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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care

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Relational Child and Youth Care Practice

  

ISSN 0840-982X  /  VOLUME 27 NUMBER 2

Table of Contents and Article Abstracts

3  /  Editorial:   Listening to our Past / Kiaras Gharabaghi

Rarely have I enjoyed watching the Inbox of my email as much as I have over the past few months putting together this Special Issue of RCYCP. The theme of this Special Issue is "What I Think I Know Now", and 13 individuals who have lived and celebrated child and youth care practice for many decades have contributed reflections in response to this theme. Although I am not easily star struck, there is something very special about knowing one is communicating with individuals who have contributed to, and indeed, shaped, the very field that has been the defining feature of my adult life. Even more special is the process of getting to know, through the nuances of email communication, these individuals a little more; I could now comment on each of the writers featured in this Special Issue in terms of their sense of humour, their propensity to use R-rated language in emails, their ability to abide by deadlines, and their near-universal inability to abide by word count limits. I could tell stories of the writers excusing their tardiness by citing multiple other professional commitments, only to then see them post pictures of their current fishing trip on Facebook. I could point to the perfectionists, who contributed first drafts without even a comma out of place, as well as the free-spirited ones, who produced first drafts without even a comma. I have firm evidence now that even the most stellar academic careers in no way result in an affinity for academic conventions, such as APA referencing.

In this Special Issue, we bring together very unique individuals, all of whom have likely influenced child and youth care practitioners in profound and lasting ways. Their work, collectively, encompasses a library of books and journal articles, columns and editorials, reports and opinion pieces, keynote speeches and workshop presentations; their collective CVs, if laid out page for page, would cover roughly the distance from St. John's, Newfoundland to Cape Town, South Africa. But this is not a good way of capturing what this Special Issue is about, nor does it capture meaningfully the experience of bringing them all together here. In fact, so long as I approached the task of guest editing this issue as a matter of administering the submissions ofthese individuals, I wasn't getting anywhere, and I certainly wasn't feeling connected to this process. I felt privileged to be asked to do this, but I sensed that none of the writers really aimed to impart that feeling on me. I learned quickly that I needed a different way of thinking about this experience. And a different way I found.

The more I got into this process, the more I imagined myself as the supervisor of a residential program, and the writers assembled here as the residents; an unruly bunch of residents, really, always commenting on how the program itself, while perhaps well-intended, is hopelessly naive in its fundamental premises. The idea that a particular set of interventions, implemented over a period of time, will lead to a particular set of outcomes, applicable to each and every one of these residents, and that such outcomes are in fact desirable for each resident, simply fails to take account of the complexity of the situation.

One of the youth, Jack, who is a bit of a wise cracker, tells me that his refusal to complete his tasks on time should not be greeted with displeasure. Instead, I should see that there is strength in his actions (or inactions) – after all, he is determining his own course, isn't he – even if these annoy me, and that a rule-based response to his misbehaviour lacks empathy and an understanding of his experience in the program, and indeed in life. I should know that he has his own unique way of connecting with people, that his way of connecting reflects the complexity of his previous experiences in connecting, and that at any rate, I should stop using psycho-babble to analyze his every move. Let's just say dealing with Jack can be very tiring!

I have two Jims in my program; neither is particularly difficult to deal with in terms of their behaviour, but Jim A. is a real pain in terms of how he constantly negates my pronouncements of how he should change his ways. "You can't change my behaviour", he says, "only I can do that". In fact, Jim A. even denies the value of my relationship with him, because, as he puts it, "you have no idea how to relate to being in relationship with me." I don't know why he always has to complicate our simple interactions, but I really get frustrated when he challenges me to think less about him and more about my Self. One time, after Jim A. had gotten the whole group going at the dinner table by pointing out that the agency seemed to have totally different (or incongruent, in his words) ideas from mine, I got so angry that I just yelled at him "I guess I am just irrelevant here, aren't I"? While Gerry, an especially irreverent youngster, wrote swear words using ketchup on his plate, Jim A. looked at me calmly and said "quite the contrary, just by being here you are influencing what I am doing." I am sure when I reach my elder years, I might see past the pimples and understand what he was trying to say.

