You can take the child out of the family but you can never take the family out of the child. This may sound like a cliché, but for anyone who works with young people (or adults, for that matter), it is a plain and simple truth. Even where children have been physically separated from their family of origin since infancy, their earliest experiences of being with significant others continue to live on, forming a blue print for all future relationships. According to the most recent research in pre- and perinatal psychology, this process of learning actually begins well before birth as the developing fetus seeks to create relationships with mother and those who are closest to her (e.g., Chamberlain, 1999; Noble, 1993; Verny, 1981). Such early int1uences are profound and pervasive, but since they exist within the subjective experience of the individual, they can never be fully grasped from the outside, no matter how brilliant or intuitive the observer might be.
By the same token, competent professionals understand that when they work with individuals they are also working with that person's family in one way or another. Whatever issues or problems are being addressed are rooted somewhere in family relationships, and all change must ultimately come to terms with what was first learned in this context. Again, this is not the family as defined and assessed by outside observers but the unique configuration of significant relationships embedded within the conscious and unconscious world of each individual family member. Once this perspective is fully understood and incorporated into practice, it might be argued that all therapy is family therapy.
Given their concern for the well-being of individual children, Child and Youth Care professionals may come to view families as alien or even hostile arrangements that contribute to the current difficulties and continue to undermine the child's progress – an attitude that can easily turn into objectification and blame. But this judgmental and moralistic stance not only ignores crucial information, it dismisses a fundamental aspect of the young person's world. Families are neither good nor bad. To some extent they all serve to meet the needs of their members and, in some ways, they are all neglectful and injurious. The task of the practitioner is not to judge – or even analyze – what they see but to remain curious about the child's experience life on the inside.
Child and youth care practitioners who do attempt to consider the family from the outside may find themselves overwhelmed by the prospect of intervening in this confusing and complex arena. To complicate matters even further, many of their clients have moved from the family of origin into alternative or surrogate arrangements that are tenuous or transitory. The worlds of these children are constructed from an intricate network of relationships, past and present, that can only be fleshed out through the most careful and sensitive professional approaches. Yet spurred on by their own ambitions and encouraged by those who advocate “systemic,” “contextual,” or “ecological” perspectives, misguided practitioners may come to believe that it is their task to change these conditions in the best interests of the child. But, as many community social workers have discovered to their dismay, any form of tinkering or heavy-handed intervention that fails to consider the child's sense of family can result in unforeseen and even tragic outcomes.
Given the confusion, it is hardly surprising that the profession of Child and Youth Care has remained tentative in its attitude toward working with families and that individual practitioners tend to restrict their involvement to specific strategies such as parent training or child advocacy. Yet Child and Youth Care will never address the needs of young people effectively until it finds a way to incorporate the family within its professional parameters. This means the creation of a clearly defined perspective that can be translated into effective Child and Youth Care training and practice. The task may not be as difficult as it might appear once the underlying principles have been established. To this end, I have already articulated one firm foundational premise that fits for me – the primary concern of the practitioner is with the subjective experience of the child or young person.
Chamberlain, D. (1999). Life in the womb; Dangers and opportunities. Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, 14 (2), 31-45
Noble, E. (1993). Primal connections. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Verny, T. (1981). The secret life of the unborn child. New York: Delacorte.
Fewster, G. (2003) My place or yours? Inviting the family into Child and Youth Care practice. In Garfat, T. (Ed.) A Child and Youth Care approach to working with families. New York: Haworth. pp.79-94