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READING FOR CHILD AND YOUTH CARE WORKERS
ISSUE 26 • MARCH 2001

Shelley Gilberg and Grant Charles consider child and youth care work in rural areas, and ways of connecting rural with other established practice.

The Rest of Canada:
Child and Youth Care Work in Rural Communities

There has not been a lot written about being a child and youth care worker in rural Canada. It may be that as a field we assume that the skills and knowledge needed to be an effective worker in a rural setting are the same as in the urban centers where most of us receive our training. And yet there are really two different practice solitudes at play in this country. While there are similarities, there are distinct differences between rural and urban approaches to practice. What we are going to discuss in this paper are some of the unique aspects of working in a rural setting.

Rural communities in many ways are not different from families. Our orientation and philosophy in how we think about working with rural communities is as critical as our beliefs and orientation about how we work with families. Perhaps the first and most important thing we know is that all families are not the same, neither are all rural communities. Secondly, we have started to honour the family’s own expertise and now believe that most families have developed strategies, used resources and patterns which allow them to survive, and in fact most families want to thrive – this is also true of communities. We have discovered that families find more success when we approach them looking for their strengths to build upon – rural communities deserve the same respect and approach.

If this is sounding familiar, that’s good; it should. As practitioners, our "checklist and to do list" (if such a thing exists) of things we look at for families includes several pieces equally applicable and appropriate for thinking about the practicalities of approaching work with rural communities. The pieces of our approach and activities for families that we suggest be applied to rural work include such issues as self care for caregivers, exploring what works in the community, and what strengths drive those successes. Similar to working with families, we need to become more effective at identifying the community’s most pressing needs and what education would allow the "client" to move forward past the identified issues. Additionally, we explore who "owns" what, how to share responsibility and where outside help or expertise may be necessary and beneficial.

Where should we start? From the same place we do with families – a respectful and well-considered orientation and philosophy that our work is to augment and highlight, not recreate or impose. We start by listening, supporting and finding out what their strengths are. We provide a broad framework that we then work with the "client" on customizing and augmenting to suit their particular strengths and their particular needs and priorities. We provide information and education that they can assimilate at their own pace and in their own way so they may "do it" for themselves. We are conscious of relationship and process as two of our major tools and venues for helping to effect the changes desired by clients. We see barriers not as "lack of willingness" or "unmotivated", but as symptoms of other issues. We try to ensure that caregivers are caring for themselves so that they may care for others. We provide specialized services where necessary while always thinking about how our interactions and interventions affect the whole system. We provide as much as we can to people in ways that are as physically and emotionally accessible and convenient.

What might this look like in a rural community? Ideally, it would be different in each community. However, the larger framework we can provide will come from using our trademark Child and Youth Care approach of principles and values blended with creativity. We suggest the provision of distance education courses to rural practitioners. The rural community practitioner needs the same grounding, but a different array of specialized training, community development education and skills would be a key focus of this. While we can fill a rural practitioner's toolbox with training to deal with the wide range of needs they will be asked to meet, we also bear a responsibility to ensure that a framework for knowing when doing many things is "too much". A rural practitioner may be connected via videoconference or other technology to support supervision, debriefing and consultation needs, and this allows practitioners and families to receive what they need in their home community. We can advocate for specific pre-service training and awareness for rural practitioners. A rural community might be paired with a larger agency in an urban area to examine the best of both practices to continue to grow each of their bodies of knowledge, and our collective knowledge. We can advocate that a framework building on strengths, rather than a cookie cutter policy or template, an approach to partnering in providing service with rural communities is the way to proceed.

While working in rural communities is different than urban centres, the core skills, abilities and principles of child and youth care form the framework for both areas of practice. It is the application of the skills and knowledge that can be different. Like other "specialties" in the field of child youth care, not all of us will be equally interested or equally gifted in rural child and youth care. The field, as a whole though, can provide the framework to support and nurture those who choose to work in rural settings. And as is typical of our philosophy, we can be cognizant of how our rules, relationships and systems affect rural work. A case in point will be addressing the issue of our ethics and how they help or hinder our rural practitioners and families.

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We believe that it is time that we collectively acknowledge that there are unique dynamics common to child and youth care practice in rural communities that need to be explored and addressed. We now have the critical mass in this country of experience and training in our field to begin this exploration. What we have done in this paper is to make some preliminary suggestions by which to begin this process.