CYC-Online 132 FEBRUARY 2010
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Some reflections on a child and youth care approach to working with families

Thom Garfat and Niall McElwee

All of us, family members and workers, have had previous experiences which is relevant to our interactions. Previous experiences with social service workers, with police or other authorities, of trying to obtain help and of having strangers in the house, may all be relevant for the family. Previous experiences of trying to be helpful, of working with families with similar characteristics, of receiving help themselves, or of working independently may be of importance to the practitioners. And, of course, the history of each is relevant to the others. In writing about history here, we are concerned primarily with the previous experiences of the family, family members, and the child and youth care practitioner. For the importance of history cannot be denied and the family, in whatever form we understand it, remains a very significant influence on all of us (see Fewster, 2004). When we enter in to a situation, or have an experience, we search for ways to make sense of that experience (this will be discussed more in the chapter on meaning-making). One of the most powerful influences on how we experience and interpret that experience comes from our previous experiences of similar situations.

Imagine for a moment that a practitioner is going to visit a family that lives in a particular part of town. The last time that the worker visited a family in this area she was ejected out of the family home by a mother, angry with what she thought the worker had said. Going now to visit this new family, the worker will be influenced by the previous experience. She may be hesitant, determined, cautious, even excited as she uses her framework of previous similar experiences to prepare herself for this new encounter.

Imagine, too, that the family who is waiting for the worker to arrive has made previous attempts to obtain help, although in a more traditional, office based, form. Each time, the help has not seemed to resolve the problems they were experiencing. As they wait for the worker to arrive, will they not be thinking about these previous experiences, and will their expectations not be influenced by these previous experiences? And what if all of their previous experiences had resulted in positive outcomes? How might this impact on their expectations?

As workers, when we prepare ourselves for our encounters with families, we need to ask: What am I bringing to this encounter from my own previous history? What similar experiences have I had? What similar situations have I encountered? And how do these help or hinder me now? As we work with families, we also try to understand their previous experiences and how these impact on our encounter.

Child and youth care work with families is a complex and demanding field of practice. The purpose of this current chapter is to provide some “food for thought” for those who would be family support workers. It is not intended to be exhaustive, simply to provide some stimulus to encourage the practitioner to reflect seriously before jumping on to the bandwagon of “working with families”.

Child and youth care workers who engage with families are not family therapists in the normal or traditional sense of that term. Nor are they social workers, psychologists or some other human services professional, although many of the tasks, philosophies, and skills are similar. They are social care practitioners in their own right and, as such, we argue that they should practice within a child and youth care framework. They are not therapists, but their work is genuinely therapeutic. They do not follow the models of other professions, although they learn from, and in many cases contribute to, them. We believe that in order to be an effective practitioner with families, the social care worker must know, and be fully grounded, in their own profession and the way in which family is considered in social care and child and youth care practice.

Opening up the definition of family
We mentioned in the opening chapter of this book that family may well be who you consider it to be rather than what you consider it to be (Garfat and McElwee, 2001). While historically the definition of “family” was confined to a married couple and their offspring, modern times have seen a change in the definition to reflect the greater inclusiveness of a contemporary society (Garfat and McElwee, 2001). It is not uncommon now, for example, to see the definition of family, in social care/child and youth care practice as: the members of a biologically connected system who have impact, or the potential for impact, on the young person in care or, persons not biologically related who have assumed roles traditionally occupied by biologically related persons.

The following example illustrates this point.

Marcie was admitted to the residential treatment programme with the understanding that she had “no family”. She had been in the care of the system for 6 years and in that time had had no “family contact” of any kind. Her mother had died a few months after Marcie was taken in to care and her father was unknown to the social services system. No-one had any idea of who he might be. Her maternal grandparents were also dead. Her paternal grandparents were, of course, also unknown.

Marcie was always reactive at those times when other young people had family contact. Weekends when parents and siblings visited, holidays, and vacations were times when staff expected that Marcie would “act out” in response to her sense of being alone and without family. As Marcie stayed in the residential treatment centre it was painful for the staff to observe. They became determined to find family for Marcie, for they operated under the assumption that everyone needs family.

To make a long story short, the staff began to search for family and here is what they found:

The staff of the residential child care agency made contact with all these people and all of them were interested in contact with Marcie. At the time of the next holiday, Marcie had to make a choice as to which “family member” she was going to go and visit. She came into the centre with “no family” and she left with an aunt, an uncle and two sisters, all of whom were as real a family for Marcie as any biological relatives could have been.

When one broadens one’s definition of family, there are often “family members” to be found.

