The view is spectacular, the water glistens a beautiful shade of blue, and the voices of children of all ages are everywhere. It’s another summer day in Muskoka, one of Canada’s premier natural playgrounds filled with lakes, beaches, rolling hills, dense forests and virtually unlimited opportunities for hiking, boating and just sitting on a dock sipping a glass of deep red Chianti (for my South African friends, Two Oceans would be just fine, and for my American friends, I can work with any Pinot Noir from the Nappa Valley; sadly for my Canadian friends, all I can say is I am very sorry…). Such are the sights, sounds and tastes of a vacation, which I am currently thoroughly enjoying, along with my wife and three children. This summer we have been particularly active in this regard: several camping trips, a trip to Spain, ostensibly for a conference but I confess the beaches were pretty pleasant too, and countless days of lounging on beaches, riding in boats (it helps to have friends with such toys) and just sitting around doing not much of anything. The only problem I have during these pleasant times is this: whenever I see happy children, I think of the children and youth living in out of home situations, away from family, often side by side with bullies, judgmental neighbours and power-hungry staff.
Needless to say that their lot in life is a tough one; there is not so much to laugh about, not so much to celebrate, and certainly not too many moments to be carefree, to not have a worry in the world and to experience the moment outside of the everyday stressors in life. No, for so many children and youth summer time is not all that special; sure, school is out, but many of them haven’t really attended school for quite some time anyway. Sure, the weather is better, but wherever they might live usually places restrictions on their enjoyment of the outdoors – chores, after all, still need to get done, bedtimes might get adjusted, but they are still bedtimes, mealtimes still require their contributions in terms of cooking, setting the table and cleaning up, and all those appointments for Plans of Care, therapy, counseling, probation and the mandatory visit to the dentist or doctor every six months continue as if the seasons really don’t matter all that much.
What makes matters even worse, while summer time, and specifically vacation time, in my family means coming closer, spending more time together and sharing more experiences together, for many of the children and youth living out of home summer means dealing with relief staffing, respite fostering, or simply the unavailability of the child and youth care practitioner who normally comes to the house once a week or more, because guess what, s/he is on vacation.
Whenever I sit around with some of my friends and we reminisce about our younger years, I notice that the vast majority of stories told take place during vacations; some talk about their experiences at the cottage, others relate stories about family trips to other countries, and again others tell stories about their two week summer stay with a crazy aunt, a drunken uncle or some seriously deviant cousins. And then they do something really remarkable: either explicitly or in a more nuanced way, they relate these experiences to who they are today, to how they have overcome obstacles in their lives, and to the very core of their process of identity formation. Clearly, these ‘happy’ or at least ‘notable’ childhood experiences matter a lot.
So, here is a novel idea for all those service providers dealing with children and youth living out of home or using services at home: how about, in planning services and treatment and emotional manipulations for our children and youth in care, we also plan for each and everyone of them a vacation? By vacation I don’t mean an evening out to the theatre or, in the context of residential settings, a camp trip with the whole group home. These are nice activities, but they are not vacations, because fundamentally the patterns of interactions for the children and youth don’t change all that much. By vacation I mean a period of time, at least one week but preferably two, during which the setting changes, the boundaries shift, the activities are extraordinary (which will mean something different to every child or youth) and the goal is to have fun and create memories, nothing else. By vacation I also mean a period of time where all of the above-mentioned experiences take place for the child with the people the child is most closely associated with. This could mean his or her family where that is possible, or often it might mean the child and youth practitioners with whom the child interacts in the group home every day.
