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124 JUNE 2009
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Breaking through our isolation: Some reading tips for residential Child and Youth Care practitioners

Kiaras Gharabaghi

It has always amazed me how quickly one can feel lonely and isolated from the rest of the world when working in residential care. Although there have been dramatic changes in the context of residential care over the past few decades, none of these have helped much to bring us out of our isolation. Residential programs today are frequently located in neighbourhoods rather than on the grounds of campuses, and virtually all such programs are involved with community resources each and every day. In most cases, residential Child and Youth Care practitioners are taking part in multi-disciplinary case discussions and plan of care meetings, and our written observations and assessments of children and youth in our care make their way to ever-increasing numbers of other kinds of professionals. And still, on a day to day basis, it often feels like we walk into our “house” at the beginning of the shift, disappear from the world for eight hours while engaged in the sometimes surreal world of the group home, and eventually reappear in our homes and amongst our peers, fairly certain that no one out there has the slightest clue what just happened for us.

Under these circumstances, it is easy to forget, or to put aside one’s knowledge, that all around the world, residential care unfolds as one of several components of caring for or looking after children and youth who for whatever reason can’t live with their birth families. And as it turns out, virtually everywhere there are people who have experiences similar to ours, and who are thinking about how to make their own lives and the lives of the children and youth in the residences, better, more satisfying, or simply more bearable. Over the past few weeks, I have made a conscious effort to check out the latest writing about residential care; I thought perhaps there is something comforting to be learned, or at least some new perspective to be considered that might help to “globalize” the residential experience. And to my surprise, in about three weeks worth of reading, I find myself re-energized and feeling much less isolated in my interest in and reflections on residential care. I thought it would be helpful to share some of what I have read.

I should first of all point out that it took me a grand total of about eight minutes to search for and sign out six recent books about residential care. Of course, it helps when one has access to a university library; in the absence of such access, getting your employer to order some or all of the following books might be the best way to go. The first book I picked up is an edited book that examines the current context and practice of residential care in eleven different countries: Botswana, Ireland, Korea, Germany, the US, Brazil, Sweden, the UK, Romania, Israel and South Africa. In each of these countries, residential care has a long history, in most cases beginning with the onset of the industrial revolution and usually outside of the purview of the state; religious organizations and later NGOs were the early pioneers of residential care for children and youth. In most of these countries, the challenges associated with residential care are similar: it is difficult to attract and retain qualified staff, there is broad public resistance to the institutionalization of children and youth but there is insufficient public commitment to contribute to foster care or other alternatives. Almost everywhere, youth graduating from residential care struggle to make it once released from the system. And in most cases, children and youth in residential care perform very poorly in formal education. What struck me the most, however, is that Child and Youth Care practitioners in all of these countries (they are called many different things in different countries) all seem to do very similar things with children and youth, albeit with very different resources and sometimes in very volatile and dangerous conditions. It was a fascinating read, and one that is quite humbling when thinking about the comparatively richly resourced Canadian context of residential care.

Next, I read a book called Working with Children in Care: European Perspectives; this book is a bit dry, but the content is incredibly interesting in as much as it presents us with one of the major theoretical models of working with children and youth practiced throughout Europe, and in particular in Germany, Denmark and Holland “social pedagogy. Social pedagogy has its origins in the early approaches to “bringing up” children abandoned by their families; while pedagogy in the North American usage of the term is strongly associated with formal education, in Europe it is a framework for informal learning and growth for children and youth, and the approach mirrors many Child and Youth Care concepts and theories with one major difference; rather than focusing on psychotherapy, social pedagogy focuses on “learning and teaching” and feeding the emotional and intellectual mind. It might take me a while longer to formulate some concrete lessons from social pedagogy for the North American context of Child and Youth Care practice, but I have a feeling that there is something to be learned (and perhaps something we can give back, too).

I then picked up another very interesting book, this one focused less on residential care specifically and more on the concept of “care” generally. Given the centrality of “caring” in Child and Youth Care practice, I thought it would be immensely interesting to contemplate the concept in several different contexts. This book does not disappoint; caring is considered using multiple frameworks related to care giving roles and contexts: men caring for children in the nursery, nursing as a model for caring, the differences and commonalities of caring from the perspective of mothers, nurses and teachers, multi-generation families and caring within these as well as the caring contributions children make to their families. This book is sure to shake your sense of caring, but in a good, enriching sort of a way.

