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Maintaining personal integrity and morality in a community home

Stuart R. Walkley considers a necessary aspect of self-awareness in our work of representing society on one hand and our young charges on the other.

In previous articles I have tried to show how the concept of residential care creates stress for the worker due to his or her close personal involvement with disturbed children. The term ‘personal’ needs, I think, some brief clarification since it is one of those words so often used that it now has a meaning blurred rather than refined by usage. By ‘personal involvement’ I mean the type of contact which by diverse means and to varying degrees affects one’s own sense of identity at a profound and often disturbing level — the stirring of emotions, indeed, which are so seldom understood or accepted.

However, in this article I do not wish to return as such to the subject of stress. Rather, I wish to look at one area of conflict experienced by the residential worker which causes stress. That conflict is one which essentially involves the personal integrity and moral worth of the care worker. It is a difficult topic, and inevitably personal experience clouds the attempt to write, but it is a topic which I would argue is of ever increasing importance. I believe that much of our work brings us to the brink, or possibly the very threshold, of a type of insanity. This ‘insanity’ involves a conflict experienced within ourselves which distorts our perspective and perception of the world and places us in moral peril through our very vulnerability.
Few residential workers who live and work in the type of situations which involve the development of close relationships with disturbed children will not have experienced the anguish of moral dilemmas or found their own values unchallenged by the onslaught of the children. Few, I would argue, remain unscathed by their experience — personal moral destruction and loss of a sense of integrity being common. It is impossible in our residential settings to remain ‘non-judgemental’, ‘value free’ or ‘objective’ — these are indeed nonsense terms — since we are called upon by society and by our own motivations to educate, reform and restore to society our charges. In the main, we uphold the standards of society and implement their wishes. Not, of course, in the didactic manner of the approved schools do we now appear as reformers. We do not beat into our children standards of behaviour, line them up for training, and bombard them with righteousness. We are not so readily identifiable as a force for law and order. The view of many members of the public, rather, is that we are collusive with delinquents, are zealous in our protection of them to the extent of finding excuses for unacceptable social behaviour.

Here lies one area of the conflict — what social psychologists might try to pass over as a ‘role conflict’ or role confusion (another utterly useless concept.) It is often no longer clear to us what our task is and we often make a hideous mess of making it clear to our children. On the one hand we receive children sent to us through the courts because of anti-social behaviour — so rightly seen by our children as a punishment. On the other hand we tend to see our task in treatment terms as being to deal with the causes of disturbance and their symptoms, creating possibilities for the child to build up healthy areas of functioning and to some degree trying to make the child feel valued and worthwhile. We are often at pains to explain to a child that being sent to us is not a punishment — despite the fact that everyone else up to that point has been suggesting that it is — and we rejoice with the few who are able to accept placement in care as being beneficial to them, as caring and nurturing. Yet magistrates and members of the public, often kept at a discreet distance from the community home, may well often be pressing for good old-fashioned discipline, deprivation of privileges, and retribution. We, too, in our weaker moments when a child has absconded for the ninth time in a month, and has yet again been stealing, wistfully toy with the idea of a ball and chain or, less mercifully, a garrotte. On the whole, however, we attempt to view anti-social behaviour as being an expression of the child’s pathology and to treat it as such.

On many occasions this finds workers torn by conflict and regarded as anti-authority. Authority is often seen by the worker as being ignorant of the child’s needs, insensitive and intolerant, and therefore certainly not something to be looked up to. The residential worker often feels with some justification that his expertise and sensitivity to the child is unreasonably attacked by the police, the courts, or irate members of the hypocritical public when they come into contact with our children. I recently attended a court case concerning fairly serious offences committed by a deeply disturbed boy and watched him duly sent to a detention centre despite our most careful reports indicating that this would reinforce the negative aspects of his personality. My blood boiled and indeed continues to boil that the courts should be so utterly insensitive and short-sighted. How dare they ignore me! Yet in the court’s view its actions were entirely justified, being conscientious and just considering the gravity of the offences. They knew the law, I knew the child — there was very little sign that we would be able ever to reach agreement! Conflicts, expressed or silently held, between the agents of the law and residential workers in such situations are, I would suggest, much more common than we are prepared to admit and are seldom brought out into the open.

