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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care

Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

Act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly

Mark Smith

This article is about the nature of care itself, about what draws us to it and what guides us in caregiving. According to Ricks (1992) the ‘concept of caring … is the foundation for our field of practice.’ It is a concept, however, that since Ricks’ article, has remained largely undeveloped. The basic premise of my argument here is that caring is ultimately a moral endeavour rather than a primarily practical one. This requires that, at a conceptual level we begin to consider residential child care through a lens of moral philosophy as well as those of psychology and sociology, which have come to frame our field.

Care is one of those ‘taken for granted’ terms; we use it all the time, rarely stopping to think what it might actually mean. Across the developed and developing worlds our duties of care are increasingly presented as public ones, enshrined in statute. Here in Scotland we have an expanding apparatus to regulate care; we even legislate for it through the Regulation of Care (Scotland) Act (2001). This legislation gives us a long list of care services that government bodies have a responsibility to provide and of places where care might be offered. The Regulation of Care Act paved the way for care standards, laying down how we should provide care; a Care Commission inspects agencies against these standards. But none of this leaves us any the wiser as to what care is.

The location of care within legal and regulatory frameworks is symptomatic of our times. Dominant neo-liberal political systems locate our responsibilities to others within individual, contractual arrangements. According to Brannan and Moss, this ‘new capitalism calls for individualism, instrumental rationality, flexibility, short-term engagement, deregulation and the dissolution of established relationships and practices’ (2003, p.202). It is couched in the language of rights, which are often postulated to be self- evidently good, especially when applied to children. Yet rights can be yet another instrument of the liberal state. Dahlberg and Moss note that …‘(it is no coincidence that the prominence given to rights coincides with the dominance of advanced liberalism and increasing recourse to law as a means of mediating relationships) and premised on particular values and a particular understanding of the subject as a rational, autonomous individual’ (2005, p.30).

Care within such a model is conceived of as a commodity, a service we contract to in the same way as we might when engaging a lawyer, a doctor or a tradesman. It is a technical/rational task, one that we can reduce to a series of step-by-step ‘best practice’ guides; this is how you should care! Once care is conceived in such a way it is a logical next step to consider that we can set targets for its provision and then measure the extent to which we have reached these. The contractual model is completed in the establishment of mechanisms through which we might complain if services are not up to scratch – all very straight- forward and rational.

Rational and instrumental views of care obviously have implications for the way that carers too are conceptualised. They become technicians, charged to carry through particular tasks to a pre-ordained level of efficiency and effectiveness; a bit like car mechanics. In the UK particular models of training follow from this way of thinking; care is reduced to a series of discrete ‘competencies’ or ‘learning outcomes.’ Increasingly workers’ obligations to care are laid down in various codes of conduct, which if breached might result in disciplinary action and, in extremis, removal from the register of those allowed to care. Technical models of care spawn technologies of care, giving rise to a belief in pill fairies (Fewster, 2004) or to a fetish with finding the perfect programme or treatment to apply to kids’ symptoms. This misses the central point of care, that it is relational; it’s all about you and me and what happens between us and the kids we work with.

The most banal example I have come across of how the bureaucratic mind can conceive of care and caregiving is a recent advert for social workers in Scotland under the banner “socialclimber.” It featured a young, trendily-dressed woman who, despite her youthful appearance, seems to have had half a dozen social work jobs within as many years; including a lecturer post during which time she managed to write a couple of books! A serial social worker no less, and prolific to boot – short-term engagement writ large! I wonder what clients thought of her.

This conceptualisation of social work as a career ladder is flawed – this isn’t the primary motivation for those coming into caring professions. When I interview students for the programme I teach in I’m struck by how idealistic and enthusiastic they are. They come into social work because they want to make a difference to people’s lives. It’s hard not to look ahead, though, and wonder if in a few years’ time they’ll still be so enthusiastic and committed. Or will they have joined the ranks of social workers who have had that initial sense of vocation knocked out of them, their idealism drained by the petty proceduralism of daily practice?

