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the profession

Life space work, child and youth care work, residential work: Is this a Profession?

From the Netherlands, Lies Gualtherie van Weezel and Kees Waaldijk explore the nature and tasks of our work, and how it measures up as a profession alongside others involved in work with young people and families at risk

One of the common elements in the different kinds of residential work and day care is the peculiar profession of the life-space-worker, the "worker who helps people by sharing their daily life". As long as certain types of residential care have existed, there have been people who worked there and who shared to a certain degree the life of the residents in the orphanages, hospitals, the poor houses and other facilities.

But these people were not professional in the modern sense of the word. Even compared with other occupations in the middle ages, for instance, carpenters, painters or doctors, they were less "professionalised".

Many came to this work as members of religious denominations or committed to works of charity. Many of them, certainly, had a great deal of practical experience and developed important skills, but for the other occupations, a much more explicit body of knowledge and a more highly structured way of acquiring competence were available.

Careworkers in residential facilities will quite often have followed their hearts and the example of their predecessors or seniors. So we need to ask the question: what are the distinctive characteristics of a profession in comparison with occupations and jobs in general? Closely related to this question is the problem of what we mean when we are speaking of a process of "professionalisation" in a certain field.

Without pretending to offer a theory of professionalism, we suggest here a number of generally accepted characteristics of a profession, which at the same time can be seen as "steps" in a process of "professionalisation", of becoming more professional.

  1. A specific task or cluster of related tasks.

  2. These tasks are performed by certain persons more than incidentally, for a considerable part of their time over a period, generally in return for some payment in money and/or goods.

  3. The performance of this task presupposes a specific competence, a combination of practical skills and theoretical insights.

  4. A structured, more or less formalised route following in acquiring this competence, either in the shape of a (prepractice) school or of an in-service education (as in the traditional guilds).

  5. Recognition of the competence, perhaps in a formal qualification conveying the right to exercise this function, by the society.

  6. The existence of a (never complete) body of skills and insights, which the basis of on-going training and practice.

  7. A more or less elaborated (articulated) professional organisation which assumes responsibility for the development of the profession and for the quality of services provided. Sometimes this is formalised in professional standards and a system of professional supervision.

A profession, recent and ambivalent
Seen from this perspective it may be evident that work with people in residential settings has only slowly and relatively recently become a clear and recognised professional activity. Even today, in this last decade of the twentieth century, the life space worker is quite often not seen as a qualified professional but rather as doing simple things such as (physical) care, guarding, or just carrying out instructions from above. The delayed recognition and development of the professional character of this work is understandable. First of all, at first sight the activities under consideration are so ordinary, so simple, that every lay person is supposed to be able to perform them. Caring for the young, the ill or handicapped is at some stage everybody's duty in the family or in the community. Care for the mentally ill or the imprisoned, often quite harsh, didn't appear to presuppose much skill or professional competence. So much of this work was done by lay people, and accordingly it didn't enjoy a high esteem and recognition in society. This was not a good starting point for developing professional know-how and standards. Of course this doesn't mean that some people didn't invest a lot of dedication and talent in this work. Certainly, members of religious orders often did wonderful work and developed considerable practical skill over years of experience. Against this background we can under stand the ambivalence around professionalisation in this field. Expecting too much, or even anything, from systematic training in this field might belittle the importance of personal talent ,of the warm heart or of religious inspiration. But as a professional view of this work slowly developed, important pioneers and innovators began to think about the quality of residential life.

The work of Pestalozzi in Switzerland with orphans, the radical innovations in the mental hospital of Piner in Paris, the work of Wichern with neglected youngsters in Hamburg were all examples of the search for new methods of work in institutions. Famous is the work of Janusz Korczak earlier in this century in his orphanage for children in Warsaw. He not only succeeded in creating a wonderful environment for children to live and grow, but he also pioneered systematic in-service training for his staff in the so-called "Bursa", closely described by one of his workers/students, Ida Mertan.

One of Korczak's main contributions to the development of the profession of life-space worker was the flexible balance between attention to the whole orphanage as a real participative community, and attention to the individual child with his or her personal history and problems.

Professionalisation nevertheless
Strong influences towards the professionalisation of work in the life space came from two sides:

  1. The first was the ongoing professionalisation in neighbouring fields such as teaching, nursing and social work. The development of "social case work", "social groupwork" and "community organisation" as elaborate methods of working in the social field inspired a number of residential centres to develop a more systematic approach, often with a recognisable echo of the individual, family, group or community-centred emphasis of these professions.

