CYC-Net on Facebook CYC-Net on Twitter Search CYC-Net


121 MARCH 2009
ListenListen to this


Un-professionalism in Child and Youth Care: “What were they thinking?”

Michelle Gahwiler

Throughout my career as a Child and Youth Counsellor I have participated in many professional development seminars and courses. I have read a multitude of writings on professionalism and listened to debates as to whether CYCs are an actual profession. I have debated this issue and have thought long and hard about the question: Are we professionals? Should we be seen as such? I have been able to recognize (throughout my search for the truth) that there are a number of very basic, unaddressed concerns I see in our field that have not been widely discussed in our literature. I have been able to identify some of these concerns and write about them in order to begin the process of remedying this situation.

These issues lie in the behaviours seen in some of our less than professional colleagues, behaviours that may impact our evolution to professional status. They are areas that most of us would see as basic professional behaviours. Dana Beresh (1998) identified the basics as “coming to work on time, meeting deadlines, dressing appropriately, accurately presenting information at case conferences, and working hard to make a difference for children and families,” (p.87). I agree with Beresh’s description of the basics but are these seemingly commonly-known basics being followed by all of our colleagues? There are CYCs who are less than nurturing, break professional boundaries and confidentialities, are “lazy,” lack initiative or are unmotivated, and who may be less than positive when role-modelling for the children and youth we work with.

As professionals, we need to stand together and deal with the workers who are reflecting poorly on the field. We need to find ways to promote understanding in these CYCs and, if not help them change their maladaptive behaviours (as we are so good at doing), then ask them ever so politely to pursue another career. If nothing else, we can pose the question to each other and ourselves; when these people decided to join a helping, caring, high-stress profession, what were they thinking? These unprofessional CYCs can be classified into several categories as follows.

The militant
This worker can be described as the person who earned his or her CYW/CCW diploma at the “Military school of Child and Youth Work.” Sadly, this worker does still exist today. They are the staff members who are inflexible and will use physical intervention at the drop of a hat. They are the workers who are discussed by the media as “the bad guys” or “child and youth workers who abuse children” (Gaughan and Gharabaghi, 1999, p.15) and in our own literature as poorly trained workers. They display poor anger-management or problem-solving skills and would thrive in what Fewster and Garfat describe as the correctional model residence (1993). These workers often believe that “tough” love is the best intervention and sometimes have a very difficult time understanding the multitude of issues that children and adolescents face, never mind troubled or mentally ill clients. If we know that clients “respond to the personal characteristics of their caretakers” (Moses, 2000, p.114) and we are attempting to teach our clients adaptive behaviours, why do we allow the militant worker to continue to practice? Moses (2000) identifies the diverse effects of staff’s response style on clients' behaviour in a residential setting. Clearly there is a connection between the level of aggression on a unit and the staff’s interactions throughout the shift.

The militant-style worker leads me to wonder why they would have joined a helping profession with children and youth? It seems as though they are too concerned with power and control over others to actually provide care to the children and youth they work with. It leads me to once again pose the question, what were they thinking?

The boundary-breaker
Most of us as CYCs have had minor struggles with boundaries at the beginning of our careers. These boundary issues are generally resolved throughout our student placements during our college education. I have come across several people during my years in the field who were unable to resolve these struggles for some reason or another. These are the workers who form friendships with parents and even kids and may end up in a relationship with the parents or youth they work with. They give out their personal phone numbers and addresses to the children and families so they can continue their “friendship” after their working relationship is terminated. They are the workers who ignore consequences, limits and boundaries in order to maintain an “un-therapeutic” relationship with their clients. This lack of appropriate boundaries can confuse the children and youth we work with and give them an unhealthy idea of what a relationship is. Relationships are paramount to the child and youth work profession (Gaughan and Gharabaghi, 1999) and if they are abused, we cannot be viewed as a professional group.

Another group of such workers are the ones who may breach confidentiality throughout their work. There is a “rampant abuse of confidentiality in the field” and we need to address this and learn to confront the workers who we see doing this (Garfat and Ricks, 1998, p.73). These workers affect the future of our profession because they show poor professional boundaries and ethics and may be seen as the norm in society as well as by other professionals. Again, I wonder, when these people joined the field, were they looking for treatment themselves? What were they thinking?

The slacker
I have stories from many co-workers in addition to my personal accounts of this type of person. These are the people who arrive at work a minimum of five minutes late for every shift and are the first ones out the door at the end of the day. They joined the profession “exclusively for the sake of convenience” because it seemed like “an easy job to get” (Moses, 2000, p. 120). They are often unprofessional in their interactions with other professionals and are seen as the person who goes “missing” when there is work to be done. They call in sick frequently for seemingly no reason and rely on others to plan each and every day/activity/shift.

When it comes time to write a report, it is not done at all or is so full of errors that they appear entirely unprofessional. They are reluctant to participate in any kind of training or education and, as identified by Gaughan and Gharabaghi (1999), “Clearly a child and youth worker who has minimal training and education will have a difficult time presenting ideas and clinical formulations that have a significant impact on other professionals” (p. 12). These people reflect poorly on our profession as they are providing legal documentation to other professionals that is inadequate. I believe the slacker is a danger to our profession and could prevent us from being recognized as competent, worthwhile assets to treatment teams. I wonder, when these workers got into such a high stress, demanding field, what were they thinking?

