NUMBER 284• 5 JUNE 2003 • SYSTEMS
INDEX OF QUOTESReferences
Fewster and Garfat (1993: 26) offer the following advantages of working according to the systems model: “Practitioners acknowledge the complexity of human behaviour; residents are not detached from the social world of home, school and community; the child is not perceived as the ultimate cause of the problem; the system of the residential environment is subject to on-going scrutiny and analysis”.
Peterson (1993: 37) reconstrues the context of child care work by suggesting that “the care practitioner can be seen as a ‘systems interventionist’, orchestrating the symphony of a child’s life in three interactive domains:
- the interfacing of a child and their social systems;
- the instigating of new experiences within the child as an internal ecological system;
- the instigating of new experiences between the child and family members (new experiences that create new perspectives, ‘realities’ and interactional patterns”.
We have seen how closed systems wind down and lose their energy. Durrant (1993: 8) picks up helpfully on this theme of regenerating systems:
“My concern about some residential programs is that many individually skillful and apparently successful activities and interventions occur, but often within a context that mitigates against their ongoing success. That is, as long as residential placement occurs within a context built upon ideas of parental failure and/or child pathology, then even successful treatment will be made sense of in a way that will tend to reinforce those pre-existing beliefs. The context of placement involves the way the child or adolescent and the other family members make sense of themselves in the situation (‘We have failed’, ‘He/she is disturbed’, ‘I am bad’, etc.) and the way residential staff make sense of themselves and their roles”.
Kwantes (1992: 34) makes the plea that parents, and not child care workers, need to be the primary change agents in the child’s life. “Individual work can take place with the child in the residence, but always with a view toward the work being done in the larger family system”. While this may reflect an idealistic view of the families we work with, she nevertheless shows the value of systems thinking when makes an important observation, when comparing the relative weights assigned to work with the child and work with the family: “Child care workers who work with the child around the clock may be invited to overfunction in terms of taking on what are ordinarily parental responsibilities. This same set-up may invite parents to give up responsibility to the child care staff
Many are confused by the radical shifts in thinking which are contained in systems theory. We should remember that systems, together with their associated constructs such as energy, equilibrium, etc., are simply ‘models’ to help us understand phenomena — just as Freud’s ego, id and super-ego are simply models. Nevertheless, if we are to base practice on theory, our theory needs certain levels of coherence and internal consistency. McDermott and Harrison (Braga 1988: 70) have described the whole field of family therapy as “a method in search of a theory”, and Braga himself later (1988: 80) rejects ‘systemic purism’, and makes a plea for approaches which “give due consideration to the individual as a subsystem with properties of its own that cannot be explained on the basis of systemic properties alone”. Otherwise, he says, residential group care practice might be cast in the role of villain: “The assumption is that the residential setting, by removing the child from the family, may collude with pathologic processes in the family that themselves produce the symptoms”.
Fewster and Garfat (1993) echo some of the difficulties which Braga has with systems theory. They feel that systems treatment models can be complex and vague, and that systems phenomena are never ‘known’ but assumed from individual behaviour. They have difficulty also with the notion that the behaviour of a system and its components is determined by the needs and goals of the system, whereby responsibility for individual behaviour may be assigned to the system — in contrast to the clinical model where the individual is responsible for his behaviour.
Gannon, B. (1994). Theories, approaches and principles of education and treatment. Pretoria: University of South Africa. pp 141-143
Braga, W. de C. (1988). Developmental and systemic approaches: the clash of paradigms in group care treatment, in Permanence and family support: changing practice in group child care edited by Carman, G. and Small, R. Washington: Child Welfare League of America
Durrant, M. (1993). Residential treatment: a co-operative, competency based approach to therapy and program design. New York: Norton
Fewster, G. & Garfat, T. (1993). Residential child and youth care, in Professional child and youth care edited by Ferguson, R., Pence, A. and Denholm, C. (2nd Ed.) Vancouver: UBC
Kwantes, C. (1992). Rethinking residential child care: working systemically within the constraints of residential treatment. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 7 (3): 33-44
Peterson, R. (1993). Exploring the application of systemic thinking in child and youth care practice: A shift in paradigm. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 8 (2): 32-54