Residential Child and Youth Care is fundamentally about teamwork
Leon C. Fulcher
Abstract: The case for careful recruitment and selection of residential child and youth care workers is examined within the contemporary British context. Public outrage following disclosures of abuse, and the conviction and sentencing of care workers resulted in legislation that has altered recruitment and selection practices throughout the UK. Caution is urged about trying to define ‘ideal care work personalities.’ A closer analysis of primary tasks in this work shows how residential child and youth care is fundamentally about team working, highlighting the need for sensitive recruitment, supervision and management of care work teams in their production of relational services with children and young people.
The case for closer attention in the recruitment and selection of residential child and youth care workers is examined from British and Scottish perspectives. Public outrage associated with care workers being convicted and sentenced for the physical and sexual abuse of children and young people in care led to UK legislation introducing specific procedures in the recruitment of anyone engaged to work with children and young people — whether in paid employment or working in a volunteer capacity. In what follows, a brief summary is given of UK government-sponsored reviews of child welfare services that resulted in major changes in the recruitment, selection and registration of care workers at the start of the 21st Century. Then, specific practices employed to recruit and select residential child care workers by local authority, voluntary and private child welfare agencies in Scotland are highlighted. Finally, issues associated with personnel and care service management are considered in respect of promoting responsive team working in the delivery of residential child and youth care services. Caution is urged about the existence of ‘ideal type personalities’ for employment in care sector work when residential child and youth care work is fundamentally a team-oriented activity. This directs attention towards the distinct combination of personalities, competencies and life experiences engaged in any care team, supported through quality leadership, purposeful management and supervision of daily practices that shape ‘good enough care.’
Safeguarding children and young people in
In concluding his review of the research and literature on the nature and extent of abuse and other harm experienced by children and young people living away from home, Kent argued for “a holistic and integrated approach to care and protection” … “and measures which can protect and promote their wellbeing” (1997, p. 255). Staff recruitment, selection and assessment featured prominently amongst the measures highlighted in the Kent Report, since “the vulnerability of many of the young people in residential child care, and the dependency they must have on the staff to whose care they are entrusted, are such that very particular care in staff selection should always be taken (Skinner, 1992, p. 69). Following publication of Choosing with Care (Warner, 1992), the Support Force for Children’s Residential Care (SFCRC) was established “to offer advice to individual authorities on the quality of care and management with particular reference to the appointment, selection, personnel management, support, development and training of residential care staff” (Support Force for Children’s Residential Care, 1995, p. 3).
Kent’s Children’s Safeguards Review claimed that selection procedures should aim at all stages to collect as much relevant information about a candidate as possible so that decisions on the most appropriate candidate can be made on an informed basis (1997, p. 239). Application forms for posts in residential child care centres should be specifically designed for the posts and staff recruitment practices should collect relevant, core information, as defined by the job description and person specification. Written exercises should be designed to test clarity of thought and expression and the results of written exercises should be used in the selection process (Warner, 1992, p. 47). All short-listed candidates should be required to visit the residential centre in advance of the interview and meet with staff and young people to gather information about the candidate’s reactions to the centre, the staff and the young people they meet, and their personal reactions to the candidates (Support Force for Children’s Residential Care, 1995, p. 33).
Most of the above refers to recruitment and selection processes and not about aptitude tests and personality profiling. In this regard, the Choosing with Care review concluded that “providing the appropriate level of tests are used for particular jobs and are administered and interpreted by qualified people, they are valuable in assisting the selection of staff” in residential child care centres (Warner, 1992, p. 50). Aptitude tests and personality profiling may contribute in three particular ways:
Confirming the possession of certain skills and competencies important in the person specification.
Assessing personality against the profile sought in the person specification; and
Identifying personality characteristics or abilities needing to be probed further at interview (Warner, 1992, p. 50).
Warner’s conclusions highlighted the importance of detailed job descriptions and carefully constructed ideal person specifications for particular jobs. A number of screening tools have been devised to aid in the selection of workers with children and young people.