The role model?
It is proven that role modelling is a pertinent area of the CYC’s job. Children learn from example. Areas such as hygiene, relationship-building and conflict resolution are addressed through the interactions with children (Special Report, 1995). The person I call the “role model?” is just the opposite of a positive role model. They may come into work exhausted from the night before at the club, smelling of stale alcohol and cigarettes. They may smoke, swear or display sexism, racism and other basic human rights code violations in front of the children. They have a limited understanding of the issues faced by ethnic minorities as well as people classified as “sexual minorities” (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered) and therefore they may model inappropriate responses for their clients.

This lack of understanding limits their ability to provide care for clients from diverse backgrounds and “It is necessary for practitioners to understand both inter- and intra-ethnic diversity in order to accommodate the client’s viewpoint in negotiating appropriate care,” (Fewster and Garfat, 1993, p.278). Fewster and Garfat discuss the importance of teaching by CYCs in residential settings (1993). This is of extreme importance as modelling appropriate behaviour, self-awareness and self-expression are paramount for a child's/youth’s learning.

Another worker who fits into the “role model?” category is the worker who displays poor hygiene. They may have unwashed, very dirty hair, un-brushed teeth, or a clear lack of deodorant (and possibly even bathing) is evident. How can children learn appropriate hygiene when the adults in their lives do not practice this themselves? Alternatively, there is the person who shows up wearing tight, revealing clothes or excessive make-up and perfume. What kind of message do kids get when they see staff members who can’t be “themselves?” I don’t understand the staff member who joins a field that shapes the views of children and tries to help form competent, well adapted adults when they themselves appear to struggle with social acceptance. I wonder, when they joined this profession, what were they thinking?

It seems to me that if we hope to be recognized as professionals, we need to address these issues with these colleagues who are making these violations to our standards and ethics. As a group of professionals, “if there is something about a program that may not be meeting the needs of the clients, that excludes people, or is of concern in other areas, tell someone” (Beresh, 1998, p. 92), identify these workers and allow them to get the professional supervision they require. People may become used to the way things are happening and may be resistant to change. “It doesn’t take long for people doing a job for a couple of years to become “stuck” in one way of doing something. Opinions should be asked for and expected from employees, it’s all part of evolution.” (Beresh, p. 92).

There is a grave lack of recognition in our field and it is clear that we need to continue to make progress to be recognized. VanderVen questions “whether “common sense” should be a formally stated attribute of professional behaviour” (1996, p. 301) as she knows of no other profession which states this as such. I believe we need to see common sense as an attribute to professional behaviour but maybe we need to break this down a little. I see the areas I have described above as common sense. Beresh (1998) and other writers for our profession see this as well. It seems clear though, that some of our colleagues do not recognize these areas as standard, common sense practice and therefore, perhaps they should be made more clear to people hoping to join this profession. We need to be sure that people maintain professional ethics. “Until the majority of child and youth workers practice, present, and relate as professionals, we stay in a constant state of emergence,” (Gaughan & Gharabaghi, 1999, p. 14). We need to represent the profession in a positive manner, challenge one another to be professional and present as such, and be professional ourselves- especially when “common sense” is involved.

Fortunately, the “militants,” “boundary-breakers,” “slackers” and “role models?” that I described are few and far between. They often are identified and given supervision for their issues. They may even turn into fantastic workers after some positive supervision. The future of our profession relies on the workers who do a good job, role-modelling and offering feedback for the workers who do not. It requires that the supervisors from the colleges catch these issues before they become lifelong working concerns, and that co-workers stop them before they start teaching their “skills and theories” to new staff. Ultimately, if the un-professional workers cannot accept and learn from the feedback, as a last resort they should be encouraged to pursue a career in another field.

This profession is rich with well-educated, caring, compassionate, hard-working people who are dedicated to providing a positive role model for the children they work with. As professionals, we need to maintain a high level of standards and ethics. We need to challenge one another to be the best we can be and make a positive difference to the field. How can we as a profession have a future if we don’t maintain some sort of ethical practice? If we fail to do these things to improve our field, if we allow the un-professionals to continue to represent us, we have to ask ourselves, “What are we thinking?"


Beresh, D. (1998). Becoming a professional: A new BA graduate’s perspective. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 12, 4. pp.87-93.

Fewster, G.and Garfat, T. (1993). Residential Child and Youth Care. In R. Ferguson, A. Pence and C. Denholme (Eds.) Professional Child and Youth Care (2nd Edition). Vancouver: UBC Press. pp. 15-43.

Garfat, T. and Ricks, F. (1998). Ethics education in Child and Youth Care: A Canadian survey. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 11, 4. pp. 69-76.

Gaughan, P. and Gharabaghi, K. (1999). The prospects and dilemmas of child and youth work as a professional discipline. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 13, 1. pp. 1-18.

Krueger, M. (1997). A contribution to the dialogue about the “soul” of professional development. Child and Youth Care Forum, 26, 6. pp. 411-415.

Moses, T. (2000). Why people choose to be residential child care workers. Child and Youth Care Forum, 29, 2. pp. 113-126.

Special Report. (1995). Curriculum content for Child and Youth Care practice: Recommendations of the task force of the North American consortium of Child and Youth Care education programs (NACCYCEP), 1995. Child and Youth Care Forum, 24, 4. pp. 269-278.

VanderVen, K. (1996). Toward a professional dead end or a dynamic process of professional development? The paradoxes of Shealy’s “The therapeutic parent: A model for the Child and Youth Care profession”. Child and Youth Care Forum, 25, 5. pp. 297-304.

This feature was an assignment in Michelle’s CYC BA program.