In 1983, as an eager Child and Youth Care worker who had just received his PhD and founded a university education and research center with other workers in our professional association, I wrote a book titled Careless to Caring for Troubled Youth. My premise was that turnover and lack of support for practitioners was a major problem in the Child and Youth Care field. I argued that unless we could find a way to recruit and keep competent workers in the field the system would continue to fail many children and families. Much of my work was based on the positive experience I had had for several years as a Child and Youth Care worker in a residential treatment center for troubled boys. Based on my experience and many other good programs I had learned about, I tried to show what could be done.
I used case examples to describe what happens to children and families that come into programs, bureaus and departments with high turnover, incompetence, and impermanence. I also showed how many well intended and committed professionals entered the field only to be discouraged by the lack of support and incentives they received to stay and develop as professionals. Along with this, I provided several examples of what happens when children and youth are fortunate to be in programs with competent, experienced Child and Youth Care professionals, and argued that it was cost and treatment effective to invest in the training, supervision, salaries, and overall development of a Child and Youth Care staff.
A few years ago members of the Academy of Child and Youth Care Professionals in the US and Canada wrote and published a position paper. We argued that in order to move forward in services for children and youth it was more important than ever to recruit, develop, supervise, and educate youth workers and to pay them a decent salary. Over the years studies in Child and Youth Care and other human service fields have shown that education, supervision, career opportunities, decent staffing patterns and working hours, team decision-making and adequate pay contribute to organizational commitment, job satisfaction, and productivity. The Academy said it was time to implement these practices on a broader scale.
In their editorial, Telling our Story, in last month’s CYC-Online magazine Brian Gannon and Thom Garfat asked us to tell our stories with the kind of sensitivity, insight, and accuracy that goes into writing stories for the media that ring true with the experience of Child and Youth Care as a counter to the “sensationalized” and “out of context” polarized or sentimental writing that has taken over much of the airways and print. Tell stories in other words that ring true with the experience.
When I started in the field, in the late 1960s it was clear to many of us that this is what we had to do. We had to tell our story, generate new knowledge, and get the word out about what we did. Our energy was focused on developing a profession with its own education programs and knowledge base. Most of us, as I recall, liked our work and the places where we worked. We were at home in Child and Youth Care and wanted to stay. So we educated ourselves, performed at the highest level we could, and fought for higher wages and benefits.
In our efforts to show the value of Child and Youth Care we told our real stories with pride. We tried to build our field by showing how complex and important the work was. Child and youth care in our stories was an imperfect science filled with moments of mistakes, discoveries, fun, struggles, pain, joy, and gut wrenching moments that made us laugh and cry (see some of the stories told by Child and Youth Care workers earlier in this column). Many of us volunteered our time after long shifts to form our associations. Our motto was “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” No one was going to provide us with the things we wanted unless we could show and articulate why we needed it. And we did this.
I was and am proud to be part of a long history of workers who were passionate about their work and spoke out about it. We “got on our soap boxes,” as Karen VanderVen often says in her CYC-Online magazine column. We learned from the pioneers who had gone before us and from our mistakes and successes. We made progress in developing a rich literature, generating new knowledge, and organizing ourselves into a profession with standards of practice.
Sometimes, when I read comments from workers on CYC-Net who seem stuck in a bad place and are waiting to be recognized and/or for things to change, I wonder why you would work in that place, or why do you bother to stay in this field? “Time for you to move on,” I say to myself. On the other hand I have empathy for workers who like and are committed to their work and are trying to change for the better organizations, communities and countries where they work. I can relate to their struggle. I get excited about the potential for significant change they bring to the field with their soulful insight.
It is more important than ever today that we tell the story my colleagues and I tried to tell with a fresh set of experiences, eyes, and ears. We have to learn from the past and add new insights that ring true with contemporary challenges. Fortunately we have many new ways to get the word out such as www.cyc-net.org. There is greater potential than ever to be heard. The challenge, however, is the same. We have to show how our work positively impacts the youth and families we care about. And we have to do it with the realism that comes from being professionals committed to creating change.
As I write this, I recall that it was a year ago in May that several of us from the US and Canada, who have been part of the effort to get the word out and professionalize the field for several years, met in New Mexico. The stories many of the participants shared before, during, and since then (here on CYC-Net and elsewhere) are the kind of stories that need to be told (for a summary see my Moments With Youth column in CYC-Online June 2008). So are the stories of so many new voices that have “shown up” in recent years. We still have a long way to go. I also find that exciting.
I am reminded again of this section from doctor/poet William Carlos William poem, Pastoral which he wrote later in his life at a time when he found himself at home among the poor.
the fences and outhouses
built of barrel staves
and parts of boxes, all,
as if I am fortunate,
smeared a bluish green
that properly weathered
pleases me the best
of all colors
will believe this
of vast import to the nation
No one will know, of course, unless we tell them. And this morning, while I write again in the coffee shop, sun shining through the window, jazz and rap playing in the background, people coming and going, peaceful, the sleepy youth finish their coffee and bagels, and slowly head off to the School for the Arts while the community wakes around them.