Some of the advantages of a Child and Youth Care approach to working with families
A social care approach to working with families is inherently different from other approaches. It is founded in the values and beliefs of child and youth care and because of this, we suggest it has certain advantages over other approaches. Primary among these characteristics is the fact that social care practitioners work with families in their environments, in their homes, not in an office detached from the daily life of the family. This is consistent with the characteristic of a child and youth care approach to “being with people as they live their lives"; helping people learn to live their lives differently in their “life space”, the places where their lives are lived.

This holds true whether the social care practitioner is engaged with families from the base of a residential programme or independently of residential care. Meeting with families in their environment is also consistent with the principle of child and youth care work of “meeting them where they are at” (Krueger, 1998). While there have been arguments made both for and against working with families in their homes, here are some of the advantages, as we see it, of doing so:

Some of the demands of social care family work
Working with families is a difficult and challenging form of social care practice. Yet, at least in the initial stages, everyone wants to do it, and, interestingly, thinks it will be easier than residential work. We see all over our countries, the rush to work with families as if one could simply reach out and make a difference. In the end, it turns out, this is far from reality. Here are a few of the reasons people have cited as to why, or how, family work is difficult:

When you work in residential care you are a part of a team. When you are having a difficult moment, someone else is around to help you out. When you are unsure about what to do, there is often a colleague to discuss things with. When you need a minute to think, you can tell the young person you'll get back to him in a few minutes. When you work with families, in their home, you are often alone, and on the spot.

All of us have “personal business” which comes up when we are working with others. Working with families has a tendency to stimulate old, childhood-parent issues for many of us. And for many of us, these are the most demanding of issues.

When working in a programme, you are in a familiar environment where you know you are familiar with it all. In family work, you move from environment to environment, context to context, requiring a constant shifting and alertness. You are “less grounded” in the environment in working in a family’s home.

When working with families, there are often parents who are older than the worker. This challenges the workers reliance on age as an authority factor. For some of us, positioning ourselves as helpers is difficult when the “helpee” is older than ourselves.

When working with families, the worker no longer concentrates only on the developmental stage of one person, but of many, and of the family as a whole.

Some people might argue that getting started in working with families is easier if one has not been previously employed in a residential environment, because the worker does not have to adapt from working in one context to working in another. One does not have to “make the shift” (Shaw and Garfat, 2004) from one environment to another and, quite frankly, habits which have been developed in a residential programme do not have to be undone or relearned.

We believe, however, that, the practitioner who has previous experience in a residential environment, and who learns family work as a part of the transition of a residential environment, brings to the work great advantages. Residential work is, perhaps, the best environment in which to learn a child and youth care approach. In the context of support, guidance and a familiar environment, the practitioner grows through the developmental stages of becoming a competent worker (Phelan, 1999), learns to think systemically, develops the ability to respond quickly, becomes familiar with “surprises” and develops an organised approach to her work. She learns the process of “doing with” (Garfat, 2001) which is essential to effective work with families.

Also, when the practitioner learns about working with families as a part of a programme transition, the practitioner has time to adapt, to try on different approaches, and is not forced head first in to full engagement in this challenging work. For, make no mistake, when one is making the shift to working with families after having developed skills in working with individuals, special challenges arise. As Shaw and Garfat (2004) have noted, not everyone should do family work, because not everyone is up to the challenge. Indeed, it is possible to identify the characteristics of social care practitioners who are effective in working with youth and families. The following chapters identify more of the characteristics of this approach, and of those who seem to be able to use it effectively.


Fewster, G. (2004) My place or yours? Inviting the family into child and youth care practice. In T. Garfat (Ed.) A Child and Youth Care Approach to Working with Families. New York. Haworth.

Garfat, T. (2001). Developmental stages of child and youth care workers: an interactional perspective. CYC-online, No.24, January 2001 available at

Garfat, T. (Ed) (2004) A Child and Youth Care Approach to Working with Families. New York. Haworth.

Garfat, T. and McElwee, N. (2001). The changing role of family in child and youth care practice. Journal of Child and Youth Care Work, 15. pp.236-248.

Krueger, M. (1998). Interactive Youth Work Practice. Washington, DC. Child Welfare League of America.

Phelan J. (1999). Stages of child and youth care worker development. Retrieved from:

Shaw, K. and Garfat, T. (2004). From front line to family home: A youth care approach to working with families. In T. Garfat (Ed) A child and youth care approach to working with families. New York. Haworth. pp. 39-54.


This feature: Chapter 2 from Garfat, T. and McElwee, N. (2001). Developing effective interventions with families (Vol. 1). Cape Town, Pretext.

*This is the thirteenth in a new series of chapters which the authors have permission to publish separately and which they have now contributed to CYC-Online. Read more about this program.

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