ISSN 1605-7406

residential care

The Child Care Worker - II

Part II of Peter Righton's address to a child and youth care conference in Johannesburg nearly 25 years ago. View Part I here

In Part I, I said very little about the group care worker, and this is quite deliberate. Unless we are in touch with the child who speaks, the child to whom we should listen, we can know nothing about what it is that the worker needs to do and needs to be.

Now for the sake a clarity, and at the risk of over-simplification, I want to say something about what emerges concerning skills and qualities of workers in relation to the nurturing, strengthening and letting go needs which I have outlined.

Worker skills
There are two skills which apply to all. The first is making a warm and responsive environment for the child, and I refer to all those humdrum, ordinary, unremarkable activities with which every group care worker has to concern himself if a child is to survive physically, emotionally and intellectually. Food, sleep, shelter, routines, arrangements for living together in a way which ensures maximum autonomy, maximum sharing, maximum concern and care for each other. Every single arrangement made under this heading is pregnant with emotional meaning for a child. For example, what is the meaning of a bed to a child? Does it connote privacy? A space to be alone for a time? Or rather carelessness and rush, being surrounded by others, a denial of privacy, personal possessions, personal space? I know these needs rub up against the expense of providing each child with appropriate space, but sleeping, resting, waking and going to bed, the demands of fatigue and of sexuality, all centre on the sleeping arrangements we make for our children. They are not trivial; they are as important as arrangements we make for food, routines, sharing, and all that we do to make up a warm and responsive environment — and by responsive I mean an environment which the staff can (and must) vary according to the needs of each child.

The second skill running through all three needs is the skill of constantly renewing and reviewing as group care workers our intimate knowledge of each child — and that is a very difficult thing to acquire — and this depends upon constant observation and accurate interpretation of our observations. And we should know that we can always be wrong in the conclusions we reach as a result of our observations: what we observe may not be what the child means; our own vulnerability may be threatened by what we observe and this comes down as a screen between us and the child; and what one worker concludes may be quite different from the conclusions of another.

For example, a child refuses food. What does this mean? I don’t like this dish and I’m not going to eat it. I’ve got a bet on with the kid next door that I’m going to sit through this meal without eating anything! (There are, of course, 37 different things it could mean.) It could mean: I hate you, I hate this place, I hate the workers in it, and I am not going to poison myself by taking in this nasty symbol of what I don’t want to have inside myself. Food refusal can mean this. But the point is that identical behaviour can mean any one of many things, and it is desperately important to get it right. Point to be made: It is often through things so humdrum that workers get in touch with what children feel, and if we ever lose the connection between this creation of a warm and responsive environment and the more advanced-sounding skills of keeping feelings alive, then we are not doing a proper job.

Building relationships
The next major skill must be the building of relationships of appropriate depth and intensity. And I want to focus here on depth and intensity, because children’s needs in this regard may vary from the shallow to the very deep indeed. A child severely damaged by faulty and destructive relationships in his past may very badly need a period in which his relationships with adult carers can be relatively superficial. This may be a transitional need, and a necessary one before we attempt to get to the bottom of things. Knowing when to switch from one depth to a deeper and more intense interaction is a skill which takes a long time to grow, an area in which mistakes (and reparation) may have to be made. But we can only learn this by doing, and doing in the presence of someone who can tell us where we are going wrong and what we are doing right.

And of course residential workers, far more than field workers, have to be adept at switching from individual relationships to relating with the group throughout an average residential care day. Few people outside the field can know how exhausting, wearying, thrilling and fun as well, this constant switching of focus can be.

We now come to skills for strengthening. One is the promotion of shared responsibility, and the confrontation of children with the reality of their behaviour at a stage at which they can bear it. There is no way that residential care can be, at times, other than stem. I do not, of course, mean the wielding of sticks, punishment, tough and tight regimes of control. What I do mean is that children in care need to be faced with the consequences of their behaviour, and we are irresponsible if we deny children this experience. But we are equally irresponsible if, in doing so, we merely impose on the child our own view of what that reality is. Hence the linking of it with shared responsibility. Shared responsibility is not my word, it comes from David Wills, a man who pioneered communities in which young people learned to grow and to cope independently of the caring environment in which they lived. It means allowing children to make decisions, appropriately to their age, possibly to make mistakes, and standing by, sometimes anxiously, as care workers as they face the realities they have created.

And constantly present is the skill of letting go, and here a major need is that of opening the environment to the outside world — both ways — the world coming in and the kids going out, not just at the end of their stay, but throughout. This means a recognition by child care workers that no matter how much time they may spend with the children, they are no more than co-workers with others, parents, neighbours, the wider community. Otherwise we get the spectacle all too familiar, the institutionalised child, and the spectacle not so widely recognised, the institutionalised child care worker who is afraid to move out of his environment because encapsulation in it meets a particular need he or she has.

Human qualities
Add to these skills the human qualities which are required of a child care worker and you arrive at something rather like a saint! But it seems to me that together with these skills in nurturing, strengthening and letting go, need to be supplemented with some or all of these qualities: emotional stability and resilience, that is not readily shaken but also open to learning from experience; a capacity to manage stress in self and others; a sense of the worth of ones self and ones work, not arrogance but a solid belief that what I have to give is OK; a range of practical abilities and an ability o share them; an ability to take children seriously — and humorously — as people in their own right, with as much right to say in their lives as staff themselves; and powers of sharp analysis and synthesis. Let nobody suppose that the work of the child care worker is anything other than intellectually extremely demanding.

All of what I have said has implications for workers, for employing agencies, for child care training, and for an association like the NACCW. You could not learn all of the skills I have mentioned by simply practising them, but by practising them in a context in which you get feed-back on what you do, and frequent periods to pause (for rather longer than a few minutes) to ponder on the totality of what you are doing. Academic training which excludes practical experience is often worse than useless. Practice without support and supervision is irresponsible on the part of employers, because I hope I have conveyed what all this means in terms of intense stress, heartache, sometimes feelings of absolute tragedy and failure.

Group care work is the most stressful work in the world and it cannot be undertaken without adequate support, not just in terms of salary and working conditions. What is indispensable is the feeling by care workers that they are supported by those who employ them in taking the quite appalling risks that displaying all those skills in fact implies.

I want to end in perhaps a rather curious way. All of these skills imply risk, and only by taking these risks can we bring children to the signposts we should offer, but at the same time children should be free to choose which signposts they should follow. What we want to avoid is the strait-jacket which arises from another kind of human arrogance. There are three kinds of strait-jacket; they all begin with “C”, and they are all monuments to human arrogance: class, creed and colour. I am referring to the arrogance which brings together, on some pretext, an elite group of people who say “Thus the world shall be, for you as well as for me.”

With regard to class, we see in Britain the tendency for children in care to be indocrinated with values which are not their own or those of their families. History, tco, is full of the way in which people, believing certain creeds, have imposed that creed on others at the expense of or the penalty of very unpleasant disadvantages if that creed is not adhered to; and colour I know I needn’t dwell on for this is a particular form of arrogance you are having to face in your own society, the notion that a person’s worth is to be judged by the pigmentation of his skin. If we should, in any part of the world, encase children in arrogant assumptions about class, creed or colour, we shall be providing strait-jackets and not signposts.