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Who are we working with? A short history of Child and Youth Care involvement with families

Thom Garfat

Family may be a universal phenomenon, but it varies significantly from culture to culture and within cultures over time. In Canada, for example, it has been possible since 2005 for same sex couples to marry and create a legal family, although they still face many changes to gain true equality. Until the passage of this law when one spoke of a ‘family’, the generally accepted interpretation was of a husband and wife, legally married and living together with one or more children. The ‘family’, conceptualised thus, was considered the basic unit of our society and was recognised as such in legislation (Swift, 1995). In Manitoba, for example, the Child and Family Services Act of 1986 explicitly stated, “the family is the basic unit of society . . .” Nonetheless, Canadian society is changing dramatically. McCarthy (1995) makes the point, 'there is no longer any such phenomenon as a singular, universal family form' as we see in this formal definition from Statistics Canada (2006) which is used for collecting census data in Canada:

. . . family is defined as a married couple and the children, if any, of either or both spouses; a couple living common law and the children, if any, of either or both partners; or, a lone parent of any marital status with at least one child living in the same dwelling and that child or those children. . . . A couple may be of opposite or same sex. . .

Family, it seems, is what it is, as this definition from Correctional Services Canada (2007) makes explicitly clear: “family is defined as a group of individuals who are related by affection, kinship, dependency or trust”. The description goes further, however, recognizing the definition of family within a culture within Canada:

CD 702 (13) in relation to Aboriginal Programming states: "Extended family" includes not only those family relationships that exist by birth but also include significant others who are not related by birth, but are given the title of grandparent, parent, brother, sister, aunt, uncle or other relative.

CD 702 (22) states: The institution shall recognize and respect that Aboriginal offenders have a wide and purposeful concept of family.

In this quote we see not only a recognition of a more contemporary definition in Canadian society, but, as well, a recognition that within Canadian society, there are different definitions based on one’s culture and identity.

In Nova Scotia, Canada, we find another example of the changing definition of family in the Standards for Residential Child Caring Facilities:

In those situations where there is an appropriate significant other who fulfils the traditional role of family to a child/youth, then, for the purpose of these Standards and our services, these people should be considered as family” (Province of Nova Scotia, 2001).

Here we see that the definition of family depends not only on the society, or a culture within a society, but also on the individual’s experience of family.

More generally, the Vanier Institute for the Family ( offers the following functional definition on its website:

....any combination of two or more persons who are bound together over time by ties of mutual consent, birth and/or adoption or placement and who, together, assume responsibilities for variant combinations of some of the following:

A family is a complex web of mores, folkways, individual histories and unique dynamics, protected, to differing extents, by legislation. It is a reflection of a collective value system of a particular time within a particular culture – as such, it is ever-shifting with the changes in society. . The ‘family’ is no longer defined as some kind of 'natural', 'instinctive' and 'sacred' unit (Edholm, 1982). Family is what any particular social group believe it to be (Bruggen & O' Brien, 1987). For the people who have lived within these ‘different definitions of family’ the recognition in law, statutes, and practice is no more than a recognition of their living definitions and experiences of family. For those of us who work in the helping field such redefinitions have significance for practice.

The inclusion of families is now common in Child and Youth Care practice as programs shift their focus (Shaw & Garfat, 2004; Garfat, 2001). Such was not always the case. A review of program descriptions from the middle of the last century (e.g., Ohio, 1941; Redl & Wineman, 1952) reveals that programs were very much focused on the young person. Frequently, no mention was made of family, or family involvement in the program with direct service staff. They were ‘out there’, a group to be avoided, guarded against, the source of the problem. As Sherry Magliaccio (2005) has said they were “a small part of the program”, at best. Families are now seen as the part of the solution, or, at the very least, central to the solution and the inclusion of families is considered the norm (Shaw & Garfat, 2004). As Milligan and Stevens (2006, p.103) have stated, staff are “expected to engage with the child and their family”.

This shift in practice focus can be seen as parallel to the shifting definitions of family within our cultures and our growing acknowledgement that ‘the child is of the family’ Mbambo, 2004). Child and Youth Care, like most helping professions, has come to realize that the young person is a member of a social, interacting system and that the development of the young person, and the young person’s thoughts, actions, values, beliefs and experience of self occur within this system (Fewster, 2004; Garfat, 2004; Garfat, 1998). As Fewster (2001) has said, “all that we are, and all that we will ever be, stems from our relationships with others from the moment of our conception to the time of our departure”. Surely, family, defined as it is here, is the most influential of relationships of development. We have also come to realize that lasting change is only facilitated when helping professionals interested in the troubled young person are involved with the total family system. (Garfat, 2004; McConkey-Radetski & Slive, 1988; Phelan, 2001). According to Fulcher (2006, p. 43) “increased family participation usually means improved service outcomes and longer term benefits” and that, surely, is attractive to everyone.