As early as 1985, Ross and Hoeltke identified a number of “life themes” associated with highly rated residential child care workers that have been used in selection interviews. These included:
Mission … committed to
making a significant contribution to young people, with a clear service
orientation and purpose related to their work activities.
Relationship … capable of developing mutually favourable and approving relationships with young people and demonstrate that they like young people and expect them to reciprocate.
Empathy … provides feedback about individual young person’s feelings and thoughts.
Responsibility … assumes clear responsibility for his or her work and behaviour, offering a good role model for others.
Kinaesthetic Work Orientation … physically active and involved in their work, seeing work and physical activity as positive and personally satisfying.
Gestalt … oriented towards completeness and closure without imposing such urgency for completeness on others.
Activation … capable of stimulating young people to think, respond and learn.
Courage … able to express their own emotionality in a positive, genuine way, being willing to risk rejection from others because of what they believe.
Objectivity … capable of dealing with issues fairly and openly, seeking information from the people affected before making an important decision.
Developer … have the capacity to receive satisfaction from the growth of others in a vicarious manner, investing time, talents and resources to bring about the greatest change for the good in others (Ross and Hoeltke, 1985, pp. 48-49).
The Support Force for Children’s Residential Care (1995) concluded that psychometric testing can be a useful part of the recruitment process by providing certain types of information on a systematic basis. However, such information should be treated with caution since “it is important to determine which characteristics are being assessed in the candidates before deciding whether psychometric testing is helpful in identifying them” (Support Force for Children’s Residential Care, 1995, p. 41).
Safer recruitment practices
In their follow-up review of safe recruitment practices for residential child care in Scotland, Kay, Kendrick, Davidson and Stevens noted how repeated calls have been made “for the improvement of recruitment and selection of residential child care staff” noting that “selection processes were lax and inadequate, and there were concerns about references, police checks and other vetting procedures (2007, p. 1). These authors noted how following the Kent Report (1997), “the Scottish Executive funded the Scottish Recruitment and Selection Consortium (SRSC) to develop a ‘toolkit’ of guidance for safer selection of staff” (Kay et al, 2007, pp. 4-5). A three-year follow-up evaluation was initiated to assess the extent to which Scottish local authority, voluntary service and private agencies had implemented recommendations highlighted in the residential child care staff selection ‘toolkit.’
29 of the 32 Scottish local authorities, and 32 of the 43 relevant private and voluntary organisations operating in Scotland agreed to participate in a three-year follow-up study of recruitment practices. A postal survey was sent to operational and human resource managers with responsibilities for recruiting residential child care workers yielding a response rate of 76% for local authorities and 97% for voluntary and private agencies during an initial phase of data collection. These initial responses were used to negotiate a second round of key informant interviews with smaller and larger organisations, and with managers using more as well as fewer elements of the staff recruitment ‘toolkit.’ Most of the managers participating in this evaluation at least knew about the ‘toolkit’ even if they did not use it extensively. All of the managers were found to have carried out the required criminal record checks, and virtually all carried out identity checks and conducted panel interviews. Qualifications were verified, job descriptions and person specifications were introduced, equal opportunity requirements were implemented and job advertisements were used in all but one or two of the 29 participating Scottish local authorities and in all but a handful of the 40 Scottish voluntary and private service agencies (Kay et al, 2007, p. 24).
Voluntary and private service agencies were found more likely to carry out standard reference checks (85% vs 75%), personnel record checks (74% vs 66%) and use dedicated application forms (74% vs 61%) when compared with local authority departments. Scottish local authority departments were more likely to have defined capabilities expected in the post (74% vs 63%) when compared with the voluntary and private service agencies (Kay et al, 2007, p. 25). Elements of the ‘toolkit’ least likely to be used in agency recruitment practices yielded interesting surprises. Only one in three of the agencies — both local authority and voluntary/private — carried out personal interviews. About half of the voluntary/private agencies carried out screening interviews as compared with only 4 of the 29 local authority departments. Roughly a third of the agencies overall carried out client record checks. Just over a quarter of the voluntary/private agencies used work related tasks or psychometric testing while only 5 of the 29 local authority departments adopted such recruitment practices. 11 of the local authority departments involved young people in the recruitment/selection process while 10 of the voluntary/private agencies involved young people in their recruitment practices. Very few of the managers — neither local authority nor voluntary/private — used the assessment or selection centre approach to staff recruitment (Kay et al, 2007, p. 26).