A big challenge in running my program is that one of the residents, the ever-righteous Frances, challenges the most fundamental assumptions I assumed I can make in my position. She tells me, using wisdoms that defy her age, that my program cannot make pronouncements on what is right and wrong based on rules, policies or even culture. Right and wrong are misleading categories, she says, that fail to reflect the complexity of ethics and professional practice (you can imagine it is not easy being lectured on professional practice by a know-it-all teenage girl). All the other youth love Frances, because they think what she is saying is that no matter what they do, it could be the right thing to do! Especially this one dude, Thom, who tells the craziest stories for no other reason than to confuse me to no end.

Once two of the youth got into a major fight; Karen, who wanted to play like she always does, was being teased by Leon, who really just wanted to get her attention. Thom interfered and got his buddy Leon to back off, but just as Karen wanted to thank Thom, he started to get on her case about the soapbox she was playing with. When I confronted Thom on his manipulative behaviour (whereby Jack started yelling something about 'stop pathologizing the dude'), Thom started telling me a story about a barnyard of animals and how helping someone is not always a sign of friendship, and annoying someone not always a sign of dislike. In fact, Thom is a bit like Frank Sinatra; he can't sing or act very well, but he sings and acts with whatever skills he's got anyways. And just like Sinatra, Thom is all about family and relationships, even when family and relationships might have some darker sides.

As a supervisor, I try my very best to make my program as stable as possible. Once I decide on a rule, a policy, a particular way to arrange the furniture in the house, or whatever, I like to stick to it. This seems perfectly reasonable to me, but there is one youngster in my program who never ceases to tell me that even this is completely wrong. Jim W., the other Jim, constantly reminds me that I am focusing on all the wrong things, and that stability doesn't mean that the furniture needs to be arranged the same way all the time (and some of the other youngsters, especially Adrian and Penny, regularly rearrange it when I am not around). In fact, Jim says that all of these kinds of things are always changing anyways, and that I should stop worrying so much about that stuff. What I should be doing, according to this teenager going on 60, is to make sure that my program can figure out whether what happens here is actually useful. For the holidays last year he got me a tape measure, a not very nuanced way of telling me to get with the times and evaluate just how silly and naive I really am!

Penny, this kid who always seems to have a positive disposition but I am sure has a wickedly sinister side too (like conspiring with non-human beings to get double portions of airplane snacks), thinks that Jim W. is way out there. Penny reminds me regularly that the kids in the program are human beings, and that we ought to treat them as such. And she reminds me that they are young, and young people don't always want to be made to act as adults. And maybe adults who work with young people should allow themselves the occasional moment to return to their childhood. Jim A. has a bit of crush on Penny, because he loves how Penny's stories remind him of one of the former residents of my program, Janus K., who used to always talk about how things are when seen through the eyes of a little guy; Janus K. used to start all of his stories with "when I was little again."

One of my most challenging residents is Lorraine. For one thing, she never runs out of things to say. Thankfully, she is relatively nice to me, but she goes on and on about how low budget my program appears to be, and aren't the kids worth more than that? Lorraine loves my staff members, but she advocates for better terms of employment for them better than they do. In fact, Lorraine will one day grow up to be an incredible advocate for residential care workers; already I can tell that she has more insight into the shortcomings of the system than many adults do. Although sometimes I think that Lorraine really just wants to meet Angelina Jolie; she keeps saying that we should really connect with celebrities to get a better public profile, like many other social movements have done. Her strategic thinking (which she also applies to regularly being in 'sessions' when chore time comes around) is really impeccable.

It is usually on our outings to rural places that another one of my residents, Larry, gets into the fray. No matter how much the other kids tease him or get on his case, Larry never retaliates, because, as he puts it, "I believe in a culture of respect." Larry always tells me to stop worrying about the problems of the other kids (what I call problem he calls opportunity), and to focus instead on their abilities and especially their capacity to support each other. "We can have a positive peer culture", he says, and "we can reclaim the dignity and courage of each and every child", as if he were planning to develop some kind of title for a book or a journal or something. In fact, the idea of cross-cultural communication and respect also seems important to Leon (who loves to fish, by the way), who argues that we have to engage each other very differently and within a context of a celebration of our differences in order to move forward. Leon frequently engages in adolescent 'rituals' that I suppose are age appropriate, but he also makes a valid point about "encounter rituals", in which we learn to understand our own cultural identity and processes as a way of better engaging those of others.

