CYC-Online 132 FEBRUARY 2010
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Lost in translation: Who should look after children in the care system?

Jeremy Millar

This is the text of a presentation made by Jeremy Millar to the goodenoughcaring conference “Love is Enough : sincerity and professionalism in the care and education of children and young people” held at the Maria Assumpta Centre in London on October 4th, 2008.

"Aye aye, fit like abiddy? I’m fair chuffed tae be spikkin at this conference the day.”

That introduction was in the Doric, the dialect local to the north east of Scotland. Those of you in the audience who are native Doric speakers will have noticed that Doric is a second language for me. Here’s the translation; “Hello, how are you all? I am really pleased to speaking at this conference today.”

As illustrated our initial greetings are extremely important and commence the process of engagement and meaning making between individuals. The work of Henry Maier and Thom Garfat expands on this area of residential childcare practice and essentially evidences that it is about use of self and the connections, which we make with others.

How I come to be here today is a complex process one of twists and turns and serendipity. In understanding our motivations for working with children and young people it is useful to reflect on our personal journeys.

I will share some of the key influences on my life and hope that they will serve to illuminate the question that I am here to address.

I am an incomer and an outsider. I am of English parentage but have been brought up for the majority of my life in rural northeast Scotland. I have in addition lived abroad in Vienna during the “cold war” era during which I consumed existential literature leading to a well cultivated cultural lens which has enabled me to see the experience of the “Other” in terms of agendas of cultural imperialism and colonialism.

My own practice roots were developed in the radical era of the late 70’s in which campaigns for social justice in respect of homeless people and other marginalised groups introduced me to the work of Paolo Freire, Ivan Illich, A.S. Neill and the eclectic and disorganised energy of the emerging punk movement.

It is only recently that my awareness of sociological and psychological theories has offered an interpretative knowledge base that I can utilise to make sense of my observations around the dynamics of the residential milieu.

I grew up in a non-conformist liberal household in which radical emancipatory values were ever present. These included the teachings of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in which egalitarian and pacifist principles are to the fore. Family members brought me up with a campaigning awareness of the causes of peace and social justice. This was evidenced through participation in CND and the anti-apartheid campaigns from an early age. I also became conscious of radical approaches to education and workers cooperatives again through the influence of family members. My grandfather “ran” a woollen mill in Ayrshire as a workers cooperative and my mother, a teacher, introduced me to the work of A.S. Neill. I was also fortunate to meet with R.F. MacKenzie who ran Aberdeen's own Summerhill Academy along radical pupil participation lines until forced out by the establishment. I consider myself immensely fortunate to have been brought up in a questioning environment that opposed the dominant ideology in many key areas.

However as an adolescent I found this liberating state of affairs insufficient and veered further into revolutionary discourses around the loosely anarchist politics of the punk “movement”. I had the opportunity to take part in direct action challenging the building of a nuclear power plant, the “right” of the army to recruit in the school, squatting, free festivals and other related anti-establishment activities such as the publication of a youth fanzine in the style of Oz magazine.

In terms of my career in the social services I started at the bottom working with homeless street people residing in a night shelter. This brought me face to face with the profound effects of poverty and structural oppression. It was in the doorstep discussions with the dispossessed “winos” that I developed my ear for the story, the human voice devoid of jargon and psychobabble. I was at this point untrained and arguably untainted by a sense of the professional task. I recall the residential culture of the time being one of relational practice that formed an alternative subculture. There were strong feelings of community and family.

"A lot of people don't realise how lonely and isolated homeless people can be. The Cyrenians are like a family for them and try to provide safe, warm, and comfortable places for them." (service user)

The notion of professional boundaries was barely perceived with workers and residents socialising and drinking together on occasion. Staff shared a variety of political and spiritual motivations loosely focussed on the desire for a different society based on greater social justice and freedom. On reflection the agency at that time was involved in the practice of praxis as described by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. There was a constant questioning of the nature of reality and the oppressive controls either by commission or omission deployed by the State.

In this sometimes fevered milieu the development of inter personal skills directly related to meaning making and shared narratives led to shared histories which were situated in the historical struggles of the working people and those marginalised by society. It was the experience of the workers that the life space was seldom mediated from outside and often if challenged it would be most likely that the workers and residents would side, for example against the police and other authority figures.

This experience has had a profound legacy for me in that it gave me first hand validation that the residential milieu can be organised collectively, embrace and work with a variety of personal value positions, utilise successfully a range of non social work art based interventions and offer a sense of community that extends into a wider community unfettered by the constraints of professional boundaries.