To summarise then, in spite of government policy recommendations about introducing more rigorous assessments of prospective employees entering the residential child and youth care sector in Scotland, three to four years later, practices had not changed substantially. Police checks had certainly become a statutory requirement, as had the assessment of obligations being fulfilled under the equal employment opportunity legislation. Most candidates were required to produce verification of their qualifications. Jobs are now publicly advertised; there are job descriptions for specific posts; and many agencies have prepared ideal person specifications for each position. Panel interviews are still the norm. There is still little attention given to ‘ideal person fit’ for ‘a particular job and work team’ in residential child and youth care work.
Involvement of young people in the recruitment/selection process is still not widely accepted as part of the personnel practices used by local authority and voluntary/private agencies. Arguably, ‘the easier’ components of the Scottish recruitment ‘toolkit’ for residential child care workers — those components legally prescribed — have been adopted. Kay et al recommended that a National Recruitment Centre be established in Scotland to centralise recruitment decision-making (2007, p. 17). It is not easy to see how such a recommendation was derived from the three-year evaluation outcomes, nor was it easy to see how centralised recruitment decision-making would attend to the particular needs of specific residential child and youth care centres throughout Scotland. Personal and professional ideologies appear to have informed such a recommendation, not the research findings on their own.
Teamwork is inherent to responsive child and
youth care work
One cannot escape the fact that the work responsibilities of residential child and youth workers require the attentions of more than one individual. The task must be shared, requiring at least a minimum level of cooperation and teamwork. A distinguishing feature of residential care teams is that they are continuously engaged, in one way or another, with the production of care services for children and young people. Residential settings are normally expected to supply a 168-hour-per-week service, 52 weeks a year. Thus, the concept of a relay team can be used metaphorically to illustrate how personnel on one shift hand over the “baton” of responsibility to those on the next shift, much like a collection of runners or swimmers might do in an athletics event.
Some residential care teams function with individual residents in “sprint” or “middle-distance” events, as might be found in a respite care facility or a remand-assessment centre. A difference, however, is that services such as these operate in a continuous manner because of the way in which periods of residence overlap and lengths of stay vary, depending on the needs of different individual residents. Other teams function in “marathon” events that present team members with different challenges, as seen with residential care teams providing services for young people with profound developmental delay or when working in a long-term secure care facility. Whatever the event — being on duty, during the handover of duty, or while on call — some level of cooperation and transfer of responsibilities in care work is implicit. Residential workers frequently carry, pass on, and receive their own ‘baton of responsibility,’ whether symbolized through keys, an electronic fob or notations in a daily log. At other times, responsibility rests in the particular role that each worker assumes when he or she goes on duty. In all cases, responsibility is transferred from one team member to another and then back again, throughout the course of the working week.
A fundamental question involves the extent to which individual influences shape team activity and outcomes in residential care work. Pfeffer and Salancik noted several reasons for expecting that individuals would have less effect on service outcomes than would otherwise be expected (1978, pp. 9-10). First, both individual and agency selection processes tend to result in similarity amongst an agency’s work force, thereby restricting the range of skills, characteristics and behaviours found amongst those who achieve such positions. Second, the discretion permitted to a given individual in any service organisation is limited. Decisions frequently require the approval of supervisors or managers inside and outside residential care environments, as well as social workers, medical consultants or the judiciary having formal authority for a resident’s care. Discretion may be limited by legal or contractual provisions. Information used in formulating decisions comes from others, and some persons invariably seek to influence or put pressure on others in their residential care work roles. Factors such as these further constrain the degree of latitude available to individuals. Beyond this, many of the things that affect individuals and teams are — for a variety of reasons — simply beyond the control of the immediate participants in a residential care task. What is required is an orientation that takes account not only of individual performance, but also of the ways in which residential care outcomes are dependant upon external influences.
