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The Dialectic of Care: familial and Institutional Dimensions Seven-Day Care in a Residential Treatment Setting

Thomas Latus

The cental dilemma of the Walker Weekend Program is how to create a family life within an institution. The adults clearly see that it is their responsibility, and the children’s right, to live their lives on the weekends in a "relaxed way" which is "intimate" where adults and children "care about each other in a real way." Yet because of many complicating "institutional" factors, some of which are inherent in the Weekend Program itself and some which the individual children bring with them into the weekend, a fully realized family life is impossible in the Weekend Program. Moreover, despite Weekenders’ yearnings for a familial life, all realize there are dangers involved in making the Weekend Program "a real family." Institutional factors actually act as a welcome buffer against this eventuality.

In this section I attempt to describe some of the factors which promote a familial life and those which promote an institutional life within the Weekend Program. I also consider how these factors are part of a dialectic which pulls each boy in polar directions as he copes with his current life and prepares for his future beyond the program. Furthermore, I try to explain the ways in which boys, with the help of adults, negotiate this dialectic to develop a synthesis which provides both succour and growth. My analysis, however, must begin with some definitions.

The Walker Weekend attempts to simulate the real world weekends of families in an intermediate but analogous fashion. (Walker Weekend Philosophy).

What the philosophy says and what you observed is actually the thin line we walk all the time between familial, kind of emotional stability and contractual, working, institutional kind of relationships. (John, co-director).

I didn’t like (the Weekend Program). I don’t trust (the staff) at all. They haven’t earned their trust with me yet, just like I haven’t earned my trust with them.... My mom trusts me at home. (Shawn, student).

They used to be a family to me. They treat me like a family.... Not like my family. My father. Too mean. (Maurice, student).

When Weekenders talked about families, either their own or how the Weekend Program was like a family, they almost always spoke in positive terms about certain feelings, activities or values. One frequently mentioned familial feeling was that of solidarity: "we’re always together; we never split up"; we do things together like brothers"; "a sense of emotional solidarity". Other feelings adults and children associated with families were "nurturance," being treated "good" and "fun."

Three boys spoke about families in terms of freedom: doing what you want, being by yourself if you want, deciding when to go to bed or what to watch on TV. Others talked about activities: baking cookies together, going to church, saying grace, going to the Teen Center in town. Both boys and adults brought up values like manners and politeness, kindness, not tattling, and trust.

Clearly many of these views of "family" are paragons which few families could live up to, especially not the boys’ troubled natural families or even the Weekend Program itself. Yet all boys, even Shawn who was the one boy who painted a negative picture of the program, ascribed some of these attributes to the weekend milieu. In a real sense, everyone concurred, to varying degrees, that the Weekend Program did succeed in being "family."

An element common to all these views of family was a sense that people respected each other and themselves, not as a chore but in a natural way people "cared" about each other. It is interesting that the word "love" was never used by any participants although certain respondents seemed on the verge of using it, as when one adult said, "We care about them in a real way, not in an institutional way." Despite the significant omission of "love" clearly something like love, i.e., deeply felt, unconditional, positive regard, lies at the heart of Weekenders’ concept of "family."

When speaking of elements opposite to "family" adults used the term "institution" which for them referred to "contractual, working" relationships and efforts. Children did not use the same term but they did refer to feelings, activities and values which were non-family, i.e., either conditions they viewed as alien to their own families or some ideal of family life.

Confusion and disempowerment were themes in speaking of "non-family": "they moved me to the Cottage and I didn’t even know why"; "sometimes I see a kid and wonder why he’s here"; "I don’t know why and I don’t ask cause they’ll say none of your business". Boys also spoke of structure, discipline and rules as things not encountered in their families but only at Walker. Shawn was anxious to be at home with his family rather than the Weekend Program because at Walker he felt a lack of trust and that adults "yelled at him a lot" whereas at home he felt he was trusted and free.

Both adults and children sensed that in the Weekend Program certain things happened because there were rules and regulations to be obeyed, not because people liked things that way. They sensed the presence of "obligation" and "emotional distance" in certain aspects of the program which contrasted to the "real caring" which characterized a more familial life. These aspects I (and adult Weekenders) refer to as "institutional."

From these definitions, "family" and "institution" can be contrasted in several ways: real care versus contractual obligations, solidarity versus distance, familiarity versus disorientation, warmth versus coolness. Although no respondents used these actual words, two terms seem to best capture the motivations which are the engines of families and institutions: love versus impersonal duty.

Latus, T. (1989) The Dialectic of Care: familial and institutional dimensions seven-day care in a residential treatment setting. Journal of Child and Youth Care. Vol.4 No.2 pp 62-64

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