With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to recognise that practice, was for some, informed from a theoretical perspective be it the radical social work agenda, revolutionary Marxist ideology or Christian mission. People negotiated and validated their practice through a conscious and at times unconscious assimilation of the totality of their being. In the absence of codes of practice, regulation and inspection and a unified professional language there existed less in the way of barriers to common purpose.

I was, to utilise Leon Fulcher’s term, experiencing and interpreting events through my cultural lens very specific to my upbringing and value base.

As my career in social care settings progressed I became exposed to a wider variety of professional disciplines, psychiatry, psychological services and social work itself. I was also being confronted with the pressure to become formally trained in social work. I recognise that I resisted this pressure for a number of years because my formative experiences, described above, led me to believe that the professional identity would create barriers to practicing in the manner which I believed best served the interests of those that I worked with.

Professional training reaffirmed my concerns regarding the tensions between the personal and the professional role. The language of CCESTW in terms of social work values situated itself within the emerging politically correct discourse drawing on the heightened awareness of the developing human rights agenda. Intellectually this presented a significant challenge as the core values of social work are implicitly presented as the ACME of moral and ethical development.

The Politically Correct rhetoric of the course required compliance. Discussion of its merit and relevance to the social work task was banished to the water cooler or smoking step. There was little evidence that any of the requirements had been developed in partnership with the recipients of social work services. It was this mismatch between the language of everyday relationships and the professional social worker which presented difficulties in terms of cultural sensitivity and offering an empowering model of praxis.

Using the cultural lens as a kaleidoscope metaphor; it is as though the policy makers have decided a priori on the wondrous design and seek through ever more complex regulation to maintain the perfect picture. Each nudge from out with their sphere of influence dislodges some flakes and threatens the integrity of the design. A tension then develops between those who strive to return the design to a workable version of that which existed previously and those who are amenable to looking afresh at the new design and making sense of the nudges which brought it about.

There are within current residential child care settings many of these tensions being played out at all levels of our organisations. The regulation and inspection process arguably creates a procedural approach that unfortunately compliments the technical rationale risk averse practices now engrained in mainstream social work practice. We can see from this how workers efforts to shake the kaleidoscope up can be easily thwarted and neutralised.

An example that I came across recently involved a secure resource for young women which had employed a number of staff members from the prison service. They had brought in illegal practices of “paining” children in restraint holds. Their approach was now defining the ethos of the setting and they were able to get into these positions under the radar of a selection process that involved young people and the regular inspections of the Care Commission. I find this extremely concerning as the paper trail will evidence “good practice” in terms of recruitment and completely loose the cry of those young women's pain.

One challenge posed in the work that we undertake with vulnerable children and young people is employing staff that actually like them. The evolution of residential care is littered with examples of adults abusing and misusing their position of power and influence. The inherent power imbalance coupled with the societal ambivalence or downright mistrust of children and young people in care lends legitimacy to the actions of these dangerous adults. We continue to fail to learn the lessons and return to first principles of care and nurturing. Despite the legislation and policy requiring of us to take the approach of a “good enough” parent we are time after time found to be wanting.

I would suggest that the reasons for this lie in mechanisms of structural oppression. Henry Maier talks in his paper The Core of Care about care for the caregivers. In this he describes the necessity of caring (love) being modelled and evident at all levels of the organisation. He makes the critical point that workers cannot care adequately for those in their care if they themselves feel undervalued and unloved in their own role. In my own practice I can look to simple measures as regular supervision, flexible family friendly work practices and offering workers a degree of autonomy in their practice contributing in some part to staff feeling valued. How difficult is this to achieve?

Another crucial element that accompanies the procedural approach and the current training regimes is that of language. I started this talk with an illustration of the importance of shared meaning making and it is this element which is hampered by the use of a mixed bag of quasi professional jargon. We as workers borrow from the medical and social model with little thought to the ethical and moral content of these narratives. The children and families we work with are distanced from mainstream society by reasons of poverty, deprivation, discrimination and prejudice. They are intuitively aware of their lack of agency and the distaste with which they are viewed and we compound this sense by talking in a mysterious language using puzzling acronyms. Once again we depart from our core values and impose the oppressive and divisive practices of the ruling elites.

It strikes me as bizarre that we are such, apparently, willing participants in the oppression of people who often inhabit our own communities and could be directly linked by way of language and culture in shared meaning making and understanding of common experiences. The concept of emancipatory values should join us in common struggle against the broader mechanisms of oppression, yet we allow ourselves to become the velvet glove of the ruling elite’s discriminatory policies and ongoing efforts to maintain divisions and exclusion from the mainstream benefits of full citizenship.

