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127 SEPTEMBER 2009
ListenListen to this

care workers

Care to Try?

Laura Steckley and Sandra Howden

Last month I wrote about the importance of writing, both for professional development and for the development of the sector. I suggested it might be helpful to consider writing as a form of thinking; that seeing our thoughts in black and white helps us to scrutinise them; that revision is often necessary to clean up gaps in our logic or unclear explanations; and that this can be seen as part of an overall process of bringing tacit knowledge to a more explainable, accessible level. Well, it seems that my column last month required more revision than I gave it. Let me explain.

Tacit knowledge can be described as knowledge that a person holds but cannot articulate, explain or evaluate. I’ve been thinking and writing about the importance of bringing knowledge from a tacit level to an explicit, explainable level, but something funny happened last month. I mistakenly began to refer to tacit knowledge as if it were explicit, explainable knowledge. The only explanation I can offer is jet lag and the distraction of being with my family in Colorado when I wrote that piece. I guess this exemplifies the importance of writing our thoughts so that they can be scrutinised, though I wish my scrutiny had caught this error before I submitted last month’s column.

Thom and Brian, our good editors, have allowed me to submit corrective revisions “post publication”, and this has eased my mortification a bit. What a developmentally rich and gentle environment, our CYC-Net. Where else are so many in Child and Youth Care encouraged to find and develop their voice, and even allowed to correct their mistakes along the way? Thanks guys.

Anyway, apologies for the confusion this likely caused. I hope seeing me step in a big pile and survive might encourage someone out there to take the risk and put together something for next month’s issue.

This month, I’d like to introduce Sandra Howden. Sandra is a student on our MSc and has made a guest contribution to the column. Before I hand things over to her, though, I’d like to tell you a little bit about her. Sandra came to me during the first year of the course because she was already thinking about her dissertation. The subject “care “fuelled what appeared to be a strong sense of curiosity and motivation in Sandra, but she wasn’t sure how she could turn it into a viable piece of research. We talked, she read (and wrote) and developed what I think will be a compelling small study.

During this process, Sandra talked a lot about her ideas. Initially, fellow students, some colleagues and even Sandra had questions about how proper research could be done on care. Care? Maybe it’s too mundane, too obvious or for some other reason not worthy of empirical research. Perhaps their understanding of research was, as was mine not long ago, only of real, tangible things that can be measured. But, as Sandra developed her understanding of both her subject and her methodology for researching it, and continued to discuss it with others, a couple of interesting things happened.

First, she had a greater than anticipated number of young people who were eager to be interviewed and share their experiences of care. She even had to go back and request added interviews from the University Ethics Committee. Eliciting participation of young people can be a big stumbling block in research, but in this case they were enthusiastic.

Second, fellow practitioners began to approach Sandra requesting to be interviewed. It seems that they had thoughts about the meaning and importance of care and how it is demonstrated to the young people they work with. People “round about her became interested, even excited, about this subject. What a nice illustration of taking tacit, taken for granted knowledge and bringing it to a level that can be scrutinised, explained, discussed. It is also a good illustration of the potential transformative power of practitioner research, both for the individual and for the organisation “but I–ll resist making a pitch for this until another time. I doubt anyone reading this column needs convincing that care is real, but hopefully after reading Sandra’s piece, you–ll be stimulated to think, talk (or even write) about what care means in your place of work.

* * *

Care to try?

When Laura first suggested I write something for CYC-Net I found this a daunting prospect. Writing has never been a strong point of mine. As far back as school I found writing a chore and due to my dyslexia, I am still bearing the psychological scars. However, when I continued on to further education at university, I had what my practice teacher described as a “light bulb moment.” I had found something that grabbed my attention, made me enthusiastic and made me want to read and write. I am now in my final year of the MSc in Advanced Residential Child Care with SIRCC/Glasgow School of Social work, and I am at the stage of writing my dissertation. My academic ability is still not great, but I have found I have lots to say.

Last month Laura wrote about the importance of writing and the importance of articulating our thoughts, ideas and experiences in residential child care. She spoke of writing as “thinking on paper.” I have always been interested in finding out the views of children, but how would I share their experiences and how would I be sure their experiences would make a difference to our practice? I knew the answer was to write about their experiences.

“You don’t give a shit about me! you’re only here for the money!” shouts an angry little boy from the roof of the local children's home. I have heard these words on a number of occasions directed at both myself and other care staff. Thinking back to when I first started in residential child care nine years ago, this statement did not mean a lot to me. I thought this was a typical adolescent thing to say. I used to think to myself, “I do care, the money is not that good, I am losing sleep after an incident and worrying about whether I made the right decision while on shift.” As time went on and I became a more invested and reflective practitioner, this kind of statement began to bother me. This led me to question how I cared for these children, whether my actions were a reflection of what I believed to be caring and whether the young people perceived my acts as caring.

We use the word “care” regularly, particularly in the social care setting. It’s in our title “care staff”, we refer to residential childcare, and we say we “care” for the children we look after. But what does it really mean to care? This question has led me to my dissertation subject. My study explores what it really means for young people to care and to feel cared for. It also explores the benefits of “caring” interactions between staff and young people. Tronto, a leading philosopher, argues that we should make care a central element in our ethical decision making. She states, “The world will look different if we move care from its current peripheral location to a place near the centre of human life” (Tronto, 1994, p.101).