What is wrong with child and youth care workers joining the modern world you might ask? Should we not expect them to meet the same minimum standards of practice that we expect from car mechanics? And is it not right that we lay down what we require from them? Well, yes we should expect a level of competence from those in caring roles but we want more than that; we want them to be able to respond to changing circumstances and differential individual need; we want them to act in moral as opposed to merely technical ways; in short we want them to care. And when we obscure the essential human and moral aspects of care behind ever more rules and regulations we make ‘the daily practice of social work ever more distant from its original ethical impulse; the objects of care turned more and more into the specimens of legal categories …’ (Bauman, 2000 p.9)

We are encouraged of course to believe that the expansion of regulation is linked with improvement. Bauman’s (2000) view is that it actually gets in the way of our call to care. Practitioners will recognise the dynamic of spending more and more time feeding increasing quantities of information to the bureaucratic beast, much of which remains unprocessed and ill-digested; or of spending time addressing the requirements of the latest inspection report when they might be engaged in acts of care. The two are not necessarily linked despite what the regulators might have us believe; there are inherent tensions in attempting to provide primary care in secondary settings (Maier, 1985).

Act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly

As you walk up Leith Walk in Edinburgh, my home city, you see a large banner hanging from St Mary’s Cathedral, which sits at the top of the street. ‘Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly’ it proclaims; it always struck me as a reasonable injunction for all of us as we go about our daily lives. I came across the same dictum in Ricks et al (1999), where it was presented as an example of an agency’s mission. I discovered that the phrase was from the Old Testament, from Micah, the prophet of liberation. The people who asked what they needed to do to return to God’s grace approached Micah. They proffered all sorts of sacrifices and expressions of religiosity to that end. Micah’s response was for a return to the basics. They had only to ‘act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly’ (Micah 6:8). Amidst all the regulation and hubris that surrounds care in our modern age it strikes me that we might do well to act on Micah’s call to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly.

Locating our obligation to care in biblical terms doesn’t necessarily reflect a religious dimension to that call. It is drawn on as a reminder that there are times when it is necessary to revisit what we’re all about, to strip things back to the basics; it is also used to take notions of care beyond the technical/rational considerations that have come to frame it in recent years and to locate it within the qualities and actions of carers. I will go on to consider what these injunctions might mean in the context of residential care. Before that I will consider something of the nature of care.

Care through history

According to Bauman (2000), when Cain asked God ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ he introduced the roots of immorality to the human condition. Of course he is his brother’s keeper, and his sister’s and his neighbour’s too. To question this introduces a dissonance to the essence of humanity, the pull we feel to reach out to the other.

Since Cain, philosophers have engaged with questions around our responsibility towards those around us. Scottish Enlightenment thinkers were prominent in this regard. Francis Hutcheson, who was professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow in the early 18th century argued that human beings have an innate moral sense, a quality he termed ‘benevolence’, which leads them to reach out to others. This notion of a natural sense akin to the other human senses, has been taken up by a number of philosophers. Adam Smith, generally associated with The Wealth of Nations, his work on economics, was first and foremost a moral philosopher. He identified an essential ‘sympathy’ within the human condition. Benevolence and sympathy are not based on reason, or cognition nor on a hope that they will accrue some return but on a more deeply-rooted aspect of out humanity.

However, according to Tronto, ‘the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers represent the ‘losing’ side in moral thinking in the eighteenth century’ (1993, p.36). They lost out to the increasing influence of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant’s, ethical theories. Kantian ethics rely on a belief in a universal moral order based on reason and principle. This universal morality has become a defining feature of modernity, the period of history that spans from the Enlightenment of the 18th Century to the present or (according to some commentators) the recent past. It privileges decision-making based on scientific reason and the regulation of social action through ethical codes. Politically, Kantianism led to the growth of, and finds its home in, liberalism with its emphasis in individualism and individual responsibility. Within it we are cast as autonomous and rational individuals bound to our neighbours only by a series of contractual arrangements and obligations.