I moved on to a book about “collaborative practice–; no, not the “Explosive Child” version of collaborative problem-solving, but collaborative practice as it pertains specifically to the residential care context. The authors cover the meaning and strategic implementation of collaboration in the contexts of practitioner-child, practitioner-practitioner, and practitioner- other professional. There is acknowledgment of the many difficulties residential Child and Youth Care practitioners face when seeking collaboration with others in their day to day work with children and youth, but rather than lamenting the problems, this book actually provides some doable strategies for improvement.

I then dived into a book that speaks to some of my core interests: managing a residential program for children and youth. There is not too much literature out there that speaks specifically to the challenges of managing a residential program, and so I was pleased to see that at least some recent work on this has been done. This book is based on the UK experience of residential care, which is in and of itself interesting. The issues covered are primarily related to human resources, such as managing a staff team, organizational roles, supervision, and so on. But the writing is based on research that is recent and that involved input from all levels of stakeholders, including managers, residential staff and children and youth. In that sense, it was simply refreshing to read something about the job that perhaps is even lonelier than the job of the Child and Youth Care practitioners working day to day within children and youth; residential supervisors and managers are, in my view at least, some of the least supported individuals within the Child and Youth Care system, and typically they are responsible for all problems but credited for few accomplishments.

Finally (for now), I completed my intense reading session for this month by ending where I started, with international perspectives. This last book is all about alternatives to residential group care and provides us with some insight into the struggles and dilemmas faced in countries such as Canada, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands where the hope for finding family-based care that can handle the demands of caring for “very troubled” children and youth is in full flight; I think it’s safe to say that around the world, residential group care will continue to be one way of addressing the needs of children and youth who can’t live at home; or perhaps it is more about addressing the needs of societies to feel engaged in the issues and challenges faced by these children and youth.

I am telling you about my reading list over the past month simply because I know what it’s like to work in the context of crises, conflicting demands, fighting teams, screaming kids, pissed off neighbours, and ignorant others. It sucks. But it is comforting to know that the challenge of caring for kids is a universal one, and that everywhere in the world there are lots of questions being asked, lots of suggestions being made, and lots of debates unfolding. Reading these books helps with overcoming our feeling of isolation. Of course, the roughly one thousand pages that I read this month will do nothing to improve life for even one child or youth. That will only happen if we, as Child and Youth Care practitioners, are able to take the global debates in stride, learn what we can and remain critical about what is imposed, and then go on with being present with the children and youth we already know.

Here are the books in the order I wrote about them; ask your employer to order them for you. If s/he refuses, do me a favour and send me an e-mail with your employer’s contact info, and I will personally send him or her a letter.

Courtney, Mark E. and Iwaniec, Dorota. (Eds.) (2009). Residential care of children: Comparative perspectives. Oxford, UK. Oxford University Press.

Petrie, Pat; Boddy, Janet; Cameron, Claire; Wigfall, Valerie and Simon, Antonia. (2006). Working with children in care: European perspectives. Berkshire, UK and New York. Open University Press.

Brannen, Julia and Moss, Peter. (Eds.) (2003). Rethinking children's care. Buckingham, UK and Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.

Milligan, Ian and Stevens, Irene. (2006). Residential child care: Collaborative practice. London. SAGE.

Hicks, Leslie; Gibbs, Ian; Weatherly, Helen and Byford, Sarah. (2007). Managing children's homes: Developing effective leadership in small organizations. London. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Peters, Friedhelm. (Ed.) (2008). Residential child care and its alternatives: International perspectives. Stoke on Trent, UK and Sterling, US. Trentham Books.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention this latest contribution about residential care. I have ordered this one myself, but have not yet read it. Knowing the author, though, I am certain that it will be worthwhile:

Smith, Mark (2009). Rethinking residential child care: Positive perspectives. London. Policy Press.

Happy reading!

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