International cooperation in child and youth care practice
Over the past two years I have developed a new habit. Specifically, I have taken to making connections in the field in other countries and creating opportunities for myself to explore services for children and youth there. It’s not an inexpensive habit, but I am quickly learning that it is one well worth the costs. I have previously written in this column about some of the less than stellar features of the Canadian context of child and youth care practice, with my critiques extending from practitioners to agencies and from sectors to systems. In reality, of course, it is always easier to critically examine something than it is to make useful suggestions for change. One reason for this is simply our tendency to get ‘stuck’ in a particular way of seeing the world and of imagining what might be possible.
No matter where I have gone to look at children’s and youth services, colleagues have expressed similar frustrations about their own local context. Invariably, such services are operated within a broader context of resource shortages, bureaucracy and short sighted policies and legislative initiatives. On the other hand, just about everywhere opportunities for creative and often very smart initiatives also exist, and colleagues around the world have impressed me with their ability to create something out of nothing, to side track particular barriers, to circumvent bureaucratic obstacles and to develop programs and services for and often with children and youth that at the very least provide a foundation for dignity and comfort for children and youth.
In recent months, I have toured schools in rural areas of Costa Rica, residential programs in South Africa and the US as well as massive institutionalized residential and school settings in Germany. None of the services I have seen are such that they meet all of my expectations for what I would deem excellent. All, however, offered something that is worth considering in a Canadian context. Something that might be adaptable to a group home in Toronto, and something that might further the educational outcomes for youth in care in Canada. The world of child and youth care practice, as it turns out, is one that relies on the innovation of practitioners and the energy of children and youth in either endorsing or rejecting new programs, services or projects.
International cooperation amongst those interested in meeting the challenges of edgy youth, vulnerable children and marginalized families is an essential component of any foundation for good practice. One of the lessons I am learning is that much of what we do and much of what we think about is very much influenced by the political and bureaucratic context of our work. It is therefore very difficult to maintain perspectives that are unencumbered by these contexts and that are centered on the well being of children, youth and families. And yet, when we are able to do so, new ideas and approaches emerge that can in fact be of immeasurable value to the project of our field. One effective way of ensuring an on-going perspective not tainted by self-imposed limitations is to learn about the thinking and doing in other places. This can of course be done by reading the literature produced by practitioners and academics from other countries, and it can also be furthered by attending international conferences and engaging with our colleagues from abroad. I believe, however, that understanding professional practice requires a presence in the moment and in the life space of where that practice unfolds; quite simply, nothing can convey quite as much information and understanding than physically attending programs and services in other countries, other cultures and even within the context of other languages.
What has impressed me the most in recent months is the willingness of service providers everywhere to spend time and energy to provide such opportunities for visitors. Wherever I have gone, agency leaders and front line staff have been more than willing to share their thoughts, ask about my experiences in Canada and offer me tours of their services. Clearly, people are very proud of the programs and services they have developed and of their engagement with children and youth on a day to day basis. While that is positive, even more impressive is their desire to engage in dialogue with like-minded but differently-informed professionals and academics from elsewhere. I am happy to report that our field is wide open for mutual learning across geographic, cultural and linguistic spaces and places. And that, I believe, can only be a good thing.