The family is the client
Historically, the client was the young person who had been identified by society or the social service system as in need of assistance either because of their behaviour or because they were abandoned, physically or emotionally, by their parents (Arieli, 1991; Charles & Gabor, 2006; Pawson, 1983). The focus of the Child and Youth Care workers activities was solely directed towards this young person. Usually, through basic activities of care, nurturing, and control the Child and Youth Care worker concerned herself with the behaviour and development of the young person. The young person was the total focus of the worker’s day. After all, it was the young person who needed to ‘change’.

As an interest in family ecology started to permeate Child and Youth Care practice (Pence, 1988; Phelan, 2004), the worker came to focus on the young person and the parent(s). This was typically manifest through an interest in the parenting skills or abilities as they influence the behaviour of the young person. With time, however, we have begun to see the signs of a further shift in the definition of the client as programs have begun to expand the roles and functions of Child and Youth Care workers (Durrant, 1993; Garland, 1987; Stuart & Carty, 2006). It is evident from the changing nature of programs and the growing volume of national and international literature, that the future client of the Child and Youth Care worker will be the family, the whole family, as research demonstrates both the effectiveness and efficacy of total family involvement. Indeed, it is more common today to think of even residential care as a resource for families. (Stuart & Carty, 2006; Ridgely & Carty, 1998). Increasingly, programs employing Child and Youth Care workers are responding to support those workers in developing systemic thinking, providing a range of services to the whole family, and in intervening into how the family lives together as a functioning unit. The characteristics of a Child and Youth Care approach are being applied to interventions with the family as a whole (Garfat, 2004).

Seeing parents and families differently
Our perception of the family has shifted dramatically. In the early years, a typical assessment of the reason for the young person’s current behavioural or emotional problems would blame the parent for the difficulties the young person was experiencing. As Hoghughi (1988) said, in reflecting on perceptions of families, “parents play a significant part in creating and maintaining their children’s problems” (italics mine). Parents were seen in many cases as incapable and the ‘cause’ of the problem.

Children come to treatment institutions as emissaries of malfunctioning family systems . . . They [parents] are ill-equipped to provide for the common human needs of their children” (Klein, 1975)

In other cases, assessments would ignore the role of the parents completely, evidencing a belief that the disturbance of the young person was independent of the context within which it had evolved.

With time we began to consider the interaction between the parent and the child in terms of early experiences and parenting history although the parent in this model was still very much seen as the cause of the young person’s troubling actions. Mothers, especially, were seen as being deficient or as having, because of their own history, failed to develop the attributes necessary to effectively raise or parent the child (Swift, 1995). Fathers were still considered as quite secondary (Smith, 2004). The notion of incapable parents lead to the frequently justified exclusion of many of them from the lives of their children. Contact between the Child and Youth Care worker and the parents became, however, more frequent and parents were beginning to come into focus in specific areas, such as parent skills training and support (Anglin & Glossop, 1987). Contact might have had the purpose of gathering information, educating the parents and/or maintaining a linkage between the young person and the community or system to which she would be returning.

We have finally come to consider parents as partners (Gannon, 1994; Whittaker, 1979; Whittaker & Maluccio, 1989) and as a part of a larger system as the field has been influenced by the work of family therapists and systems thinkers (Kwantes, 1992). Parents are now seen as people, involved in a variety of human and life experiences. They are considered as individuals affected by the larger systems of which they are a part and within the family they are seen as individuals with their own needs and experiences. The purpose of contact with the parents has again shifted. Child and Youth Care workers are now in contact with parents to offer support, guidance and family intervention. Frequently the purpose of contact with the parents is to provide therapeutic services (e.g., counselling) to the parents themselves, not just in relation to the young person.

It is also more common now for the whole family to be considered as the ‘service recipient’ as staff concern themselves with the dynamics of interaction, roles, and positions of all the members of the family in the extended systems of which they are a part (Barnardos, 1998; Durrant, 1993). Families are seen as members of an established community and interventions are also directed towards their involvement in that community. All family members may be considered as partners in the treatment of the identified young person. Families are frequently seen as collaborators in the development of intervention plans and daily interventions. Other children in the family are seen as the potential beneficiaries of services from Child and Youth Care workers. Family members are now actively involved in all aspects of a program and all family members are considered for their potential role as co-helpers (Garfat, 1988).

