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Authoritarian Group Home staff. How to approach the issue?

2011

My name is Loretta Hurley and I am currently a second year student in the Child and Youth Care Counsellor Program at Mount Royal University. As part of my second year curriculum, I am taking part in a practicum throughout the school year.  As students, my classmates and I applied to different agencies, and then selected one that we wanted to spend the entire year learning and working at. The practicum is essentially a learning environment that lets students “practice” the counselling skills and gain experience in real life situations. I enjoy my placement immensely and have already formed relationships with many of the youth. I feel I connect with them on their level, something the CYCC program at Mount Royal taught me is important in any success when working with children and youth.
 
There have been a few instances that made me question the approach in certain heated situations at my placement. In school I learned about the conflict cycle, and how important it was to look at the emotions behind the behaviour. As counsellors we need to recognize and address the feelings the child is experiencing that influenced their behaviour. In doing so the conflict cycle is ended and the situation controlled. The techniques I have witnessed have actually escalated the conflict and lead to many incident reports needing to be written, and I have been there only three weeks now.
It seems that as soon as a youth misbehaves or acts out they are immediately consequenced. If the youth refuses to remove themselves to their room, they are then given an escort. The escort also includes the youth having their arm bent behind their back as they are shuffled away from the other youth in the home. If the youth, who has zero time to explain them self, continues to act out or be disruptive after their escort to their room, they are then barricaded in their bedroom with a staff holding the door shut. The youth then escalates the situation, screams profanities and threatens to hurt themselves or others as a response to the inflated discipline. I find the staff very authoritarian in their communications and it seems like they are driven by the need to be right, rather then be effective.
 
It has been tough for me to sit in silence and watch the exact opposite of what I have been taught in my many CYCC, psychology, and counselling classes being used towards some of the most fragile youth. Anytime my involvement is reported in any of the situations described above it states I diffused the situation. I feel I am using an effective technique to work with these children, using the training and understanding I gained through my CYCC program. I meet the child on their level, hear what they have to stay, ignore the behaviour and talk about their feelings, and the youth opens up when they feel they are being heard. The question I have for my colleagues is how should I approach this situation with my supervisor and staff? As a student, I am in a delicate position as I am still “learning”; I strongly feel the need to change what I am seeing, though.  How do I, as a student, tell people that have been in this field longer than me, but with less child and youth education, that they are not doing their job properly? I could put myself in a very awkward position. Please share any ideas or experience you may have that can help me out in this difficult situation.

Loretta Hurley
...

Hi Loretta,
You have unfortunately described a situation that happens all to often at many residences serving youths. There are people working with youth who have just as many issues as the youth has and so are very ineffective as workers. The challenging part is that you as a student and new to the field have to understand that it is a very political situation. The supervisor maybe good friends with these workers and will not view your comments as informative but as instigative and you could be label a trouble maker. What you will have to decide is what is more important, the relationship with the staff or the relationship with the client. Also before you do anything I would talk with your instructor at the university to inform them of the dilemma you are dealing with. Because you are being evaluated by someone at the residency there is a possibility that they may then decide to give you a failing mark. When I work with my clients I always inform them that they have a right to call the Advocate if they feel like their right are being violated. One phone call may not ring alarms but with multiple calls about one location it will generate some attention.
 
Hope this helps
Carl Faria
...
 
Hi Loretta, 
Perhaps give them a copy of this e-mail or tell them exactly what you said here. You did so very well. Sometimes, despite our feelings on how we "rank" in a group, being honest and direct should be simply that. Many times we do not say anything because we feel at risk of loss, such as a poor evaluation, a poor reception no future job offer. If it continues this way you won't want to work there anyway, so is there anything to lose?
 
Geoff Levy
...
 
Wow!  So much to say. Wouldn't holding a door closed be defined as secure isolation? Do the youth have access to the province's Child Advocate?
 
You are witnessing maltreatment and abuse, and this philosophy is difficult to turn around, especially for a student. How do you Advocate for youth without being terminated from placement?
 
Hopefully you have good support Mount Royal. Take direction from your Field Liaison, Bring up your concerns to supervision and continue to practice the skills you have been learning.
 
Sounds like you've got it figured out.
Peter Hoag
...
 
