CHILD CARE WORKERS
Child Care Contradictions
Brian Gannon speaks at a Graduation
Child care is a career of great rewards
I suppose that must be right. Or else why did we older folk keep on doing it? Parents always get very excited over their child's first steps or his first words or some other milestone or achievement. I have always thought it very sad that the parents of the children we look after don't get to share many of those moments — but as child and youth care workers we do, and there is great joy in that. Over the years, also, we are able to look back on many successes: on youngsters for whom life looked bleak indeed but who nevertheless went on to do well, hopefully, in part, because of something we did to help.
There are times when we feel incapacitated by the anger, the mistrust, the despair. Of course, if everything in our society went right, we shouldn't be doing this work at all. The starting point of child and youth care work is always some human tragedy or failure, abandonment, rejection, death, neglect, abuse or wrongdoing — and for some reason we choose to come in here, out of the sunlight and into the dark places where young people are distressed and afraid, and to share (when they let us) their personal horrors and hates. And we are inevitably going to get hurt and fearful. While others may talk policies, morals and theories, we get to look in children's eyes. This not only exposes us to their pain, but it makes it doubly sore when we can't help them, when we see some youngsters leave us unhelped.
Child care workers must advocate for kids
We must work for a better deal, and claim resources for them. Who else will, if not those who are closest to them? Indeed, one cannot work with troubled kids without wanting to climb on the rooftops and shout the odds. We want the world to know what happens to children when their needs are not met; we want the world to know what this particular child needs but is not getting. We are frustrated when we work with youngsters who got a raw deal, and for whom society seems to want to do so little. Part of our job is to tell society about this.
Nobody will really help you. The world has troubles enough of its own — or people are working away at their own cabbage patches and haven't the time or capacity to help you in yours. The state won't listen. I have spent my whole career seeking the ear of the authorities, pleading, explaining, asking, suggesting, demanding and even offering to do myself much of the work which a proposal might entail. But in all that time the state departments with which I have worked have never once listened, have never helped — and I fear have never really understood what we do. The same is true for the specialists and fellow professionals. Child care workers may feel, with all the clever psychiatric, social work, psychological and educational specialists and therapists about, that resources exist and help is at hand. A colleague and I were rushing a l4-year-old who had just slashed his wrists to Psychiatric Casualty one evening. In our own panic and fear we were looking for back-up. Half way there we looked at each other and asked "What on earth are we doing this for? What do we really expect when we get there?" A ludicrous interview, an appointment at some indeterminate time in the future, some medication ... This was one of our own kids, we knew him and loved him and we knew that we had to do this ourselves, scary and awkward as it might be. So we turned around and came home.
Child care workers must build a core of theory and skills
Professionals are distinguished by the fact that they are well-informed about their field and that they know what they are doing in their practice. This is exactly what today's graduates have been doing for the past two years or so — and it is encouraging to see how many child care workers have been working on so many courses this past year. One mark of the professional is that she can be held accountable for the tasks which she is expected to perform, and it follows that one mark of a profession is that it accumulates a body of knowledge and practice skills which it teaches to its members. Today's students have learned much about human development, nutrition, stimulation and communication; much about children, families and society; and much about management, education, counselling and life space treatment.
We can only bring this package of theory and training into contact with the children and into our work when we have established a level of trust which allows both child and worker to unpack their stuff with each other. When we look back on a positive encounter with a youngster, there is usually no way of saying which part of our knowledge or which specific skill was of use. The only indicator of success was the relationship which we both allowed to happen, the universal human experience of meeting and liking and trusting and sharing which makes up a kind of chemistry not defined in the text books — what I often call 'the magic'. Whatever the problem, and whatever the skills this problem may call for, the bottom line in our work is that the child gets the message "it's all right, no matter what". This is the only message of real importance that anyone in this hall ever got from their parents and it's the one message which children in care long to get. You may come at youngsters with your professional pliers and spanners and hammers, but these are laughable tools if there is to be no meeting of minds and hearts, no mutual meaning in being together, and, ultimately no joy in the time which you share.
