Iris Elsdon and Sharon Priest
Child and youth care workers involved in family work within the community are exposed to a myriad of issues that will at times tax their abilities to deal effectively with the families they serve. Additionally, working with families who are often in desperate need has a personal psychological impact on the practitioner. In this article we outline some of the common themes that we are noticing in our practice in counselling families. We also show how we have experienced this impact, as well as ways to cope with negative effects from a practitioner’s stand point.
The families referred to our counselling program are from a small community on Vancouver Island and are referred trough the Ministry for Children and Families because of protection concerns. As the two counsellors who work in this program, we have noticed significant trends and common themes that seem to reoccur in the lives of our clients and are openly discussed in the counselling sessions.
Poverty, Guilt and Hopelessness
The overriding issue for many of the families we see is the impact of poverty and the constant struggle to keep their heads above water. Many families on our caseload are on income assistance, and they battle on a daily basis to keep their children fed, clothed, and housed. The income that they receive from welfare is grossly insufficient and rarely is enough to supply them with their basic monthly needs. Many clients look to the food bank to fill the gap in their grocery budgets. As for the extras that most families would take for granted, such as summer camps, school supplies, field trips, sports equipment and even car insurance and gas, our clients might as well be trying to fund a trip to the moon as try to include these items in their budget. Often their children go without new clothing and shoes, relying instead on hand-me-downs from friends or on the community clothing exchange. Although this may not have as negative an impact on elementary-aged children, it becomes another source of stress for the parents of adolescents who struggle to understand why their families cannot afford the latest designer brands. These stresses contribute to the already over-burdened parent, often leading to a reduced capacity to parent effectively. Fatigue, neglect, and abuse are often the outcomes leading to interventions by the authorities.
Callahan (1991) states: “Children who are poor are more likely to come to the attention of child welfare agencies.” She goes on to say:
The reasons why poor women and children and Native women and children are more likely to come to the attention of child welfare agencies are not hard to imagine. They cannot afford alternative child care arrangements, professional counsellors, summer camps, boarding schools and holidays away from their children; the central planks, of the child welfare system for the well-to-do. Nor do they often have connections, education and status which would buffer them from inquiries by the child welfare agencies. (p. 7)
Coupled with the ongoing strain of finding basic provisions, many clients are additionally burdened by the feeling that if only they could manage their money better, they would not be trapped in this constant crisis. This guilt is often accentuated by insensitive workers who also imply, subtly and otherwise, that indeed they should be managing better. As a result the client becomes a victim in a vicious predicament: no matter how smartly they organize their finances, the simple fact of the matter is that there isn’t enough to go around. The resulting guilt that these parents feel as “poor providers” is compounded when the system appears to also blame them for “not managing.”
Callahan (1991, p. 8) notes: “There are several ways in which women’s inequality is maintained through the present child welfare system. First, although most of the women and children are poor, the present system does not address their immediate poverty nor the endemic reasons for it” (my emphasis).
Dealing with the issues of poverty leads many parents into despair and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. As McCann and Pearlman (1990) point out: “Persons who have been victimized often find themselves in situations of extreme helplessness, vulnerability, or even paralysis” (p. 139). Many feel that they are careening from one crisis to the next without the possibility of even catching one’s breath. They live with the knowledge that the wolf is around the next corner and only perpetual vigilance will keep him at bay. As a result many of the clients we see are just plain tired, and with this fatigue comes a sense of hopelessness. Clients have the feeling that they are in a never-ending battle zone with no possibility of amnesty. The pervading sense of despair and hopelessness means that clients lose the ability to come up with new solutions to their financial, relationship, and personal troubles. Compounding their fatigue is the fact that many of our clients have no relief from their duties as parents. Because money is an issue, there are no funds available for sitters, hence no down time during which the parents can recharge their batteries or pursue interests of their own. These are the “central planks” of support that Callahan (1991) speaks of. Often, extended family members are not able to provide respite due to family dysfunction or geographical distance. Hence, the parent is not only the sole support, but also the only nurturer. When the children in the family react to this constant stress (and they invariably do) by acting out in the family or in the community, the parent begins to feel that all their efforts are pointless. Hard as they try to keep the family on an even keel, it appears to them that even their own children are working against them. Parental fatigue and despair prevent them from seeing the situation empathically from their children’s point of view, and they become caught in an escalating cycle of explosive anger and mistaken revenge. In some cases the parent decides to place the child in care, not out of a lack of willingness to care for the child, but out of a sense of growing desperation.