I know from my experiences working in various residential settings that the vast majority of children and youth never get to experience a vacation. In a best case scenario, they might go camping with their group home, usually for four or five days, with whatever staff volunteer to go along, and in some cases, preposterously, with the staff actually continuing their shift schedule while camping! Many kids get sent to camps run by myriad organizations, most of which are wonderful and extremely competent, but none of these experiences are shared with the children’s care givers. In these cases, we are sending the kids ‘away’ on vacation, rather than going on vacation with them. Most group homes and some non-residential programs that operate during the summer plan day activities with kids and youth, which is without a doubt a lot of fun, but it’s not a vacation. Such activities replace the regularity of school and school year routines. Often, also preposterously, participation in such activities is viewed as a privilege and badly behaved kids are excluded as a consequence – some consider this a natural consequence because it is well known that badly behaved bear cubs don’t get to splash in the river to catch salmon; others think of this as a logical consequence because it clearly makes sense that kids will view their lives and their care givers more positively after having been excluded, marginalized, punished and humiliated.
Some might think this a trivial issue; ok, so we should make sure that kids get vacations. Big deal. I think it is a very big deal, because in the nearly twenty five years that I have been involved in the child and youth care field, I have never seen a service provider take active steps to initiate and execute a vacation plan for a child or youth. Sure, I have seen service providers facilitate vacation plans initiated by family or friends, and I certainly have seen service providers even contribute financially to the vacations of some children and youth. That’s all nice, but it reflects a major think error. Vacations are not a privilege but a fundamental component of human health, physical and emotional. And the memories we carry with us from those vacations (ideally with some memory aids such as photos and severely embellished stories – I’ll write about my heroic wrestling match with an alligator in Florida some other time) are frankly the only things that we have travelling with us through the course of our lives. That fact that we have ignored this as part of our ever more complex, multi-disciplinary, cross-sectoral, culturally competent and professionally sophisticated disciplinary development over a period of many decades is not trivial; it’s disturbing. And yet it strikes me as patently obvious that the therapeutic value of a vacation by far exceeds that of a counseling session, a routine visit to the dentist, or yet another Plan of Care meeting in which a youth is told that their voice matters, and that it will matter just as much at their next involuntary placement and the five after that.
I am aware that our field is filled with people of a more practical mind set; how on earth could we send every kid we come across on vacation? It’s just not feasible, practical, efficient, economically viable, or realistic from a scheduling perspective. In fact, it might interfere with our own vacation schedules! For those of you with imaginations limited to the practicalities of irrelevant objections, here are some things to think about:
Fourteen days of residential care for one child in Ontario costs on average $3000. A two week vacation in a five star resort in Mexico costs about $1,500;
If you work in a residential facility for 2 weeks in Ontario, you will spend 80 hours at work, be involved in several physical interventions, likely will have to plunge the toilet at least three times, and find yourself confronted with angry and sometimes foul-mouthed adolescents virtually every day; if you accompany a youth to Mexico, you will spend roughly the same amount of time on the beach, possible go scuba diving, swim with some dolphins, have your room made up every day and have access to unlimited gourmet food and (non-alcoholic) drinks (a virgin pina colada tastes pretty much the same as a real one);
The injury rate at the local go kart track is fourteen times the injury rate on a beach, so long as large amounts of sun block are in use; for safety reasons, therefore, Mexico is clearly the way to go (if you work in the UK or Ireland, consider Southern Spain instead; for South Africans, I hear the beaches in Namibia are good enough for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie);
The chances of a youth in care committing a crime during any two week period in the summer are extremely high, resulting in police involvement, possibly charges, court time, custody, long involvement with probation and referrals to anger management programs and other highly effective treatments; the chances of a youth committing a crime while lounging on the beach, being relationally engaged with a very satisfied child and youth worker, and looking forward to a spectacular sun set while eating freshly caught tropical lobster on a patio overlooking the Gulf of Mexico (or the Strait of Gibraltar) are very low, but even if it happened, a C-note for the officer and a stern speech for the youth would probably take care of the problem.
I could go on about the practical advantages of going on vacation with the children and youth living in difficult situations. But I am currently busy listening to the shrieks of joy from my own children, as they splash around in the lake, amazingly sharing the use of the boogey board and making new friends as they go along.