Listen most carefully to the children
Children in care usually feel that they are not listened to. People have not paid them attention; they have not had time for them. It has often been the other way around: people have said to them "Now you listen to me!" Important information about the children is going to come to you from the complaints of others, from official reports and assessments; your best information is going to come from the children themselves. Chris Beedell said that the only history we have to work with is the children's own history.
What our kids say needs a lot of translation. They will often tell you what they think you want to hear. They will often tell you the bad things they have heard about themselves and which many of them have even come to believe. Children who have not been listened to have received little guidance on how to say things, and they have received little feedback on what they have said. They are, therefore, not skilled with words. Also, children who have not been listened to will often develop a louder way, a more roundabout way, or perhaps even a non-verbal way, a ruder or more aggressive way, of saying what they want to say. Our job is to avoid reacting to the clumsy, oblique message and to get back to the original, the real message. A child care worker came into a staff meeting tearful and obviously upset at something which had just happened. Colleagues expressed concern and asked what was wrong. "David (for whom she had been putting in long hours of very difficult and sensitive work) has just sworn at me!" she replied. After a pause, another child care worker observed: "When I think back to my own adolescence, there was really nobody with whom I could trust really angry feelings. Friends would have rejected me; school teachers would have disciplined me — only my mother would still have been there for me". So David's crude message was not true at face value.
Account for every cent you spend
Certainly this is serious advice when we work with public funds, and even more so in a tough economy. Child and youth care work — and particularly residential work — is expensive, and when a child leaves after, say, two years, we have to be pretty confident that we have something positive to show for what we have spent. Children's organisations are careful to strike an optimal spending level. There can be a level above which children are indulged and therefore not being responsibly prepared for the realities of life when they return to their homes and communities. There can also be a level below which we are just not being effective, where we are not quite delivering the services we are being paid for, and where we are even, perhaps, contributing to the children's deprivation and disadvantage. Balancing services with funds is a delicate operation.
Exactly where is the 'bottom line' in child care? In which books are the real accounts being kept? Is it simply in the organisation's financial accounts that we can measure our cost-effectiveness? Someone complained to me the other day that after much is spent on training, child care workers may leave the profession and all this money is wasted. This got me to wondering "Who knows what is wasted and what is ultimately useful?" It is quite possible, even probable, that a trained child care worker who leaves the child care service will go out into her own life and her own home with considerable new learning and abilities which will, in turn, feed into better child-rearing and family life and community health. The same is true for every child who leaves us: it is surely not only his life which we have affected, but those of his friends and neighbourhoods, his present and future families. What child care workers do is not only for the single strand of one life; it is for the fabric of the whole community and society.
We have so much to teach the children
One only has to look at the levels of deprivation to see how much children in care have missed out on (in their physical, verbal and cognitive development, in their understanding of social and emotional concepts) to see how very much there is to teach. One model of practice, the Teaching Family Model, conceptualises all of our interactions with young people as teaching. Child care workers spend much of their day teaching, for they know that we can only expect children to be responsible for that which they have been taught and which they have mastered. It is a slow process, and for all of us here in this hall, we know that our growth required millions and millions of messages and interactions and lessons between us and our parents and the other adults in our lives.
The youngsters have, for their part, been where we have not been, and they have seen things through very different eyes. I would say that a person who spend a day with a child without learning something significant and meaningful from that child has somehow shut herself off and cannot call herself a child care worker. Our work has to do with the lives which others are leading, and our own lives have value for them only insofar as we somehow enter each others' lives for the "together" part of our journey. We know from our studies that we can have no understanding of the "problems" of others unless we understand the context in which things go wrong, unless we understand the needs which their problematic behaviour is trying to meet, and what knowledge and skills they already have to work with. These things we can only learn from them.
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And so, congratulations to our graduates here today. You have worked hard over this past time to become better at your child care work, and you have learned so much. Yet today you know nothing! It will all start only when you get back to your direct contact with the children.