The existence of a more innate and relationally-based care has been resurrected most powerfully perhaps by Emmanuel Levinas, one of the foremost intellectual figures in France in the last century. Levinas challenges modernity’s preoccupation with reason and asserts that the primary human impulse is sentiment; I feel before I think – the moral call to reach out to the other is foremost, ethics rather than reason is the first philosophy. Levinas writes about an ethic of responsibility or an ethic of encounter; what happens when we come face to face with another human being. According to Levinas, the ‘face’ (the term he uses to convey the transcendent being of the other) ‘summons me.’ (Levinas, 1999) Residential care workers might want to think about the intensity of the feelings they have towards some of the children they work with to make sense of this point; think of the new kid coming through the door for the first time and the strong urge you have to make the world a better place for him or her; think of the pain you feel when you see a kid screwing up by making the wrong decisions. You want and indeed are called as part of your shared humanity to respond to their needs.

The call to care doesn’t just apply to those kids we like. In fact there are those we may not like, our relationship may be conflictual, but we nevertheless feel and have a responsibility towards them – a responsibility that is infinite and demands nothing in return. Our responsibility to the other is by its nature irrational.

For Bauman (2000) rational arguments don’t get us very far when applied to the question of why we should care. There is ‘no good reason … why we should care … there is nothing reasonable about taking responsibility, about caring and being moral. Morality has only itself to support it: it is better to care than to wash one’s hands’ (Bauman, 2000, p. 9). Caring, from such a perspective, does not need to be set down in codes and manuals. It is part and parcel of what makes us human. Other cultural traditions recognise this.

Africans have this thing called Ubuntu; it is about the essence of being human, it is part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being able to go the extra mile for the sake of others. We believe a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up and inextricable in yours. When I dehumanise you I inexorably dehumanise myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging. - (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

An ethic of care

Some of the most interesting work around the nature of care is contained in the developing literature around an ethic of care. This literature can be located within a feminist tradition and is associated in particular with Carol Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice (1982). Gilligan was a student of Lawrence Kohlberg, who provides us with what has become the standard model of human moral development. Gilligan challenged Kohlberg’s model as reflecting predominantly male ways of thinking and acting on questions of morality. Men are deemed to speak and act from a ‘justice’ orientation, where qualities of objectivity, rationality and general principle predominate; women operate from a ‘care’ orientation and draw on ‘softer’ attributes of intuition, connection and compassion in reaching moral decisions. There is some dispute around the extent to which Gilligan’s thesis reflects essentialist characteristics of men and women or whether it merely provides a helpful framework within which to conceptualise different orientations towards moral issues, the actual ‘voices’ being applicable to either men or women.

What Gilligan does is to offer a model through which we might differentiate the more relational and intuitive aspects of care from a more rule-bound and procedural notion of justice. A feminist approach to care requires a stepping in to encounters with the other rather than a stepping back into a ‘rational’, and objective, position where we distance ourselves from the other by means of our rules and procedures (Ricks, 1992).

What is care?

Joan Tronto (1993) provides a way through some of the gendered constructions, which can serve to locate care (and caring qualities) with women. She re-conceptualises care as a practice describing it as a ‘specious activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible’ (1993, p.103). A moral person attains that status in the ways in which they respond to the injunctions to care that present themselves in everyday life. Tronto goes on to say that

‘an ethic of care is a practice, rather than a set of rules or principles…It involves both particular acts of caring and a ‘general habit of mind’ to care that should inform all aspects of a practitioner’s moral life’ (1993, p.126-7).

Both men and women can possess this general habit of mind to care. Indeed, Tronto (1993) identifies the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment as ascribing what might be thought of as caring sensibilities to men. In residential child care we need to be able to see care as something that men can do. Recently, I was involved in a project to recruit and train men to work in residential care and was struck by the sensitivity, awareness and basic caring instinct these men possessed. As one man said, … ’you can show that you have your masculinity but can still be sensitive and open as well’ (Smith et al, 2006).

