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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 132 FEBRUARY 2010 / BACK
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When children suffer

Kiaras Gharabaghi

The earthquake in Haiti will have consequences for years, likely decades, to come, and children will be the primary bearers of those consequences. Quite aside from destroyed infrastructure, massive homelessness and pervasive under-development, the children of Haiti have been subjected to a level of trauma that is sometimes hard to imagine, and even harder to imagine being overcome. Our faith in the resilience of children will surely be tested rather severely in the coming months and years. The intensity of natural disasters, combined with the around the clock media coverage that accompanies them, draws our attention and reminds us of the relativism of pain and suffering; whatever challenges we might encounter in our day to day lives, it could indeed be worse.

It is heart warming and without a doubt positive that around the world, individual and collective action is underway to provide relief to those affected in Haiti. Aside from the massive relief efforts undertaken by the rich countries of North America, Europe, Australia and Asia, it is the efforts of countries such as Rwanda, Ecuador and Cuba, themselves struggling with considerable challenges, that are especially noteworthy for their charity and altruism. Over the past few days, I have heard about young children breaking their piggy banks to donate their last bits of change to the cause, people on social assistance signing their cheques over and in one case, a dying man changing the beneficiary of his estate to the people of Haiti. The generosity in the face of disaster currently on display around the world represents a much needed reminder that we can indeed put our humanity before our insular selfishness.

Unfortunately, one does not have to be a cynic to predict the longer tem pattern of this response. We have had previous natural disasters in other parts of the world, and the pattern has been quite consistent. Intense crisis response with enormous generosity for a couple of weeks, then a slow retreat into the every day realities of local jurisdictions, a fading of media interest in the hardship and eventually a return to “normal” almost everywhere. We will likely get some renewed media interest at the one year, five year and maybe ten year anniversaries of the disaster (the “how do they fare now” stories), much as we did in relation to Katrina and New Orleans and the Bam earthquake in Iran and of course the Tsunami disaster in Indonesia, Thailand and other affected areas. To some extent, this temporal nature of our attention is entirely understandable and legitimate; other events will happen in the coming years that will require our renewed outpouring of support and assistance elsewhere. And normalizing whatever the life context of people might be is in fact a necessary process to move beyond crisis mode and create opportunities for development and hope for the future.

Perhaps less acceptable is the other pattern that surely will emerge in the aftermath of this intense period of support. This is the political ownership imposed on the suffering of others. Governments will seek public credit for their swift support and humanitarianism; charities will incorporate their work in Haiti into their fund raising campaigns, and individuals who gave so generously will be incensed to find out that not all that was promised during the initial period of crisis response actually happened. No one wants to be the one who financed the new office chair at the global headquarters of a relief agency in New York, London or Frankfurt.

Last night I sat with my three (young) children and watched the celebrity-sponsored telethons for Haiti, first the Canadian one and then the American version. These were good initiatives that jointly raised about $100 million. My kids had lots of questions, not so much about the celebrities, but more about the situation in Haiti and how to best be helpful. My eight year old son asked the obvious question: “If there is no food or water, and if the people need hospitals, why don’t we bring them here?” That is not an easy question to answer, especially in a way that might make sense to an eight year old. In fact, we know that the mass movement of people has historically been much more associated with evil than with good, as evidenced by the forced migration of Jews in Nazi Germany and the many other forced migrations in places like China, the Soviet Union and northern Canada. The politics of where people live are arguably the most complex and perhaps most appalling features of our human condition. Building walls to restrict movement seems much more popular than tearing down barriers for the destitute to reach safe haven.

As all of these thoughts pre-occupy me and occasionally overwhelm me, I remain conscious that in the meantime, the children in Haiti are suffering. Although I have confidence that the many groups currently there to help will indeed do that, and that in the midst of this crisis the human spirit will at least partially negate the otherwise rather different mandates of soldiers and church group members, politician and critic, I worry a great deal about the longer term. As the children suffer, who will respond to their cries? Some will undoubtedly benefit for some time to come from the work of local and international charities and faith groups, but most will not. In fact, most will experience life rather similarly as children do in other parts of the world that have not captured the imagination of the global community: Uganda, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Burma, Somalia and many others.

It is at times like this that I despair over the seemingly intractable incompetence of our profession to pull together and act as one on behalf of children and youth. It would seem that much as medical doctors have found their role in the world through “Medicine Sans Frontieres”, child and youth care practitioners too could make a difference in their world by developing a way of responding to large-scale and deeply entrenched mass trauma for children and youth. I am conscious, however, just how far away we are as a professional group from doing that. We are barely able to come together on behalf of the children in our own local jurisdictions. In Canada, we have largely forsaken the plight of aboriginal children and youth in our northern and urban southern jurisdictions. To the extent that we have collective bodies representing the discipline, these have been silent, absent in the mobilization of the world to rush to Haiti’s assistance now, and there is no reason to believe that they will come to life when the rest of the world abandons Haiti in the coming months. We lack both the leadership and the organizational infrastructure to effectively do anything of relevance in the face of this disaster. Perhaps most alarmingly, I do have to wonder whether we even lack the resolve as a professional group to seek opportunities to mitigate the children's suffering.

This last question is particularly worrisome. Somehow I think we have lost track of what the purpose of “professionalizing” the discipline really is or ought to be. If I remember correctly, leaders and contributors of the past sought greater recognition and also better service for children and youth as the core incentive to pursue a more professionalized work force within our discipline. The material benefits and lifestyle advantages were to be the bonus, not the goal itself. And yet here we are, well into our third decade of explicitly pursuing “professionalization”, and increasingly becoming more disconnected from one another, atomized and compartmentalized into service branches, settings and contexts, allied with other professions more so than with our own principles of care, relational engagement and being present, and ultimately, dare I say, more insular than ever (CYC Net notwithstanding).

As the children of Haiti suffer today, tomorrow and well into the future, we won’t be there to provide comfort, hope and trauma-informed life space interventions. We won’t even be present in the political battles that undoubtedly will unfold in the near future, with groups of people (some well-intended, others looking for profit from human suffering) right here at home. In the face of obvious need and acute and direct relevance of our skills, we will stand incapacitated once again.

Author’s Note: it has often been said that it is not particularly useful to cite problems without offering solutions. I have always felt that this is a profoundly stupid popular wisdom; most solutions are collective efforts, and it is useful to develop solutions as collectives from the ground up, rather than for one individual to offer a ready-made solution that is not likely to meet the complexity of collective needs, desires, values, ethics and the like. What I do think is important when citing problems is the offer to be part of this collective move toward finding solutions. So this is what I do in fact offer: I'll be there with you, but you'll have to identify yourself as I have just done – Kiaras.

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