Go up the chain. Maybe this is what the company want to happen maybe not. Then you can make a better judgment on your next step.
 
Writing a paper on this also might help to have your Prof. involved. He with his vast experience can help you.
 
Good luck.
Donna Wilson
...

Good Afternoon Loretta,
 
I am also a second year student at Mount Royal University in the Child and Youth Care program. While reading your email I found myself empathizing with you, and felt the need to respond right away! As a student myself, I find that there are many incidences where I look at the environment and situations I am experiencing and wonder why some staff make the choices they make. At times I find myself becoming frustrated and other times sad for the youth and staff due to their actions and the situations they find themselves in due to Circular Causality and the ignoring of the Conflict Cycle, which is a proven way of deescalating a situation and not prolonging any distress.
 
While in many of our classes at Mount Royal University we are taught to be open-minded and accommodating of all who are around us. We are also taught to be empathetic and concentrate on the relationship. What I am hearing from your email is that you are feeling like these values and principles are being ignored by staff and in turn you are feeling conflicted about what you should do in order to stop these situations from arising. We are also taught in many of our classes to hold people accountable; to speak up when we do not understand someone’s actions and voice our concerns in a respectful and nonjudgmental way. I wonder if this agency’s policies are conflicting with your values and beliefs. Are these actions a result of a protocol that must be followed when these youth are acting out and if so what is the purpose? These are all questions, as a student in the environment, would be asking. We are there to learn as much as we can and to discover where we best fit in the field. This could be a case where others are not holding these staff accountable and therefore the situation has turned into what you experience on a weekly basis or this could be a case where the agency’s beliefs on how to handle situations of distress are very different from yours and in turn your goodness of fit with this agency is not as you wish it was. I believe asking some important questions and voicing your concerns is ethical, you have the right to wonder and be curious.
 
I am very sorry to hear about your situation and the frustrations you are dealing with. I too have been experiencing many new things at my practicum placement and have had to remind myself plenty of times to remain open-minded and ask as many questions as possible to understand the purpose of different protocols and actions of staff members. Something I have learned in a very short period of time is that we are all human. We all have different reactions and emotions and as much as this field is not about us as Child and Youth Care Counsellors, we are a tool that is utilized every day we work with youth and families. We are in a constant state of learning and challenging what we think is right or wrong.
Especially in our positions right now as students, we are learning about what we believe in and where are values and principles stand. Our careers are based on loving the unlovable and going into broken places and helping repair and pick up the pieces. Every day is going to be a challenge and some days it will be our professional peers who challenge us. I only wish for a workplace where everyone holds everyone accountable, that way we as professionals are learning from one another and improving upon ourselves.
 
I hope this helps and good luck in your practicum placement.
 
Brittney Elliott
...
 
I can totally relate to your position in this situation as I took the same course and also completed a practicum. I'm sure you do not wish to disclose the program you are working at for the listed reasons. I now have over 5 years in a program that I absolutely love and have since been responsible for training/observing practicum students. Although it can be difficult to speak up about your observations, it definitely needs to be addressed. May I suggest phrasing your confrontation as more of a question to begin to avoid any hard feelings from the staff and having you feel like you've overstepped your boundaries as a prac student. Just simply asking why this is the chosen practice in attempts to de-escalate a client or even researching the policies of the program. It may also be beneficial to share your observations with your practicum supervisor and ask questions then. As a more senior staff in my program, I welcome a fresh perspective and new ideas from new staff and practicum students as we often get set in our ways or become burnt out leading to "shorter fuses" and increased reactivity in crisis situations without even realizing the impact it has on the clients.

It is not uncommon to observe people getting involved in conflict cycles (or power struggles) and take things too far in an attempt to gain compliance and it is definitely difficult to confront people on this behaviour, particularly in your position, but I think you should give it a try in a less confrontational manner. Good luck and lets us know how it goes.
 
Shandra Sylvestre
...
 
Loretta
 
Is this an actual technique that is being used during the escalating situations or a personal response?  Have you been able to view the treatment plan and review that child's history with a supervisor?  If you don't know, ask the workers, ask a supervisor, and inform the children of their rights and give them the # to the youth advocacy office.
 
Lisa
...