For Tronto (1993) care is both an activity and a disposition. In residential homes, care as an activity might include the various tasks such as providing meals, ensuring comfortable surroundings or helping with physical tasks; it might involve everyday supervision and arranging activities. However, instrumental expressions of care are only part of what care is about. Physical care needs to be transformed to caring care (Maier, 1979). This happens when the ‘self’ of the carer becomes central to the experience of care; these occasions are ‘our whispered moments of glory, our Camelots’ (Maier, 1979). These ‘whispered moments of glory’ are often the small things that frame everyday events such as how we wake kids up in the morning – not merely shouting from the corridor but taking time over the whole process, going into rooms, opening curtains, ruffling hair: in short waking them up the way that you might want to be woken yourself, or the way you might wake your own kids up. And of course particular rituals of care emerge between individual members of staff and particular kids emerge in these everyday events, rituals, such as nudges, winks, high fives, which might be barely perceptible to outside observers but which for the individuals concerned convey a strong message of care. Residential child care provides countless opportunities to express care in the everyday life events of daily practice.

Care as a disposition is something that we can all relate to; we all know caring people and so do kids (as highlighted by the quote at the beginning of this article); they can work out those who genuinely care and those who merely talk a good job. The disposition of the carer is not an added extra in the delivery of care. Noddings (1996) points to evidence to suggest that the attitude of the carer can have a significant affect for good or bad on outcomes for a child. She claims that the cared for ‘grows and glows’ under the positive attitude of the carer. Amidst the increasing regulation of care and the pursuit of ever more elaborate technologies, we can forget that ultimately it is the singer rather than the song that’s of primary importance in working with kids.

Elements of an ethic of care

Tronto (1993) identifies four elements to an ethic of care. Carers need to demonstrate attentiveness – they need to be available to the other, to convey the sense that they and perhaps only they matter at that particular moment. It’s all too easy in the hustle and bustle of residential care not to pay attention to kids; we can all probably recognize in colleagues and ourselves that tendency to fob kids off, to tell them we’ll attend to something later.

Caring also demands that carers take responsibility for caring – saying they care isn’t enough – they need to act to give expression to that care. How they do so derives from implicit cultural practice rather than formal rules. Thus, when a child falls over and hurts him or herself we know that we should comfort them in a way that is culturally appropriate. In most cultures that will involve a physical expression of concern, cleaning and dressing any wound. Formal rules and regulations which attempt to circumscribe how we should respond on such occasions actually get in the way of cultural rituals of caring. There are times when we know what we should do in particular circumstances with kids. For instance, if they are upset at nighttime, the obvious response is to be with them to offer comfort. Yet we can become afraid to do what we know to be culturally right by fearful and blaming organisational climates. Other traditions of practice are less caught up in procedure. In a social pedagogic tradition, the dominant model of child care practice in continental Europe, a natural response to such a situation would be to bring an upset child to sleep on a mattress in the worker’s sleep-in room.

Good intentions are not sufficient in the care of others. Tronto’s third element of care requires competence. We have probably all seen staff who, with the best of intentions jump into kids’ lives to ‘rescue’ them, without really knowing or understanding what they are doing. There is no point in intervening in a child’s life if that is the case; it can do more harm than good, irrespective of what our intentions might be. There needs to be an awareness and intentionality in what carers do.

The final of Tronto’s four elements of an ethic of care is responsiveness. Carers are to be aware of the vulnerability of others, and respond to their needs in a way that they would want us to. That requires that we taper care to the needs of the individual; as Maier (1979) says, it’s different strokes for different blokes. Responsiveness also calls us to be aware of how issues of power, prejudice and dependency can enter into relationships (Ward, 1993).

'Caring about' and 'caring for'

One of the most accessible expositions of care ethics is provided in the work of Nel Noddings (1984). Noddings was a schoolteacher for over 20 years and also raised ten children of her own so she knows a thing or two about caring. She went on to become professor of education at Stanford and later at Columbia universities. Noddings (1996) distinguishes between ‘caring for’ and ‘caring about.’ ‘Caring for’ is what residential care workers do. They work at the level of the face-to-face encounter with kids: they engage in the physical aspects of care such as personal hygiene and in issues of care and control; they soak up the intensity of kids’ emotions and get involved in the messy bits around intimacy and boundaries. There is an inevitable rawness and unpredictability about ‘caring for.’