Adrian, who speaks with a British accent and sounds much more sophisticated than his youth (and frequent misadventures) would suggest, likes to keep things really simple (although I can tell that his brain is working overtime). He says that all that really matters is that I bring my Self to work every day, and that I make the job about how I am with the residents, prepared to listen to them and really think about what they have to say. The other day he even suggested that I institute some sort of forum where all the residents can get together with the staff and reflect on how they are experiencing the program. That's just what I need, I thought to myself, but I didn't tell him that, lest Karen accuse me of not being responsive to resident suggestions.

Garth, a youngster who appears to have had a previous life, frequently laments the way the world has changed; in spite of his youth, he seems to yearn for a more innocent, playful, and safe time, whereby safety is not a regulated system of policies and procedures, but rather an informal peer to peer kind of network. Garth follows the news very closely, and no matter what might be the front-page story, he always finds a way of relating it to my program. Sometimes that's interesting, and sometimes it's kind of annoying!

It is quite a 'motley crew' of residents in my program. But I haven't even mentioned the jewel in the crowd; this is the guy who I have diagnosed a thousand times over, and who for sure, even if I am a lousy psychologist, has a Conduct Disorder, an Oppositional Defiance Disorder, and an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder at least when it comes to his refusal to take his meds. Gerry is the kind of guy who gets excited about stuff, who gains knowledge about stuff, only to find out that what he has knowledge about he can't relate to; he doesn't really know. Behaviourally, Gerry is, well, let's say challenging, because he is never quite satisfied with how things are, until he finds a way to connect with what he sees that speaks to him personally. Needless to say, the other kids speak to Gerry personally frequently:

"Stop yelling", they say, or "get a hold of your buddy Cedric who is always nosing around." But Gerry doesn't mind these taunts; he doggedly goes on, always focused on how he can go beyond having knowledge about things and instead really know things, in a subjective sort of a way. One thing that I had to adjust very quickly for Gerry was his therapy. Turns out that Gerry is not fond of therapy sessions, which according to him, are "appalling", and in no way get to what he, himself is experiencing in the moment.

So, this has become my life; each day I dive into the chaos of my 13 youngsters, who, it turns out, seem to have gotten much smarter these days. It is as if they had a prior life, in which just about everything we are trying to do these days with young people they already have tried, learned from, and adjusted accordingly. They seem an oddly principled group of youngsters. They seem to recognize the complexity of doing this work, argue for a greater focus on the ethical and even moral foundation of the work, advocate for greater resources to do the work well, and all seem to be entirely convinced that the core ingredient of good child and youth care practice is, fundamentally, the focus on relationships. Through these youngsters, I am reminded to reflect on the things that matter most: empathy, humility, playfulness, listening to the young people, joining them rather than leading them, believing in their capacities and strengths, allowing their agency to unfold, and being ever-present in the moment. I guess I can't run my program for them; I will have to live it with them.          

 7  /    How Long Does it Take Butter to Fall from the Ceiling? / Penny Parry

When I was 8 years old, I wondered how long it would take for a piece of butter to fall from the ceiling. So, I flung a piece up. I can't say as I recall now how long it took to come down, but I do wonder: Have I learned anything else important since that time? Maybe a little ... not as much as I thought I would. To quote Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland, I can only say it's "curiouser and curiouser."  

13  /   What I Think I Know Now (Unfortunately) / Lorraine E. Fox

16  /  What I Know Now: It's Complicated / Frances Ricks  

24  /  Random Events: Lessons from a Half Century Working with Youth / Larry K. Brendtro

Albert Bandura noted that psychologists will never be able to predict behaviour because random events determine the outcome of our lives. This certainly applies to the course of my journey across these many decades. Here are the "random events" and lessons learned from working with challenging youth.

28  /  50 Years in Therapeutic Child and Youth Care: Some Lessons Learned /
        
James K. Whittaker

32  /  Ah, But I Was So Much Older Then... / Adrian Ward

37  /  Talk to the Goose /  Thom Garfat

42  /  Behaviourist Role Models Need Not Apply / Jack Phelan

46  / Noticing What Others See / Leon C. Fulcher

52  / From the soapbox as the years roll by: I know (or believe) this to be true /
        
Karen VanderVen

58  /  Child and Youth Care is not rocket science: it's FAR more complex than that! /
         James P. Anglin

63 /  If Only I Knew What I've Always Known / Gerry Fewster  

68 /  Breaking News / Garth Goodwin

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