Two staff members at a Cape Town children's home talk about their work
The child and youth care worker speaks
When asked what I do for a living I often get this type of response: "Oh, you must really love kids" or "I would never be able to work with those poor children - you must have so much patience ..." Rone Gerber, a senior child and youth care worker at Oranjia says that "In actual fact I feel that the most important characteristic of a good child and youth care worker is knowledge and skills to deal with highly demanding children and adolescents as well as adults.
Rone thinks that a child care worker needs to be flexible, non-judgmental and very self-aware. "A child care worker has to use her or himself as a tool to help heal."
"An average day in child care would start with waking up every youngster in a way that gets him or her in a good frame of mind for the day. Breakfast is served after every child is dressed. In this short time a lot of emotional issues could already have arisen, like refusing to get up (school refusal) or remembering nightmares. Many of the kids had such a rough time the day before that they do not want to get up to face another day. For others the mornings are times when mom and dad are really missed and some kids feel very homesick. So while trying to get the kids ready for school or for the day's activities, the child and youth care worker also has to help each one through emotional issues".
Rone says that in the afternoons the time is spent involving children to all their extra-mural activities and helping to get homework done. All these practical tasks are never made easy due to the fact that the kids' special needs, hurts and vulnerabilities do not go away. "It is not possible to get tasks done without addressing these overall needs and problems. These issues are a huge part of the care worker's focus". The careworker aims to develop and promote competency and therefore at all times of the day must be on the alert for opportunities to encourage the young people to practise skills and realise strengths. In this positive approach, healing energies are harnessed from within the child.
"For example, while driving a child to soccer an opportunity might arise to talk about a problem. Or a game is lost and an opportunity arises to teach a life skill on how to handle defeat," says Rone.
Mealtimes, bathtimes and bedtimes are all potentially difficult times in residential care. Rone says "While these times can be considered as routine activities, in residential child and youth care they are the times when the child or youth is confronted by their own emotional insecurities, needs and demands. Therefore individual time has to be spent with every child to help him or her 'work through' a lot of these issues.
Work in the residential setting is very demanding and requires not only lots of energy and optimism, but also that the careworker to be highly trained, skilled and responsible.
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The social worker's view
Belinda Slavin has been a social worker at Oranjia for several years. The social worker's role is primarily to help the children through the use of social work methods which include individual casework and group work. In helping the children the social worker also works with the parents.
One of the social worker's tasks is to co-ordinate admissions to the residential program. This includes gathering and organising the relevant information and setting up admission meetings. This is an important responsibility, since the decision to admit a child, and the way in which a child is admitted, has enormous ramifications for the child's later functioning on the program.
Certain children and youth are seen by the social worker on a regular basis to support and complement the work of the care workers in the group homes. The social worker also visits the group homes to make regular contact with the other children and youth. The development of relationships is essential for being able to help a child. The social worker takes meals at the unit regularly, takes the kids shopping or to appointments, and sometimes helps out practically at the homes doing shifts when care staff are ill or on leave. Residential social work is not like social work at most agencies. There are no 8 am to 5 pm days. The social worker may spend unusual hours at work, often late into the night or over weekends as and when the need arises. In our case, the social worker is on call every alternate weekend. The intensity of the work (everything is about relationship) and the fact that we are a small team means that we all have to be available for particular kids. There is no easy separation of work from private life, not if you care about what you are doing.
The social worker also sees parents regularly for supportive counselling, helping with parenting skills, problem-solving, crisis management and support, as well as the evaluation of progress made by child and family. Family meetings are a norm when planning for children to leave the residential program ďa step which involves careful preparation. This is part of case management which means the social worker must liaise with various other professionals both within and outside of Oranjia. This is a crucial role and helps to integrate the overall work with each child and family. Information sharing and communication are essential skills for the social worker.
The social worker is also responsible for the hosting and foster care program, consults with the community child and youth care team, provides staff supervision and manages the relief worker program, while handling the usual social work administrative tasks. The social worker is an integral part of the child and youth care team, who brings a different and useful perspective to residential child and youth care, while contributing to the multidisciplinary nature of the team.