‘Caring about’ puts more distance between us and the objects of our care. It’s what we do when we take a stance on an issue or when we give to charity; we do not provide care directly but we have a general predisposition to see that kids are cared for. ‘Caring for’ and ‘caring about’ are linked; our capacity to care about derives from our experience of being cared for. ‘Caring about’ is essential if ‘caring for’ is to amount to more than continually sticking plasters on social problems; it is implicated in the sense of social justice, a point I return to. However, it doesn’t and shouldn’t get us off the hook of ‘caring for’, of responding to the kid who faces us in the moment. Again we can perhaps think of colleagues who were too ready to blame kids’ situations on wider social circumstances, be it their parents, the ‘management’ or whoever, while doing little to respond to them in the here and now.

This distinction between ‘caring about’ and ‘caring for’ may help cast some light on the difference between residential workers and social workers as identified by Anglin, (1999). Social workers tend to take a more distant, ‘objective’ bigger picture view of situations; residential workers derive their knowledge from the intimacy of their everyday ‘caring for’ encounters. Noddings’ distinction raises for me questions of the legitimacy of those who claim to ‘care about’ residential child care without having dirtied their hands in the ‘caring for’ kids in such settings. Care takes on very different perspectives depending on how close you are to it.

The one caring and the one cared for

Care ethics demand a re-think of dominant assumptions about how we should care. Bureaucratic models view close personal relationships as inherently suspect and seek to mediate these through constructs such as ‘professional distance.’ In such models we are cast as detached providers of a clinical and sanitised care, bereft of feelings, other than those expressed by the client (Ricks, 1992). It is an unequal relationship in which the worker can stand above the object of their care. Care ethics, on the other hand, are rooted in concern and feeling for the other. They take,

professional caring into the personal realm and require that both parties show up, be present, be engaged at a feeling level for each other. The presence of feeling(s) provides the link which connects the worker and client. Very simply put, without this connection, without the feeling(s) in the relationship, the people do not matter to each other - (Ricks, 1992, p.54).

Within such a model the one-caring and the one cared for are thrown together in a care relationship in which power dynamics are complex and non-linear, emotional rather than instrumental. The fact that the relationship between the one caring and the cared for (Noddings, 1996) is inevitably one where there are feelings and needs on both sides is not to argue that these needs and feelings are necessarily equal, merely that they are present. In any caring relationship we need to be aware of the nature of power imbalances within relationships and of the possibility of abuse within these. This needs a sense of purpose or intentionality as to our role and a framework within which relationships can be mediated.

Within a bureaucratic model of care relationships are mediated by an agency’s rules and procedures. It is in the nature of bureaucracies to believe, in the words of T.S Elliott, that they can dream up systems so perfect that no one will need to be good. An ethic of care requires that we re-personalise ethics (Bauman 1993). We need to place ourselves at the heart of mediating our relationships with others; rules and regulations are blunt instruments to bring to bear on the complexity and infinite variety of human situations and relationships. What is procedurally right might not be ethically right. I recall a situation when I was principal of a secure unit. A sixteen- year-old girl with a history of self-harming cut her wrist. She had a gaping wound, yet she refused medical treatment the doctor insisted she needed. What are staff to do in such a situation, where legal, medical, moral and personal value systems may all conflict? Do they say that legally she has a right to refuse treatment and walk away? When it comes down to it they have to do what they think is right. In such situations

Codified rules of what to do in particular cases and cases of like kind, gets us off the hook of moral endeavour … Adherence to codified rules does not necessarily require self-awareness or accountability for taking a moral stance. It simply requires learning the rules and following them … - (Ricks and Bellefeuille, 2003, p.121)

If learning the rules isn’t enough, how might we mediate the personal within our professional relationships? The injunction of the prophet Micah to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly might give us a framework within which to do so. What might this mean in the context of residential child care?

Act justly

As child and youth care workers we are called to act justly at different levels, at wider social and political levels and at a personal level. The concept of social justice is rooted in a belief that all people are equal and ought to have an equal call on the earth’s resources. This, manifestly, is not the case in the world we live in. Those children placed in residential care have rarely had much of a call on the earth’s resources. They are generally the victims of poverty and its effects; denied access to any conception of ‘the good life’ we all aspire to.