Loretta,
 
When a youth is placed in a group home society breaths a sigh of relief. Parents, police, social workers, probation officers, etc. sit back and our 'programs' take over.  Who questions our practices?  Closed/open custody facilities,  group homes, residential treatment programs, etc., exist in there own little worlds. Who is out there to question why we do the things we do?  All the people involved in the child's life assume we know what we are doing.  These are dangerous circumstances if the right people are not steering the ship.  There are some young, hurt children that become criminalized by the coercive practices found in group homes.  Fact. 
 
Now, there are youth programs out there that are innovative.  There are youth care workers out there who are progressive and genuinely have the best interest of the child at hand. There are managers out there that are more concerned with the health and well being of the children in their care, not
promoting their cronies and building their empire and maintaining their piece of the at-risk pie.  There are many youth programs that provide safe, nurturing environments to children who are the most vulnerable.  As well, there are group homes that still treat the kids like this:  
 
"It seems that as soon as a youth misbehaves or acts out they are immediately consequenced. If the youth refuses to remove themselves to their room, they are then given an escort. The escort also includes the youth having their arm bent behind their back as they are shuffled away from the other youth in the home."
 
Abraham Lincoln said, "When you have got an elephant by the hind leg, and he is trying to run away, it's best to let him run."  Loretta, there are those out there that will not like you to question policy, practice and procedure.  Most kids that come into care are being rescued from violence, abuse and other God-awful things that are done to children.  So, in a way, they are right.  Or are they?  A Child and Youth Care worker in this day and age can yield powerful influence.  Find a way to help make things better - that you can live with.  If you'd like to share in some of the information, articles, newspaper clippings, references, etc., I've collected over the years, drop me an email.  
 
"The greatest oak was once a little nut who held its ground." 
 
Barry Smith
youthrights@bellaliant.net
...

Hi Lorretta,
I am also a second year student in the Child and Youth Care Counsellor Program at Mount Royal University. I read your letter and felt a great deal of empathy for you in your situation and as well for the youth in your placement. As Child and Youth Care Workers we are faced with difficult situations and circumstances on a regular basis. I put myself in your place and realized how difficult it must be for you. It is your responsibility to both the youth and the staff to ask the hard questions in a respectful and non-judgmental manner. I asked the staff at my practicum placement what they thought of the practices you described and they offered some explanations as to why this type of restraint might be necessary. In some situations the possibility of group contamination can put other youth and staff  in danger.

Separating the escalated youth helps to ensure the other youth don't get emotionally involved. Is the staff processing and attending to the youths emotions during or after the incident? Are the youth made aware of their rights and given the opportunity to seek an advocate? What measures are taken to prevent further incidents?

In my opinion there are many other options available to diffuse highly charged youth and it sounds like you are practicing a more caring and healing method. Hopefully your role modeling will also affect the staff you work with. You are the first advocate for these youth and this begins with consulting the staff. Remember that you are not alone in your dilemma and you have the support of your peers and educators from Mount Royal.
 
Good luck,
Sherry Robertshaw
...
 
Loretta,
 
I am also a student at Mount Royal University, completing my second year in CYCC.  Dealing with difficult personalities is something almost every professional will need to face, but there are a few things you could do to take control and manage these relationships more effectively. Before questioning your superior about the effectiveness of their techniques, I think it would be good to build some credibility and rapport among your boss and colleagues. Show that you are there for a good reason and try to do what you can to help with any work that could help alleviate others’ stress levels. If you disagree with an authoritarian’s perspective, it probably won’t do you any good to say so flat out; especially in the position of being a student. I would suggest taking an approach that does not seem like you are “calling them out”, because that could make things more difficult in the end.
 
Personally, I feel that negativity feeds negativity, and would first want to find something I could agree with or praise my colleagues for doing well. It could be productive to open up some dialog and ask what the others’ opinions are. Get some perspective from the staff and supervisor; what do your colleagues feel about this form of discipline? A question you could ask might be: what do you think are some effective ways to de-escalate and help support an upset child? Another question you could ask is if he or she has learned anything in the past about the conflict cycle, and if not what were some effective ways in their own lives that helped them positively deal with a moment of conflict. It would be important to listen to them without defensiveness, and stay confident. You can avoid a heated discussion by being rational, neutral, and focused on the facts. Take initiative to address the situation armed with logic and intelligence. Communicate well and seek to understand others.
 
