I am concerned that our fear of abuse within programs is leading to the creation of an overly cautious environment in which child care management is increasingly resorting to forms of defensive professional practice designed to minimise risk. In this litigious age, when the issue of minimising risks is discussed, more often than not, we are talking about risks to management, not to children! If risk reduction becomes an overriding concern, we will inevitably witness the emergence of sterile and stultifying child care environments in which opportunities for personal growth and development are significantly reduced. Hermetically sealing children in a protective, aseptic cocoon and denying them expressions of warmth, compassion and understanding, whether through touch, speech, facial expression, or gesture must adversely influence their intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual growth.
Perhaps the greatest impact is on the spiritual growth of the child — an area in child care which has been consistently and surprisingly neglected, despite the fact that the right to spiritual well-being is firmly embedded in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Whilst reference to meeting a child’s spiritual needs is explicit in only a few clauses, recognition of these needs is implicit throughout the Convention. A clear duty is placed on all relevant bodies to ensure that a child’s spiritual well-being is nurtured in the same manner as his or her physical and intellectual well-being. Thus, all carers have an ethical responsibility to recognise and respond to spirituality as it is presented within all human beings and they must be equipped to recognise, understand and deal with this dimension (Jackson & Monteux, 2003).
Placing vulnerable — frequently emotionally deprived — children in institutional environments where staff are either discouraged or not permitted to offer affection, reassurance and comfort is to expose children to a most pernicious form of abuse. In such a setting no kind of meaningful relationship is possible and without that relationship the chances of the child experiencing spiritual growth are negated. The creation of such ‘care-free’ regimes flies in the face of the spirit and intent of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Spirituality has been identified as one of the most important factors that structure human experience, beliefs, values and behaviour; it is that aspect of human existence that gives it its humanness. Spiritual well-being may be nurtured and enhanced in many ways. For example, Margaret Crompton has shown the value of life story books with children in care and the way in which they can help clarify a child’s relationship to the world and to other people (Crompton & Jackson, 2003). Margaret presents the case of ‘Mark’ who is a 10 year-old boy with limited verbal skills and poor school attainment. In order to express emotion and to discourage attempts at conversation, ‘Mark’ often resorted to making animal noises. However the illustrations which he drew to accompany Margaret’s typed sheets of their abbreviated conversations, were superb, delicate, accurate and imaginative.
‘Mark’ had endured a number of moves, from home and between foster homes, with no sense of security or base. Since most of his temporary homes had been near a particular river, they collected postcards of and leaflets about the river. By the time ‘Mark’ and Margaret parted, he had a substantial folder of stories and drawings about and by himself: his life concretised and celebrated. Life story work of this kind has the potential of helping children develop a sense of self, of connectedness with their unstable worlds, of delight in their own achievements and of self-esteem. Through telling stories and drawing, children can develop oral skills which are transferred into conversation. Also since these activities take place in close and sustained proximity to an adult, relationship and communication skills are also developed. Although the first intention of the life story book was to enable ‘Mark’ to cope with any possible transfers, his developing sense of self will have enhanced his spiritual well-being.
What is indisputable is that many care staff feel uncomfortable about discussing matters of a spiritual nature. This may be because they feel professionally unprepared for such a task or have spent so little time in reflecting on their own spiritual well-being! Others may feel that discussing such matters takes them beyond the boundaries of their professional competence and territory. Those responsible for the training of care staff may argue that the absence of any reference in government guidelines to the necessity of addressing the spiritual needs of those receiving care, places no professional obligation upon them to take any action.
There is then an urgent need for care managers and workers to receive appropriate training, on qualifying, post-qualifying and in-service courses. But spiritual care and support does not result from the acquisition and application of a series of techniques and skills, it comes through sharing together and learning from one another. It comes by addressing questions which relate to the value and meaning of life (Swinton, 2001). Discussions are currently under way in Scotland to explore the possibility of introducing into existing social care qualifications a component which recognises, respects and supports the spiritual well-being of those receiving care. Whilst there is no absolute certainty that such a component will be accepted, there is a growing consensus in Scotland that this area, so long neglected, can no longer be ignored.