The moral test of any society is how it treats the poor and the marginalised in its midst. Neo-liberal government fails to address the needs of the poor. Rather, it blames them for their predicament. Thus we see the demonisation of youth in political discourse. In Scotland we have witnessed a hasty retreat from the welfare principles that have historically framed our approaches to youth, to be replaced with ever-more punitive rhetoric and policy initiatives. Youth are constructed as a threat because they don’t buy into a society in which they have little stake. As child and youth workers we should be prepared to speak out against the injustices that prevent those we work with from reaching their potential. We need to advocate on their behalf when they are denied access to basic rights such as education and when they are treated less favourably than other kids on account of being in residential care.

The injunction to act justly also applies in how we interact with one another on a daily basis. Again kids understand the notion of justice when confronted with it. David, who is quoted at the beginning of this article, goes on to say,

There was a nun, who was the head nun of our children’s home who was very, very fair, and kind, but not in a ‘goody-goody’ way – she was a just person, and she offered us protection. - (In Cree and Davis, 2007, p.87)

To act justly calls for self-awareness and an appreciation of the boundaries between ourselves and others. Boundaries are essential to an effective caring relationship. They are expressed and felt cognitively and emotionally (Fewster, 2004). Again there is a cultural dimension to this; we know both intellectually and at a feeling level when kids (and indeed we as individuals) are uncomfortable with particular aspects of a relationship. When we know our own boundaries and vulnerabilities we can take the risk of becoming appropriately close to those we care for. Without boundaries we cannot manage these relationships appropriately. This is summed up by Fewster, ‘no boundaries, no self – no self, no relationships’ (2005: P13).

A breakdown in boundaries does not only occur in instances of overt abuse. It is also present in the ‘wounded healers’ who are often attracted to residential work to deal with their own unresolved childhood issues – those who would never consider themselves to be party to abusing kids but who confuse their own needs with those of kids they work with. That can result in a violation of appropriate boundaries in that it totalizes their own experience with that of others; kids become the vessels through which adults sort out their own issues.

The bureaucratic mindset seeks to impose boundaries through ever more regulation. Guidelines, however, are according to Piper et al (2006)

... negative rather than positive, products of fear rather than a characteristic of a confident profession or workforce.’ Codes give no space for context or good professional sense, and so (are) generally ‘ignored or became unworkable’, creating ‘guilt at their non-compliance.’ The more specific codes become, the more ridiculous they are … (p.156)

We can no doubt all think of procedures from practice experience that have become ridiculous. If procedures are of little use, we are back to personal ethics. Ricks and Bellefeulle, citing Blum, argue that ethics have to be constructed in relation to ‘self.’ Ethical and moral connection with another involves

getting oneself to attend to the reality of individual other persons … while not allowing one’s own needs, biases, fantasies (conscious or unconscious) and desires regarding the other person’s to get in the way of appreciating his or her own particular needs and situation. (Ricks & Bellefeuille, 2003, p.120)

Love tenderly

Love is a pre-requisite of healthy development; even to have to state this can sound trite. Yet, it can be a four-letter word when it comes to caring for other people’s children. One of the reasons for this may be that the English language only has one word for love, and it encompasses a whole range of emotions including, dare I say, sex. The Greeks identify a number of different types of love: agape, philios and eros – agape, being a transcendent love, philios a love of neighbour and eros the more sensual expression of love. All three dimensions of love can be present in residential care. Levinas’ call to the ‘face’ of the other reflects a transcendent love. We express philios in our day-to-day caring encounters with children and their families. We are also sexual beings, however, and when we interact with other sexual beings our sexualities enter into that relationship (Fewster, 2000). Eros is alive and well in residential child care, no matter how hard we seek to deny it. Indeed, it is part and parcel of our irrational impulse to care. McWilliam notes that,

The caring relationship, like the pedagogical relationship, is ambiguous and duplicitous, because it is produced out of desire. Moves to separate the ‘good/ethical/unsex’ bits of desire from the ‘bad/unethical/sex’ bits of desire cannot help but misrecognize the nature of eros in the care giving relationship.