  2. A second influence was the rapid development of the behavioural and social sciences in the twentieth century. The growing insight, for instance, into normal and disturbed human development; into the dynamics of psychiatric illnesses and neurotic conflict; into the social and psychological origins of delinquency; into the psychological problems of ageing -all contributed to more reflection on practical work in residential and day care for different groups of clients. Especially since World War II, and even more so since the emancipatory movements of the sixties, residential care has been part of the process of liberalisation. The days of the residential centre as an isolated, coercive and often authoritarian and moralistic institution are past. The rights of residents of all types to be treated as human beings, and according to the best available insights in their conditions, have been asserted. This broad and complex process is reflected and symbolised in the greatly increased literature of our field.

Advantages and risks
In a broader historical perspective, the cry for renewal in residential and daycare is simultaneously a cry for more humane regimes and a cry for more scientific and methodical ways of operating. Although these trends and opinions were strong, professionalisation proved to be a difficult, sometimes impossible challenge. The process was not only confronted by external hindrances as rising costs, tenacious traditionalism and vested interests; it also came up against the proponents of the old cures: love for the neglected child, discipline for the delinquent, heavy labour for the restless mentally handicapped and psychiatric patients. The opposition came not only from outside; many committed people working in the field maintained their doubts about the value of working in a more professional or methodical way.

Wouldn't spontaneity suffer from thorough planning, and the warm heart from "cold" rational analysis? Wouldn't personal commitment be undermined by professional distance, and creativity and talent by calculating functionality? The slow progress and opposition to professionalisation came not only from external counter forces and a romantic sticking to the past. The work itself is, by its character and content, based on the individual. There can never be a complete body of knowledge to fit every worker and every situation. The work is about human beings with their unique personality and history and about communication between these human beings, residents, relatives and workers. And this implies an essential limitation on a purely professional approach.

The worker and the task
Let us now have a closer look at the worker in this field. More than other workers in the helping professions, the daily task of the life space worker includes an extreme variety of sub-tasks. To use some comparisons: He or she has to be as much aware of his individual contacts as the psychotherapist or the social worker; as much group oriented as the group worker or club leader; as sensitive to family problems as the social worker; as creative in the use of activities as the youth leader -and in between he should not be afraid to maintain rules, to be a good homemaker and an administrator -preparing for a case meeting on a child or group of children, handling a temper tantrum, making a youngster's birthday a real festivity -all while dealing with difficult relatives. More fundamental than the variety of tasks is in our view the contrasting diversity between some basic aspects of this work. Some activities in our society have their centre of gravity in "being" in the right way (being a good parent, or a friend); other activities in "doing" the right things, properly (mechanics, surgeons, hairdressers); and other activities in analysing and "understanding" things well (detectives, historians, diagnosticians). On the other hand, the (poor!) life space worker has to function intensively and sensitively on all three levels: his way of being there amongst the residents is of utmost importance; doing the right things at the right moment; and understanding people and analysing situations by reflecting on them is the only way in this work to avoid walking in the dark and acting at random.

So whoever ventures to describe the profession of the life space worker has at least to take into account the diversity of tasks and the importance of all three basic dimensions of being, doing and reflecting.

A definition
Here we propose our tentative definition of the profession: Life space workers are those who work within the daily living situations of their clients, and who by their way of being there, by their way of fullfilling a number of quite different tasks, and by their way of reflecting on the process in close co-operation with others, help the clients to live their own lives and to solve or handle their problems in the most effective way.

Professionalisation, why?
We now return to the question why professionalisation, notwithstanding its risks and limits, is so important and urgent in this field.

It is in the first place related to the status of the life space worker, not in the sense of social prestige and recognition but in relation to the other disciplines involved in work with at-risk clients today. Especially since World War I1 a considerable number of new specialists have entered residential settings, such as the psychologist, the psychiatrist, the psychotherapist, the social worker, the recreation worker, the remedial or special teacher, the medical specialist and the physical therapist. Sometimes the life space worker is overshadowed by all these workers who seem, more than he himself to have a very concrete sometimes spectacular professional contribution to offer. To play his role in this ensemble, the life space worker, compared with the others, a generalist and an integrative figure, has to be aware of his own specific contribution and professional principles. In the second place professionalisation is important for the responsibility and better accountability of the worker.

Good intentions are not enough, nor is a Social mandate. Like every other helper, the life space worker has to give account of what he is doing, and how not only, even not primarily, to his boss, or to the funders, but to the clients dependent on him. He is obliged to do his best and to make the best use of available insights and methods. Working in this field in a rigid traditional way, or with a well meant but unchecked spontaneity, is working in an irresponsible way and rendering ourselves unable to give proper account.

So working professionally or methodically doesn't offer us an easy way, but it helps and obliges us to be present with clients in an open way, neither bound by tradition nor acting at random, and looking at things from more than one point of view. Working in this profession will again and again challenge the worker to find his way as a creative, choosing and learning person in a field characterised by the seemingly opposite poles of spontaneity an orderliness, distance and involvement, freedom and discipline, person and organisation.