Many of our clients come from a history of childhood abuse, have been (or still are) dealing with addictions, have been (or still are) in abusive marriages, and may be abusive or neglectful toward their own children. As a result of this ongoing trauma, their world view is that the world is full of suffering. Indeed, their existence is the physical and concrete evidence that supports this world view. From this viewpoint they perceive that suffering is unending, arbitrary, universal and unacknowledged by the rest of the world. Because many have suffered since childhood, their perception is that no one notices; no one cares. The world is a battleground and they can expect nothing better. Our task is to challenge this assumption and create experiences in which the client can learn new patterns of behaviour, new ways of thinking about themselves as worthy of happiness that lead to fulfilment and peace, rather than suffering. We do not mean to suggest that we can single-handedly eliminate suffering from our clients’ lives; however, we can be instrumental in separating neurotic suffering from existential suffering by pointing out how thoughts, words, and deeds create and recreate experiences that have their beginnings in the past and can be continually recreated in the present. The introduction of a therapeutic relationship, in which someone demonstrates a caring and concerned attitude, may be the first experience of this kind to many clients. What was invisible is now for the first time being witnessed by another. To be seen, to be heard, to be validated is life changing. Additionally, as Callahan (1991) suggests: “If chronic neglect is primarily a matter of poverty, frequently the poverty of disadvantaged women, then it should be dealt with as a resource issue rather than a personal, individual problem” (p. 19). Unfortunately, in our experience, clients are held personally accountable by the very system that traps them in the cycle of poverty.
Another repetitive theme in our practice that emerges from dialogue with our clients is the yearning to explore the spiritual dimensions of their lives. For many, this has emerged out of their involvement in a 12-step program, leading to a questioning about their place in the world, their purpose, and the meaning of life. Questions such as these are often the first steps on a spiritual quest as clients search for new ways of dealing with old problems. We have observed that this exploration of spirituality engages clients in a life-affirming process that adds another dimension to their lives so that the mundane is transcended. Clients often report that they feel more hopeful when engaged in this process.
Poverty, Guilt and Hopelessness: The Practitioner’s Response?
Case Story: At a recent child and youth care conference, a colleague observed that some fellow practitioners were poorly dressed and seemed to pay little attention to the state of their clothing. Pants and shirts were unpressed, giving a sloppy appearance to the workers. He remarked that he felt “disappointed” that fellow professionals took so little care to present themselves in a positive light. He wondered what impact that would have on the people they were trying to help.
I wonder instead if this is the impact of dealing on a daily basis with despair and poverty. Do we, as practitioners, physically take on the struggles of the people we are commissioned to help? Is this the unconscious mirroring of hopelessness and guilt? Whether or not these questions can be answered is moot. However, we need to be aware of how we present ourselves and our profession to others, and especially to our clients, and sometimes this can be a fine line to tread. To build relationships, to encourage identification, workers must appear approachable and at ease in any environment. The work is often “hands on,” involving playing with children, coaching, and demonstrating life skills. Nevertheless, CYC workers are the ambassadors of hope, bringing the possibilities of change, and must therefore present themselves accordingly.
Vicarious Traumatization: Suffering Mirrored
Case story: S., a 30-year-old female client who has been involved in counselling for two months, tells of times in her childhood in which she was forced to jump in front of a moving train by her step-parent. The disclosure is punctuated by heart-rending sobs as the client relives her experience. The client was four and five years old at the time that this trauma occurred.