Child and youth care worker role
In the early 1950’s the role of the Child and Youth Care worker was clearly limited to interactions with the youth. The Child and Youth Care worker was seen as the person responsible for the basic care, nurturing and development of the young person. As the conveyor of society’s values the Child and Youth Care worker was expected to help the young person develop those values (Fewster & Garfat, 1993; Arieli, 1991). They were responsible for control, guidance, and behaviour change for the young person primarily in the residential community. Child and Youth Care workers were frequently considered as substitute parents, responsible for running the house for raising the children. This limited role, restricted to the inside of the institution, encouraged Child and Youth Care workers to continue to think of themselves as replacing the parents in all areas.

With time, Child and Youth Care workers became concerned with the quality of the interaction between parent and child and so the worker became an educator of parents in the areas of parenting skills, youth development and child-raising. Still considering in many ways that the parent was responsible for the current state or status of the young person, the role of the Child and Youth Care worker as educator was to help the parents change their own problematic behaviours in relation to the young person. Thus direct, if limited, therapeutic engagement with parents began to evolve. As Anglin (1984) pointed out, the role of the youth care worker was shifting to one of facilitator of the relationship between parent and youth.

More recently we have seen a change in focus, which has taken the Child and Youth Care worker into new roles and areas (Garfat, 2004; Stuart & Carty, 2006). The Child and Youth Care worker has gradually developed this role of facilitator: between the young person and the systems of which he is a part; between the young person and other young people; between the other family members and the systems of which they are a part and; between the various family members, representing a belief that young people are a part of a human social system and that changes for the young person will involve changes in those systems and/or others within those systems as well as how the young person interacts with them. In essence, the overall shift in role has been from care-taker, to care-giver, to systemic interventionist.

Where we work
Along with the changing roles, perceptions and client definition, has come a change in not only what the Child and Youth Care worker does, but where that activity occurs. It is obvious, for example, that in the early stages of the development of our field, the location of the practitioners work was in the residential centre. Later the Child and Youth Care worker began to move out in to the community and become more involved in offering services in schools or the community. Work with the family, however, was still very much located in the residential centre, the school, or the particular program in which the youth was engaged. While families were more involved in the life of the program (Garfat, 1990), staff were not very involved in working with families in the family’s environment.

In more contemporary programs, Child and Youth Care workers, in keeping with a Child and Youth Care approach, have begun to be involved with families in the areas in which they live their lives (Krueger, 2004). The Child and Youth Care worker may be found in the community with the family, as a family advocate, or in the family home, helping family members to live their lives differently in the areas in which they actually live it. More and more we find programs whose base is the family home. Child and Youth Care have moved from working with young people to working with young people and their families, to working with families.

Education, training and future development
These changes have important implications for the development of the field as Child and Youth Care moves further in to the area of working with families and as the shift continues from residential-based to community and especially in-home based approaches to working with families in which the Child and Youth Care worker assumes the role of interventionist, not just educator. It is obvious that this is a shift which, now begun, will continue. If this shift is to continue, Child and Youth Care workers will need support in moving from program to the family environment. While it is true that there are many skills and much knowledge from the typical residential environment, for example, which are applicable to family work it is also true that there are many characteristics of working in residential care which are not applicable to family work (Hill & Garfat, 2004). We need to look at the areas in which Child and Youth Care workers are currently employed and decide which additional skills and knowledge are required to support them in making this shift. And this will vary from program to program.

In a supervisors training program developed by Garfat & Charles ( 2001), the supervisors were asked to define the desirable characteristics of Child and Youth Care Workers who would work ‘outside of the unit’ with families in their homes or communities. The following chart indicates some of the areas which these supervisors identified as important. It is offered here, not as an all-inclusive list, but rather as an indication of the areas we may need to concentration on as we move further into the area of Child and Youth Care Worker involvement with families.

Desirable characteristics of workers working
 with families outside of the facility

  • secure in their decision-making
  • able to work ‘outside the box’
  • able to challenge adults appropriately
  • ability to plan ahead
  • work independently
  • able to stray from a pre-determined agenda
  • aware of family boundaries
  • able to bring things back to the team
  • good facilitator of interactions
  • establishes relationships quickly
  • able to contextualize systemically
  • aware of community resources
  • not easily intimidated
  • able to use multiple approaches
  • able to separate work and personal
  • risk taker

More recently, in identifying the ‘competencies’ required of Child and Youth Care Workers, Stuart and Carty (2006), identified the following ‘elements of performance’ related to family systems and the role of the worker:

There has begun to evolve a specific Child and Youth Care approach to working with families based on the Child and Youth Care orientation to change (Garfat, 2004). It is this evolving approach which will allow us to become more effective with families, while at the same time maintaining the uniqueness of our approach. Yet, our approach continues to need refinement.


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This paper is an update of an earlier paper published in 2001 in the Journal of Child and Youth Care Work, 15. 236-248 by T. Garfat & N. McElwee.