I believe that one should give their supervisors respect because "you get what you give". On top of that, nobody wants to be treated as if they are incompetent or incapable of doing their job. Keep in mind that nobody is perfect, and that there is not one formula for how to deal with difficult people.  Everything is highly context-specific and each program has different policies and ways to deal with conflict and certain situations.

Some places may simply fit better for you then others. At the same time one should always remain ethical, and report any behaviour that they feel is inappropriate. It would be good to bring up such things with your supervisor during a routine meeting. Only escalate to a higher authority, unless you've exhausted all other means.
 
In conclusion, no matter where we go, we will face people who are negative and who oppose our ideas. Know that you cannot ask someone to, or force them to change. In the end, you can only control yourself. Strive to be the opposite of what you are seeing and live as an example of tolerance, patience, humility, and kindness. No situation is ever lost if we can take away from it some lessons that will help us grow and become better CYCCs.

Stef R.
...
 
Hi Loretta,
 
I’m also a second year student at Mount Royal University in the Child and Youth Care Counsellor Program and happened to come across your discussion on cyc-net. I’m really sorry to hear about your experience in your practicum placement and can relate to your predicament. I understand the difficult position you are in as a “student” in the group home, where you are not sure whether you should or should not speak up about the issues that concern you; when you have little power there.
 
From what I gather in your description, the “staff” that you are working with seems to be abusing their power as the authority figure to the youth. Or perhaps really burnt out from working in the field for a long time. What I have learned in my last practicum placement was that, staff in group homes tends to have faster burn out rates. It could be that the staff your working with is actually burnt out and don’t realize it for themselves. As a result, they have forgotten the importance of building a relationship with their clients, practice counselling skills, and forgotten the reason why they have become a professional in this field; and as a result, youth will become resentful and will have a harder time to improve. Perhaps you can enlighten the staff you work with about the Circle of Courage and Logical Consequences.
 
I do want to stress the importance of speaking up. What I mean is, when there is something bothering you, or have questions about something you don’t understand; you should ask a supervisor for answers or advice. It’s important for one to speak up for their own values or about something that they have seen not done right. But keep in mind that there is always two sides to a story. Have you asked the “staff” regarding their actions in that incident? Perhaps there was a reason as to why they did that. To  be clear, you would need to ask them about it.
 
There is also the matter of “restraint” in your description that I wanted to expand on. When the staff restrained the youth, have they ever done a face down restraint? The reason why I bring this up is because in 2003 The Alberta Association of Services to Children and Families had abolished the use of “face down restraint,” because of “behavior management practice that has been found to be dangerous and life threatening.” Perhaps this can be something for you to look out for in your placement.
 
I too have had a similar experience in a group home for my own practicum placement. I also saw the actions of a staff in which I did not agree with and was very frustrated and confused about it. I too was afraid to ask and speak up in fear of the feedback in which my supervisor would give my university instructor and crossing my boundaries as a student. In the end, I gathered all my courage and spoke to my supervisor in his office privately. I asked him regarding a certain situation that I did not understand and wanted him to clear it up for me. He didn’t exactly agree with my opinions but did try to explain his reasons as to why he acted they way he did with the youth. We both had respect for each other and understood that we both had different values. So perhaps, talking to your supervisor in a non-threatening tone would help clear up some of your concerns. And if your supervisor is not helpful then the next step I would suggest is speaking with your practicum instructor.
 
I hope this helps you in some way, and hope that everything works out for you. But I did want to thank you for sharing your experience.
 
Thanks.
 
Michelle Chung
...
 
My name is Lydia and I am also a student at Mount Royal University. While at my practicum placement I witnessed my first restraint. I watched 2 staff “glove up” and take one of the youth to the quiet room as his behaviour was escalating. In my experience, I felt that it was done in a quick efficient manner and for the protection of staff as well as others in the program. The youth began pacing, punching and kicking the walls. After discussing this with my placement supervisor, she explained to me that not only was this something they practiced to keep the staff and other youth safe, but so the escalating youth would have less to injure themselves. After he was able to compose himself, staff was available to sit with him and talk about what happened. That is when the counselling took place. They also tried to help him come up with alternatives to use to help cope with the increased feelings of anger that wouldn’t result in going to the quiet room.
I encourage you to talk to the staff about how you feel. Hopefully they will understand that you are coming from a good place, and that this is a learning experience for you. Also, I can say from experience that talking to your practicum advisor may help. Go to them with your concerns and they may be able to give you direction on the best way to approach the staff. I’m glad to hear that you are forming relationships with some of the youth as that may be the most important thing you do during your placement. Good luck with the rest of the year.
 