As the counsellor who heard this story, as well as other equally abusive incidences from this client’s past, I emerged out of the session shaken, tearful, and enraged that anyone had to experience this abuse. As McCann and Pearlman (1990) point out, “The helper may also find his or her own view of human nature becoming more cynical or pessimistic.” Any discrepancies “between our own positive schemas about human beings and the reality of the terrible abuses people perpetrate make this a particularly salient and painful issue” (p. 140). They go on to state: “If therapists’ schemas are continually challenged by clients’ reports of traumatic experiences, they can experience an overall sense of disorientation” (p. 142).
Invisible Work, Visible Consequences: Who Is Looking?
Case story: A 16-year-old boy physically abused his parents repeatedly. He stated that it was just a matter of time before he killed them. The parents were advised to take this situation seriously and were given information that would get their son psychiatric help. On follow-up, the parents refused to refer their son to mental health professionals, preferring instead to “let the situation resolve itself.”
As Callahan and Attridge (1990) point out: “success is often invisible and failure is visible for workers and parents” (p. 49). In this particular case, the tension that resulted for the worker was enormous. If this adolescent followed through on his threats (and the evidence clearly indicated that he had the capacity to do so), the worker could conceivably been seen to be liable. In violent episodes involving children, the question is often asked, “Who knew about this situation and what did they do to correct/prevent it?” Recent events such as the Columbine High School shootings, as well as other similar violent events, become the backdrop against which these situations are filtered through the practitioner’s mind. Although the authorities (police and Ministry officials) were notified, ultimately the parents were accountable to act in the appropriate manner. The fact that they failed to do so contributed to the sense of helplessness experienced by the practitioner. The nature of the work is such that it occurs in isolation, is highly confidential, and yet has incredible importance not only to the individuals involved, but to society as a whole. If the work is done successfully, it tends to remain invisible. Happy clients resume productive lives. However, if the work is unsuccessful, it becomes visible to the community at large. All this may contribute to the practitioner’s sense of being burdened by a responsibility that in reality rests outside of themselves.
Regulating Spiritual Expression
Case story: A 34-year-old recovering alcoholic, struggling with the issues of poverty and historical abuse, speaks frequently and vividly of her Christian beliefs. She leans heavily on these beliefs to support her through this difficult time in her life. In her annual review at the local welfare office, she reveals that she supports her church through a small weekly donation. She is told by her worker that she must stop tithing because her welfare cheque is not meant to be spent in such a way. The client responds by saying that she is willing to go without eating two days a month in order to continue to tithe.
This is an example of how spirituality and its expression in everyday life gets regulated by a system that sees no value in nurturing and sustaining spirituality. It is clear that the system that supports the poor is most frequently the antithesis of spirituality and of simple caring. For this mother, the act of giving to others, even in her reduced circumstances, gave her a sense of hope and personal efficacy. The worker was asking her to give this up in the name of the public dollar. As my colleague points out, it is a splintering of the wholeness of the personality that is in effect here. As a society we still only acknowledge certain parts of the personality, while other parts are ignored or excluded. For the poor, this division is even more clearly delineated, as this case example demonstrates. The irony is that as counsellors we are asked (by the same system) to restore wholeness, heal wounds, and attend to the totality of the personality, and yet the system responds in this manner. Moore (1992) points out: “Shallow therapeutic manipulations aimed at restoring normality or tuning a life according to standards reduces – shrinks – that profound mystery to the pale dimensions of a social common denominator referred to as the adjusted personality. Care of the soul sees another reality altogether. It appreciates the mystery of human suffering and does not offer the illusion of a problem free life” (pp.19-20).
Our experience has demonstrated that the totality of the personality is defined by the belief systems and values that are embedded within policies and become manifest in practice. If there is no value for the system to nurture spirituality, then the client cannot be supported for holding this value. As practitioners we both hold the belief that spirituality is central to overall well-being, and yet we feel a certain sense of constraint in approaching this topic with clients.
