned “professionals” get paid – brilliant!

But not to worry, because researchers are going to make the difference by doing any or all of the following:

  1. Pontificating about Foucault;

  2. Producing an evidence base for what works provided that the young persons subject to evidence-based practices do not prove to be unique individuals;

  3. Publishing important research findings in journals so that other researchers can read the abstracts of said articles and cite them in their research publications;

Well, ultimately it is the policymakers who will save the day by doing this:

  1. Making promises to make further promises predicting promising outcomes;

  2. Holding accountable those who misuse the funds designed to maintain this system of chronic ineptitude;

  3. Paying for research that predictably results in the afore-mentioned publications;

  4. Eliminating risk by maximizing accountability and eliminating service;

  5. Developing new frameworks for caring and service provision that ensure that those who care and provide service will be too busy to care or provide service because they now have to re-design everything they do to correspond to the new framework for caring and providing service.

I know what you are thinking as you are reading this (because I am clairvoyant). “Wow, this guy has gone over the edge; or perhaps you are thinking “hang on a second, isn’t Gharabaghi a researcher too?Or maybe even, hey, who does he think he is to criticize practice, research and policy in just over 1000 words?”

These are all fair questions. Here is my answer: I don’t always think like this; just in my darkest moments, when what I normally think about seems too damn irrelevant. This usually happens when I attend a funeral of a young person I have known; another young person with promise, dreams, hopes and his very own way of being in this world of questionable values. Another perfectly good kid dead. Rest in peace my friend. I hope you find the peace that neither Foucault, nor the evidence nor the many frameworks for caring imposed upon you could give you; and on behalf of the United Kingdom, let me assure you that you did indeed matter.

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