Elsewhere we have identified several contextual influences that were found to have a significant bearing on the functioning of residential care teams (Fulcher, 1991). In respect of the immediate residential care setting, special issues were found to be associated with the siting and physical design of a centre. Teams working in rural settings where accessibility is restricted were assessed to be particularly vulnerable to isolation and potential neglect. Teamwork in such instances is inevitably plagued by travel challenges, whether because of distances to be travelled, quality of public transportation, roading, weather conditions, etc. Ensuring that workers get to and from work, providing young people with education, health or dental care, and recreational activities, and also organising family visits are all aspects of practice that demand special attention by workers operating in rural settings. By contrast, teams working in urban settings were much less predictable. Fatigue and over-involvement in work were found to be issues that required careful monitoring, particularly when younger staff members were a dominant influence in the team.
This study also found that recruitment practices were best served when a relative balance was achieved between men and women in teams. Teams with a wider age range were also found to be more adaptive, provided a greater variety of role models and offered a wider range of interpersonal responses for young people. Teams with a high proportion of young, single and more highly educated workers were found to be more susceptible to frustration, team intrigue and staff turnover. The worst possible recruitment axiom was found to be, “If we only had more people like me/us around here we could really make this place work properly.” Such a view superficially promotes the principle of sameness and a narrowing of available role models, and is a recruitment axiom likely to stimulate interpersonal rivalry amongst care workers.
When considering recruitment, it is far more important to assess what skills, interests, and attributes are missing in a team at the time of a vacancy. In so doing, the principle of “interchangeable parts” instead of “replaceable parts” is built into team recruitment, where the contributions of each worker provide something that others in the team cannot provide. Teamwork is thus more likely to produce a service that is greater that the sum of the individual parts. Careful attention is also required in the design of staffing rosters or work schedules to ensure that the service needs of young people are not consistently given second place to staff priorities for time off at particular periods of the week (such as Friday and Saturday nights), or for particular friendship and social life activities. Relational staff supervision is also important at regular intervals since “care for the caregivers” is fundamental to the delivery of responsive child and youth care services (Maier, 1987).
Specific patterns of team functioning were found to be closely linked with the admission and discharge of residents (Burford and Fulcher, 2006). In-depth assessments of young people referred to 11 residential programmes in one Canadian agency over a three-year period allowed consideration of resident group influences on team functioning over time. Diversity of individual personality types in a resident group, the interpersonal maturity of residents, and particular patterns of learned behaviour were all found to have a significant influence on the functioning of residential care teams. Emotionally conflicted and power-oriented young people were found to place particular but different types of strain on the capacity of residential care teams to perform. Not surprisingly, conforming youths were found to generate the greatest amount of work satisfactions amongst this small sample of teams, even though questions were raised about whether young people such as these were actually “helped” during their time in care, regardless of whether they made workers ‘feel good’ as helpers.
In summary, the characteristics of teamwork require careful consideration in any attempt to define and evaluate residential care practices with young people. Workers are employed to operate in teams that “enact” a care environment for children and young people in residential care work. In creating and maintaining a care environment, residential care teams are required to offer minimum guarantees that ‘good-enough services’ will be consistently available. Some residential teams approach their work in comparatively superficial ways and do not like to be distracted by a wider range of issues. It is extremely important that residential care teams seek clarity about their goals and daily methods of working while acknowledging emotional issues that arise in the course of their direct care work. Other teams are especially prone to making simplistic assessments of complex social issues with young people and their families, ignoring contextual influences that shape their residential child and youth care practices and resisting efforts to bring such matters to their attention. Directive styles of supervision are likely to be the most effective with this type of residential team.
