Splits and Divisions
in the Child Care
Two staff colleagues recognise a common problem encountered by adults
living and working with children. At the time of writing, Alan
Roberts and Janine Brunyee were child and youth care workers
at Oranjia Jewish Children's Home in Cape Town
teams, like parents in families, are prey to splits and divisions, and child
care workers who haven't been subject to this phenomenon are few.
To illustrate in concrete terms how splits and divisions
can operate, look for a moment at a common family scenario.
Louise asks her father if she may go to the shop.
Father forbids her: "It's almost suppertime".
Louise then approaches her mother behind father's back and mother gives
permission. As Louise is on her way out, her father spots her. "I told
you that you can't go to the shop, Louise".
Louise replies: "But Mom said I could go".
Father feels undermined, ineffectual and impotent as a parent. Conflict
occurs between the parents.
Does this sound familiar? This drama plays out in
children's homes too, except that the situation is significantly more
complex and fraught with difficulties due to the artificial nature and
larger size of the "parental" group (the staff team) and the
"sibling" group (the children).
Splits and divisions between staff members occur also for
reasons which do not directly involve the children: discordant conceptual
frameworks, conflicting value systems, conscious and unconscious feeling of
rivalry, incompatible work ethics to name a few. Such staff divisions
and tensions, while inevitable, are frequently aggravated when carried into
transactions with the children as exemplified above.
Boundaries and involvement
The boundaries between different members of the staff team and the
children can vary with one care worker preferring diffuse boundaries and
being more enmeshed with the children, another preferring rigid boundaries
and staying less involved with the children, a third enjoying clear
boundaries and affiliating himself appropriately with the children. These
different styles of relating provide a rich breeding ground for splits,
divisions and tensions. Often, coalitions and alliances among staff and
children proliferate because of this uncertainty over appropriate borders
and lack of clarity as to where over-involvement or under-involvement begin
and end. Clear, well-defined borders, allowing for well-balanced,
appropriate contact between staff and children, are essential for a
functional system. To state the obvious: It is important for the child care
team to prevent splits and divisions as far as possible and to restore staff
relationships damaged by splitting as soon as possible. Any dysfunction in
the child care team negatively impacts on the children. They sense it soon.
The staff team ought to provide a model to the child of the nature of
intimate relationships and about the transactions between men and women in
general. The dynamics of this adult team are likely to affect the child's
relationships later in life. How, then, can the child care worker work to
prevent splits, and to restore relationships damaged by splitting?
1. Awareness of the dynamics of the phenomenon,
described above, as they present themselves in your context. This is half
the battle won.
2. Three C's Consultation, Collaboration and
Communication. Returning to our example, had Louise's mother asked Louise
whether she'd already asked her father, things might have happened
differently. Louise's parents could have consulted with one another and
come to a joint decision. In this way, no one feels undermined and no
strain is placed on the parents' relationship.
3. Sensitivity group for staff. Because of the stressful
nature of child care work, it is difficult for staff members to nurture
relationships between themselves. One solution involves the establishment
of a weekly group for staff led by an outside consultant. The objective of
such a group would be group cohesiveness and the opportunity for child
care workers to experience each other as people rather than only in their
team roles as happens during work hours. Ideally, this group would provide
staff members with a supportive, nurturing and regenerative time together
which would contribute to the quality of work time.
In conclusion, children in residential settings
especially are walking a tightrope between a problematic childhood and
the adult world. They are prone to slip and fall daily, and it is important
that the safety net of the child care team be intact and not have weak
Forgive the clich้, but the chain is only as strong as
its weakest link. The child care team needs to inspect and mend any damage
to the safety net continuously for the children's sake as much as for