Much of the previous and current literature on residential childcare has the recurring theme of the need for therapeutic relationships and how these relationships are central to our professional task. The need for positive relationships for healthy child development is well documented through theories of attachment, resilience and recovery from abuse and trauma (Hughes, 1998; Kegan, 2004). Some of the most powerful moments occur when there is a personal connection between the child and the worker, as reflected by Smith (2005, p.123) who states, “It’s the singer not the song that’s going to make a difference to the lives of the kids we work with.”

Similarly, literature from criminal and youth justice is beginning to recognise the importance of relationships. Trotter (2006), although referring to adult involuntary clients, discusses how the worker-client relationship is vital in interventions where we seek to make changes. McNeil (2005, p.8) echoes this by stating, “This emerging (if belated) focus on the relational and interpersonal aspects of effective practice with offenders is strongly supported by research evidence from psychotherapy.” He then goes on to discuss the need for accurate empathy, respect or warmth, therapeutic genuineness, a therapeutic relationship and an approach that is person centred. His further discussions highlight how research with young offenders shows that all of these relationship skills have an effective contribution to the prevention of offending behaviour. So while relationship is of central importance in helping professions, it seems that care “a vital ingredient in helping relationships “has received less critical focus.

The emphasis on “care”, in fact, has been compromised. There is a growing trend towards procedures, targets, outcomes measures and other tick box approaches. This is referred to as managerialism. As a result of this trend, our services are becoming more business like (Domenilli, 2002), and it is difficult not to wonder how this actually improves things for young people. In reading for this dissertation, the following quote really struck me in addressing many of the changes resulting from managerialism:

“As a result of the dominance of managerialism, the major components of the relationship between human beings have changed from care and concern (direct, primary motivations) to cash and contracts (indirect, secondary motivations). Relationships are legal, time-limited, and task-oriented entities with clearly stated responsibilities” (Tsui and Cheung, 2004, p.440).

Within this agenda we appear to miss the ethical components to our practice. Moss and Petrie (2002) discuss how joy, spontaneity, care, play, love, emotion and relationships are missing from the vocabulary of managerialism. There appears to be a greater need to remember the ethics of care and our value base that should be underpinning our practice.

Ethics of Care are concerned with responsibilities and relationships rather than solely relying on rules and rights. Tronto describes care as “a practice rather than a set of rules or principles – it involves particular acts of caring and a general habit of mind, a species activity that includes everything we do to maintain, continue and repair our world so we can live in it as well as possible” (Tronto, 1994, p.103). Although Tronto highlights the importance of care as being central to our practice, young people are experts of their own experiences. By listening to young people’s experiences of feeling cared for I hope to achieve a greater insight into the effects of “care"; to understand the importance of feeling cared for when in placement; to identify the effects of not feeling cared for in placement; and to explore what all this means to young people. This research may also test our thoughts about what we (adults) believe to be acts of caring, by hearing what children have to say about it. Most importantly, it brings care to a place of central importance.

The aim of my study, therefore, is to explore young people’s experiences of feeling cared for in residential childcare. I’ve done this by exploring the experiences of young people feeling cared for and/or not feeling cared for, through interviews.

I decided to use a phenomenological approach to my study as Damaher (2006) discusses how the researcher develops a guiding question, which allows us to better understand the experiences of the child's life and world. What this really means is that the whole focus of the interviews is to explore a particular phenomenon as experienced by the interviewee. “Phenomenology is concerned with the ways in which human beings gain knowledge of the world around them” (Willig, 2001, p.50). Using this method will hopefully allow me to enter the participants” inner worlds a bit, and allow young people to tell their stories and experiences through conversation. The aim of this approach is to encourage narrative and descriptive discussions of the phenomenon of “care” as experienced by one group of young people in one secure care setting. In total I interviewed fourteen children, and while staff had approached me showing an interest in being interviewed so they could share their ideas about “care”, unfortunately due to the size of this study I was unable to do this (perhaps this is research for the future).

I have gathered examples of what staff do that children feel are acts of caring. I’m currently in the process of identifying any trends or patterns from what all (or some) of the young people have said in interview. I am still in the early stages of analysis. However, all young people that were involved in the study had something to say about “care”, and had different opinions about acts of caring, or how these acts met their needs. The one thing I think they all had in common was they felt it very important to have a human connection

you know what I mean, when you just click with somebody–it’s hard to explain–buts it’s like a bond–that’s what gets you through. (a quote from a young person, male 16)

Having people who care about me, really care about me, makes me want to change, cause they believe in me. (a quote from young person female 15)

Some of the things said in interview were things you might expect to hear (though I tried to put aside all preconceptions and listen with an open mind). Some things surprised me. I’m still making sense of it all, and am now in the process of writing it all up.

So while I continue to struggle with my writing and my confidence to share my views on paper, it’s a work in progress and an important one at that. I hope that the staff and the young people who are a part of Residential Child Care can have our voices heard to help improve the lives of the young people that we work with.