Still other teams give greater attention to social and emotional issues and prospects, taking much greater account of the complexities of responsive practice with children and young people. It is important for teams such as these to ensure that interpersonal and emotional concerns do not deflect attention away from their primary tasks, into what Menzies (1977) described as “anti-task dynamics.” Indeed, sometimes the attention such teams give to exploring complex issues only delays their capacity to take appropriate action in the here-and-now when needed. These teams are especially prone to emotional disengagement or dissociation and also factionalism, where staff group intrigue gets in the way of team performance around primary care tasks. Supervision that seeks clarity of purpose and accountability to primary tasks is recommended with this type of residential care team.
It is the persistence of residential care teams to continue functioning as they have operated previously when members change — and when tasks or assignments are reallocated — that encourages further investigation of teamwork practices in the field of residential child and youth care. In general, the functioning of care work teams and the functioning of children and young people in their care are closely interrelated parts of a whole. One feature of practice cannot be explored in isolation from the others. Preoccupations with the personalities of care workers, about recruitment typologies, and about safer recruitment practices consistently minimise the dynamics of teamwork enacted through moment by moment encounters with young people in care.
To conclude, agency practices need to give careful attention to the recruitment and selection of residential child and youth care personnel. Screening processes must be in place to ensure that persons with criminal records are not employed without explicit criteria being applied for particular positions. Organisational recruitment practices need to include individual processes that test personal competencies against job descriptions and ideal person specifications, as well as group processes that test how candidates engage with children and young people and other workers in particular care work teams. Reference checks and verification of qualifications need to be minimum requirements for any candidate recommended for employment. Fundamentally, however, careful consideration must be given to the combination of personalities, competencies and potential role models available within any given residential care team working with particular children or young people in a given location. Generic recruitment practices rarely provide for or respond to the particular relational needs of children and young people living in specific residential child care centres. In seeking to transform recruitment practices in residential child and youth care, it is worth remembering (f)-Law Number 19 of the 81 Management (f)-Laws articulated by Ackoff, Addison and Bibb (2007) which asserts: “the only thing more difficult than starting something new in an organisation is stopping something old.”
Ackoff, R. L., Addison, H. J. and Bibb, S. (2007). Management (f)-laws: How organizations really work. Axminster, Devon: Triarchy Press.
Burford, G. E. and Fulcher, L. C. (2006). Resident group influences on team functioning. In L. C. Fulcher and F. Ainsworth (Eds.). Group care practice with children and young people re-visited, New York: The Haworth Press.
Fulcher, L. C. (1991) Teamwork in residential care. In J. Beker and Z. Eisikovits. (Eds.). Knowledge Utilization in Residential Child and Youth Care Practice, Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America, pp. 215-235.
Kay, H., Kendrick, A., Davidson, J. and Stevens, I. (2007). Safer recruitment? Protecting children, improving practice in residential child care. Child Abuse Review, (forthcoming).
Kent, R. (1997). Children’s safeguards review. Edinburgh: The Scottish Office.
Maier, H. W. (1987). The core of care: Essential ingredients for the development of children at home and away from home. In H. W. Maier, Developmental group care of children and youth: concepts and practice. New York: The Haworth Press, pp. 109-120.
Menzies, I. E. P. (1977). Staff support systems: Task and anti-task in adolescent institutions. London: Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.
Ross, A. L. and Hoeltke, G. (1985) A tool for selecting residential child care workers: An initial report. Child Welfare, 64, 1. pp. 46-54.
Skinner, A. (1992). Another kind of home: A review of residential child care. Edinburgh: The Scottish Office.
Support Force for Children’s Residential Care. (1995). Code of practice for the employment of residential child care workers. London: Department of Health.
Warner, N. (1992). Choosing with care: The report of
the committee of inquiry into the selection, development and management
of staff in children’s homes. London: HMSO.
This feature: Fulcher, L.C. (2007). Residential Child Care is fundamentally about teamwork. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 20, 4. p.30.