She goes on to suggest that

In the rush to end abuse, we have waged war on eros, with the result that one set of tyrannies has given way to another. The new order is characterised by the safety of blandness…(Mc William cited in Piper and Smith, 2003, p.879).

As a consequence of our unease about the term, we don’t do love in residential child care, at least not officially; we go so far as to deem it ‘unprofessional’ and substitute it with the blandness that we call safety. Whilst sexual relationships between adults and children in residential child care are not acceptable and breach a fundamental boundary in respect of the power dynamic in caring, in denying eros in our relationships with children we extinguish an essential spark that can be present between adults and children. Awareness of ourselves and those we work with as sexual beings allows us to negotiate the boundaries of eros so that it becomes a healthy and life-giving aspect of our relationships.

The difficulty we have (and it may be a particularly Anglo-American problem) in accommodating notions of love and sexuality in our professional lives would seem to be about fear; fear of a puritanical past, fear of what others will think, fear that it’s not ‘professional’, fear perhaps of our shadow selves and that we might get too close. However, fear isn’t a reason not to put love at the heart of our relationships, so long as we act justly in expressing that love, especially in our relationships with those less powerful than ourselves.

At another level there is a political dimension to our love. It takes on some of our deeper hopes for humankind. It involves a philosophical concern for ‘the good life’ and a burning desire that those we work with get a share in it. For this to happen requires that we side with them in railing against the oppressions and injustices of the systems that hold them back. Love can be the fire in our belly for change.

Walk humbly

One of the conspicuous features of our modern world is it’s fixation with knowledge. Knowledge is equated with power; the more knowledge we have, the more, it is assumed, we can control our worlds. Social work, certainly in the UK, has become obsessed with amassing knowledge through an expanding array of assessment and information-gathering tools. The motivation for this is claimed to be benign; the more we know about individuals the better we can provide services for them goes the rationale. Setting civil liberties issues to one side, our obsession with knowledge throws up a number of problems. At a philosophical level, it assumes that people are knowable whereas Levinas would have it that they are not and indeed our attempts to know other people risk ‘murdering’ them through our tendency to totalise their experiences with our own.

Faith in the primacy of knowledge also makes assumptions that we can know not just the other but that we can place them within some normative frame. Thus we look for developmental pathways as though these were unproblematic. Yet as Magnusson (2003 XX11) tells us, ‘Development and growth is a mysterious, asynchronous, nonlinear process and dynamic.’ We too often fail to appreciate the mystery of development and locate it within some psychological straightjacket or another. And when individuals don’t fit we identify the professional task as being one of bringing them back into the centre-ground. For those who persist in not fitting we can apply some pretty authoritarian measures.

Again, Elliott punctures the conceit in our quest for ever more knowledge when he advises that … all our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance, ... Rather than knowledge, residential care workers should aspire to an idea of practice wisdom. All our practice wisdom is tentative; it is open to refutation and reinterpretation in the light of experience. How often do we come across cases in residential care where we thought we knew every last detail about a kid’s life only to be confronted with some new information that challenges all our previous assumptions.

Those who have worked in residential child care for any length of time tend to know what they don’t know. Over the past few years I’ve been lucky enough to meet and listen to those who could rightly claim an expertise in residential child care. What strikes me about them is their humility; they know they’re only as good as their last shift. That isn’t a problem. It’s when we think we know that the problems set in. As Ricks and Bellefeuille (2003) point out, knowing is a learning disability; it gets in the way of the endless curiousity that goes with the territory in working with kids. Residential workers need to become comfortable in working with uncertainty.

Is it professional?

The sentiments expressed in this article are likely to elicit a number of responses from those conditioned to think about social work or social care in particular ways. Some will decry it outright; others will damn it with faint praise … That’s all very well but ...!