Plainly in these instances the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is not the same for the court as for the residential worker. It is not necessary here to decide which view is to be favoured. What is important is to understand that essentially the residential worker may well find himself in conflict with the values of society despite his appointed role as a guardian and ‘trainer’ of society’s delinquent children, and despite the fact that very often the worker may well find himself fulfilling such a role with apparent ease.

I would argue that the importance of this conflict is not just experienced externally in the strained relationships between magistrates and residential workers, or society and the social worker. More fundamentally, and much more destructively, it may often be an expression of the conflict already felt within the care worker both about the child and about himself.
Knowledge of the disturbed child is not, for most of us, confined to a brief clinical document or assessment report. Living with the child over an extended period and in an intensive situation brings a knowledge of the child that cuts across the artificial, emotionless, format of the social enquiry report. Knowledge is based often upon the personal and harrowing involvement of the worker with the disturbed child. The distress felt by the child, the pain at abandonment by parents, the brutality of life, the sense of rejection, of hostility and of anger may often be experienced by the residential worker himself. This is a point readily admitted by those of us who are ‘involved’ with the child. Often this knowledge will in itself force the residential worker into an anti-authority position. Knowledge of the child at such a level will considerably influence our judgement of that child. To know all is indeed to forgive all, we would argue with pained justification, and we may rightly view the child’s hostility to society as being the just deserts of society’s hostile reaction to the child. Oh, how sonorous we may become in defence of a good cause!
What is not so readily acknowledged, and indeed may well be actively repressed by the residential worker, is the idea that the disturbed child activates in the worker aspects of his own personality which are delinquent and anti-authority. It is hard to acknowledge that we as adults, and adults in responsible positions at that, have aspects of our own development which are immature and have unresolved conflicts, perhaps stretching back to our own childhood, which continue to seek expression and find such expression in working with children who openly show their immaturity and delinquency. We dare not even consider such a possibility despite the fact that it distorts much of our perception of the children in our care — how could we possibly openly entertain such ideas!

These unresolved conflicts and poorly developed areas of our own development ‘surface’ at those moments when we are considering the morality of the children in care and viewing their behaviour. Our attitude towards delinquency, for example, often shows the ambivalence of our reaction brought about by these conflicts.

For example, although we often disapprove of delinquency, and register this to our colleagues, we often remain excited by it. The tremendous appeal of recounting the escapades of a particular absconder, or recoiling in mock horror as one discusses the record of a new child being admitted may indeed say as much about the worker as about the child. We would, I suggest, almost relive by recall the very acts of delinquency and experience them for ourselves. We laugh about them, they form good conversational material and, provided we register our disapproval in time, we may preserve our ‘dual stance’ towards these children — admiration and excitement against disapproval and moral outrage. There is, to many, something appealing about the ‘good old-fashioned delinquent’ — a term which almost implies a specific type of child uncomplicated by the more bizarre signs of psychoneurosis in many of our ‘disturbed’ children which we have found difficult to understand.

This conflict exists in us all — a conflict between conformity to the standards of society and rejection, almost abandonment, of them and I would be loathe to suggest that residential workers per se have any greater problem with this than many other workers. I am reminded, indeed, of the prospective vicar in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall who has ‘doubts’ and tortures his life with guilt. But I would suggest that because we are working so closely with disturbed children we are more likely to experience these inner conflicts. The pain of realising our own shortcomings (often so manifestly exposed by the children in any case) is too great to bear and we hide ourselves so often behind our thin disguise of moral respectability. We also defend ourselves from our tormented soul by justifying the actions of our children and by righteous indignation at the general cruelty and intolerance of the world — a cruelty and intolerance which our children are quick to pick up. Neither our self-righteousness, nor our air of moral responsibility is always hypocritical, nor are we prone to wild acts of delinquency, but we must remain prepared to admit that at times our children arouse in us our own delinquent urges and indeed act them out for us. We perhaps need to relive some of our own past and do so through the children.

I believe it is only when we begin to realise this that we can begin to move towards a greater understanding of our work. It is only as we become aware of our infantile drives that we can begin to tackle them and regain our sense of morality and integrity previously savaged by the child.

This feature: Walkley, Stuart R. (1985). The struggle to maintain personal integrity and morality in a community home. The best of the Gazette. (ed.) David Evans. England: Social Care Ass. pp 193-196