As workers in a government-funded non-profit agency we are confronted with similar obstacles, which result in shared feelings with our clients as we live our work lives. Government contracts are “bare bones” minimums with high expectations and requirements to provide a high level of service. Education requirements for the positions we hold are that of a master’s degree in human services. The cost of obtaining these degrees are exorbitant yet ironically the wages are not compensatory, leaving us as workers in a financial state similar to our clients. Granted, our income is higher; however, so is our outgo: student loan payments, insurance (both professional and automobile), transportation (a requirement of the job), and so on.
The expectation that we produce (do the job) is constant whether we have
the necessary equipment to do that work or not. After three years
operating this program, we have only recently been allocated office
space and a telephone. This is similar to the expectations placed on
parents in poverty or parents struggling with recovery from childhood
trauma: do the job whether you are equipped to do so or not. The powers
that be do little or nothing to assist in providing the wherewithal to
meet the required expectations.
How does this impact the workers? We have talked between ourselves of feeling disrespected, misunderstood, not valued, and exploited. The more we discussed these feelings, the more we came to hear our clients’ voices in our words. Another similarity is the level of fear that accompanies the work in this environment – fear of not being able to meet unrealistic expectations, even though, as was previously stated, the responsibility may in fact rest outside of ourselves. The vigilance with which we monitor thoughts and feelings as well as the stress of the work leaves feelings of fatigue and a sense of wounding. The politics, the inadequate pay (no raise in the contract funding for six years), the lack of resources, the high expectations, and the stress of the work contribute to a sense of burnout which Callahan and Attridge (1990) defines as powerlessness, a feeling shared by our clients.
We, as workers, cannot very easily, if at all, change the policies that govern the funding contracts that impact our lives and in turn our practice. We can and do put pressure on our agency administration to lobby for and advocate for contract changes. But in our experience, administrators have little effect on policy makers and funders, and they in turn feel powerless. The relationship between worker and administrator can be fraught with tension and frustration. This is very similar again to the relationship that could develop between worker and client or parent and child. It looks like this: child pressures poverty-stricken parent; parent directs frustration and powerlessness at the worker; worker in turn vents and pressures administration; administration lobbies contractors. As it goes up the ladder and becomes more removed, the chances of effecting change become more remote. Agencies, workers, parents, and children become isolated, which again maintains powerlessness.
Opportunities for growth
So where do we end up? How do we cope with this tangle of contradictions? What becomes increasingly clear to us as we work is the blurring of distinctions between worker and client. In this we find our greatest hope. These prevalent themes in our practice are rich in opportunities for personal and professional development and require only the practitioner’s willingness to view them as such. As counsellors, we have striven to utilize each experience as a means to improve our practice and as opportunities for self-awareness development. Over the time that we have worked together we have found ways of coping that seem to enhance our growth, increase sensitivity, and encourage respectful ways of being with clients. If there is no difference between “them” and “us,” then we can share ways of coping and staying sane in a world that is so splintering. We speak of using the natural resources of nature, ocean, and forest to create an inner place of serenity and calmness. As practitioners, my colleague and I talk of the great need we both have for solitude, and our continuing search for time to enjoy it. But at the heart of it all, we agree that our need is to make the invisible visible, both for ourselves and for our clients. For all of us to have a voice, to know what we know, and to keep caring enough to let others know ... we know.
Callahan, M., & Attridge, C. (1990). Women in women’s work: Social workers talk about their work in child welfare. Research Monograph #3. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria.
Callahan, M. (1991). Feminist perspectives on child welfare work. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria.
McCann, L., & Pearlman, L.A. (1990). Vicarious traumatization: A framework for understanding the psychological effects of working with victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3(1), 131-147.
Moore, T. (1992). Care of the soul: A guide for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life. New York: Harper Collins.