Having presented this somewhat bleak and generalised view of the worker’s role I would like to balance things with the more optimistic belief that the majority of residential child care workers are motivated by good intentions and a sense of genuine caring for the children and young people in the care system. Humanistic principles can be brought to the fore by effective leadership and nurturing therapeutic care can be delivered in spite of the procedural and regulatory constraints.

There are other possible worlds which can be created and I would suggest that the first step would be to cultivate a distinct language of residential child care. This would be emancipatory practice conducted in a meaningful manner utilising the views and experiences of all the participants in the process. Engaging in partnership with the children, families and communities would be the foundation of the approach. Residential care would be viewed as a community resource which complimented other resources such as kinship care and foster care. The stigma of a service of last resort would be challenged through the introduction of a workforce trained in social pedagogic principles, knowledge and skills.

This approach is nicely summarised by the term “head, hands and heart” with workers trained in theoretical understanding of child development as well as practical skills for working with groups utilising arts, drama and other experiential activities. The doing would be as important as the analysing. Core activities would be balanced between the assessment and the engagement. The practice would focussed on strength based practice and utilise the evidence base which recognises resilience and the positive outcomes achieved by successful educational experience, structured play and the resolution of issues around loss and trauma.

In my dream residential unit the staff would be jugglers, poets and bread makers trained to degree level in social pedagogy. This is a reality in some other European countries and within the Camphill communities in the UK. In fact there is a degree course in Curative Education at the University of Aberdeen specifically designed for working in the Camphill/Steiner communities.

An understanding of praxis, committed action would be another strand of the training and workers would have the remit to work for change in communities crushed by deprivation and structural oppression. In the collective attempt to build people’s social capital through educational, cultural and political activities the current process of alienation and atomisation of communities could be halted. I believe that residential worker and community workers could play an effective role.

Most importantly workers would be expected to spend as much time engaged with the children and young people. A strange worker would be the one in the office, in my unit there would be no office, or on the phone avoiding interaction. The reality of Bronfrenbrenner’s statement that each child requires at least one person who is crazy about them would be a reality. The focus of the day would be to create moments of joy.

I recall taking some of the young people to see a meteor shower and in so doing breaking many of the house rules and bringing down the opprobrium of staff at the next team meeting. Due to my position as manager I got away with engineering this moment of joy, we saw half a dozen shooting stars and wishes were made, but I was conscious that not all workers would have attempted this activity. The challenge would be to make this sort of practice unremarkable.

In conclusion I would like to say that we have the people who care about and for children and young people yet often our energies go into stifling and misdirecting their energies and enthusiasms. We achieve this negative outcome through the implementation of policies and procedures that replicate the oppressive structures proven to harm the communities and families from which the children and young people. In addition workers are often distanced from their roots and culture in their working class communities through the assimilation of the “professional” identity which distances them from engagement with the families at risk.

I am arguing for the development of a residential voice, one shared by all involved in the process, one which embraces “head, hands and heart” as central to our task, one that renounces as oppressive the technical rationale risk averse practices and instead celebrates community, engagement and relationships held together by love.

Workers would be able to express genuine emotion, stay true to their beliefs, be able to manage and maintain their own boundaries through inter dependent relationships of equality. Lastly they would be free to be enthusiastically creative, free to fly kites, climb trees and swim rivers alongside those in our care.

Related Readings

Ainsworth, S. and Fulcher, L. (1981) Group Care for children: Concepts and Issues. London: Tavistock.

Bailey, R. and Brake, M. (Eds). (1976) Radical Social Work. London: Random House.

Bronfrenbrenner, U. (1979) The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Fulcher, L. C. (2001). Cultural Safety: Lessons From Maori Wisdom, Reclaiming Children and Youth, 10, 3. pp.153-157. (accessed 20/10/2008)

Garfat, T. (1998) The effective Child and Youth Care Intervention, Journal of Child and Youth Care, 12, 1-2.

Krueger, M. The Seventh Moment, (accessed 20/10/2008)

Mackenzie, R.F. (1976) The Unbowed Head. Edinburgh: EUSP

Maier H.W. (1981) Essential Components in Care and Treatment Environments for Children. In Ainsworth, F.F. and Fulcher, L.C. (Eds) Group Care for Children: Concepts and Issues. London: Tavistock

Moss, P. and Petrie, P. (2002) From Children's Services to Children's Spaces. London: Routledge Falmer
Neill, A.S. (1960) Summerhill. London: Penguin Books.

Ramsden, I. (2002) Cultural Safety and Nursing Education, (accessed 20/10/2008)

Smith, M. (2005) Rethinking residential child care: a child and youth care approach, in Crimmens. D. and Milligan, I. (2005) Facing the future; residential child care in the 21st century. Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing.

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