Lydia Marchand
...
 
Hi Loretta,
 
I’m a fellow colleague in the Child and Youth Care Counsellor Diploma program at Mount Royal. You are caught between a rock and a hard place.

First of all I would like to commend you on the good work you are doing at your practicum despite the actions of the more experienced staff you are working with. During our first year there is one word that sticks in my mind and that is relationships. The importance of building positive relationships with child and youth is immense. Through building these relationships it helps clients to not only trust but to open up about the issues they are going through. The escalating of situations is clearly a continuation of the conflict cycle which should try to be resolved as soon as possible. As CYCC professionals what happened to applying the three core conditions of empathy, respect and genuineness?
 
Even though you’re still learning in my opinion you should address the issue with your supervisor. If nothing gets done then address the situation with your practicum teacher. Unfortunately we are working in a field where their are a few people that shouldn’t have the privilege of working with children and youth. Don’t let your experiences discourage you to continue the good work you are doing. You are clearly making a difference and it’s also credit to you for not adopting the behaviour and attitude of your colleagues. The following is a quote that your colleagues should adopt. “Children need love especially when they don’t deserve it”- Harold Hulbert.
 
Gareth Fields
...
 
Hi Loretta,
Whistleblow! Tell everyone. Very high up the food chain, in multiple places, but do it anonymously.
 
Regards,
 
Lynne Wrennall
...

Hi Loretta.
I am in my second year at Mount Royal University studying the Child and Youth Counselling Program. When I was reading your email I began to understand your situation. As a student I learned that when I have a strong opinion on something, it is hard not to state an opinion.  When I am at my practicum placement I find it frustrating sometimes because I disagree how the staff interacts with the youth.  I feel like they're prolonging the conflict cycle because instead of helping with the situation they are distressing it and making it more stressful for both the youth and staff and nothing seems to get accomplished.
 
At Mount Royal during the classes we learn to be more open minded, we made sure we use advocacy and we were aware of our boundaries before we entered our practicum.  We also learned to develop professional relationship with both the youth and the staff worker. I see that you are experiencing conflicts in your beliefs, values and principles and that you believe that your beliefs are not been meet by the staff members and you are struggling with trying to figure out what to do. In our classes were are taught that
people make mistakes and are accountable for all their actions but we need to approach people that we disagree with in a non-judgemental attitude.  As a student at these practicum places were there to learn and ask questions.

I think that coming across a situation that you disagree with should be done in a matter of asking why and not directly telling them what they should be doing.  If you have a strong disagreement of the staff’s reaction to the youth then you should bring it up with your supervisor, but to remember that they hired this person and if you come across too strong and question their hiring process it will hit that person hard and personally and would not want to hire you in the future. Everyone has a different opinion on the goodness of fit model; you should remember theirs might be different from yours.  Maybe you can ask the question about their goodness of fit model but voice your opinion in an ethical, respectful matter.  Everyone has the right to ask questions even a practicum student like you are.    I agree with Brittney when she said maybe no one has being holding the staff accountable so you are now experiencing it on daily bases.  I also agree with Brittney when she questions their beliefs in handling a situation of distress.

I am really sorry to hear about your situation and I know it seems so frustrating because you have to deal with this all the time and there is nothing is being done about situation. I remind myself every day that I am here to learn and ask questions, as a Child and Youth Counsellor I know that I am going to have different opinions and feelings towards  certain matters.

In this profession I am always going to believe to be always open minded, and know that no one is perfect and everyone should be accountable for their actions, but that is not reality.  Reality is everyone is learning, and working in this career would have their bad and good days; but were here to be a supportive system and remember that were here to help out the children and families.
 
I hope you take my opinion into considerations. Good luck with the rest of your practicum.
 
Melissa Brown
________ 

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