The ‘but’ will be about whether what I’m suggesting is at all professional within our received understanding of what it is to be professional. To be professional is to be objective, rational and unengaged at any emotional level (Meagher and Parton, 2004). McWilliam and Jones (2005) offer a fascinating insight into the ways that teachers define what it is to be professional in a risk-averse climate. They do so by keeping themselves safe; by refusing to touch kids, by making sure they are not alone with them; in short, by failing to make the kind of connections a good teacher should.

This version of professional confuses professional with professionalisation. (Noddings, 1996b). The quest for professionalisation is about the status that goes with the title professional. It calls for all sorts of trappings and fripperies and esoteric language to justify our claims. Actually being professional is about getting the job done, competently and ethically. So any proper consideration of what is professional needs to start with what the job is. If it is, in Noddings’ terms, to help kids grow then being professional requires that we engage with kids in very immediate ways in the messy and ambiguous reality of their lifeworlds – not to become so enmeshed that they can’t see the wood for the trees, but neither to remain so detached that they are scared to make the human connection required to effect growth.

If current notions of being professional can’t accommodate this then we need to redefine what it is to be a professional. Much of what is currently done under the name of professionalism is unprofessional; it gets in the way of what we should be doing when we care for children and youth.

Is it safe?

The siren voices who want to hold on to comfortable notions of professionalism will also assert that my views are hopelessly utopian, dangerous even; we need all this regulation to make care safe. Setting aside questions of whether care can be safe without compromising its very essence, I want to respond to concerns of being utopian.

My first line of defence would be to plead guilty as charged; we should be looking for a better world than we have, not hiding behind a soulless ‘safety’ but imagining a world where

Joy, spontaneity, complexity, desires, richness, wonder, curiosity, care, vibrant, play, fulfilling, thinking for yourself, love, hospitality, welcome, alterity, emotion, ethics, relationships, responsibility – … are part of a vocabulary which speaks about a different idea of public provision for children, one which addresses questions of the good life, including a good childhood… (Moss and Petrie, 2002, p.79).

My second point is to question whether regulation, however perfect, can in fact bring about the kind of safety it is intended to. To imagine that it might is a conceit of the modern mindset and its quest for rationality and linear thinking. But however hard we seek to convince ourselves of our rationality it can’t be sustained. We are creatures of paradox. Richard Webster (2002) writes,

Martin Luther succinctly formulated the ‘paradox of purity’ when he observed that ‘the more you cleanse yourself, the dirtier you get.’ What he was implicitly recognising was the fascination of sin – that the more any appetite or impulse is cast into the realm of the unclean by those who pursue purity, the more psychologically compelling it becomes. The pursuit of purity thus actually serves to promote an imaginative obsession with anything that has been explicitly or implicitly defined as obscene.

This paradox of purity has some fascinating implications for developments in residential child care: the more we obsess about safety, the more we create conditions that are unsafe. This point gains empirical support from a recent study of touch in school settings. The authors (Piper et al, 2006) identify just such a paradox in their interviews with teachers. The very obsession with safety brings into the human consciousness thoughts and fantasies that would not otherwise be there in a world where our relationships with kids were healthier and less marked by repression. It is a fascinating proposition, and one that needs to be addressed, as to whether the creation of dystopias by the child protection lobby, where we are conditioned to imagine “bogeymen’ intent on harming children lurking around every corner and certainly in every residential care establishment, might actually create the conditions for this to happen. Thus child protection and safe caring have become the real threats to children. The upshot of no-touch codes is not safe or ethical teacher-pupil relationships, but merely tortured agonising.


This article calls for workers in residential child care to get to the heart of the matter of what it is they do, to put the care back into residential child care and to assert a moral purpose to why it is that they care. The how of care has become ground down in recent years in a morass of regulation and procedure and the quest for the holy grail of ‘what works.’ This does not improve care; in fact by suppressing the moral impulse to care and by demonizing particular acts or expressions of care regulation has become antithetical to proper care. Paradoxically it may even generate the kind of situation it purports to avoid.
If residential child care is to be an affirming experience for kids it will be so as a result of something more essentialist; because there are still those staff who are prepared to put themselves in the centre of care is and to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly as they go about the task.


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