irish ideas – niall mcelwee

First, hello

I am thrilled to have been asked by Thom Garfat and Brian Gannon to contribute on a regular basis to CYC On Line. This regular slot will enable me to locate a new audience who I feel probably share many of the same hopes and concerns as myself in relation to child and youth care. Perhaps, then, I should start by introducing myself for those of you who don’t already know me.

Who am I?
A good question and one I haven’t quite come fully to terms with yet, but let me say this. I am a 33 year-old male academic based at the Centre for Social Care Research at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland. I am also chair of a project that attempts to befriend people involved in prostitution and it is here that I gain my practice experience. I have been involved in teaching and researching in the field of child and youth care for a decade now so I guess I started pretty young compared to many of my colleagues indeed, Thom Garfat has referred to me as "a young puppy". Like many academics, I went into this game for three main reasons - June, July and August! Nonetheless, I have managed somehow to publish quite a bit of material on various aspects of child and youth care over the years - but always using an academic voice. Here, I intend to be more colloquial and relaxed.

A time of change
I came into child and youth care at a time of profound transition in Ireland. Things were moving rapidly and there was, and is, a general sense of confusion in the field. What was traditionally called “child care” was soon to become “social care” in the early 1990's. Training and education moved up from Diploma to Degree status in several of the colleges in the mid 1990's. Many child care workers began to call themselves social care practitioners towards the end of the 1990’s and several influential reports have been published in the past couple of years. Now there are at least four national committees looking at the future of child and youth care in Ireland from various perspectives and we are all unsure of what will happen.

Working as an educator in Child and Youth Care
I consider myself a very fortunate person. I interact daily with child and youth care practitioners and students who really care about what they do. These are, in the main, highly motivated people who are making a significant difference to the lives of the vulnerable people with whom they work and I get to see this process from the start when they come to my programme full of innocence and wonder as first year students! Well, that may be overstating things but there is some truth in this statement.

My students have the highest concentration of what is called in Ireland “mature status” (23 years in January in the year of application to child and youth care programmes) in the entire college across all programmes. Amongst the present year one students, approximately 33% hold mature status. The child and youth care programme is a community. I have taught two sisters in their mid forties and one of their daughters, I presently have a father in year two of the Diploma whilst his daughter is in year three (she is a qualified nurse and he a glass maker). I have had twin sisters in their early twenties in the same year of study and I have had a couple of aunts and nieces studying at the same time. My wife teaches on the programme as she is a community child care worker. I have been at funerals of family members of my students, I have been invited to christenings, weddings of ex-students and confirmation of their children! I have been involved in much more than just the training and education of students. I have been involved, to a small extent, in some key moments of their lives and for this I am grateful.

Returning to work for a moment, I have the opportunity to visit practice placements all over Ireland and, indeed, abroad (such as Sweden, Scotland, England and Canada) to engage with students, practitioners and managers as they go about their daily therapeutic tasks. I get to see, first hand, best practice (and sometimes “worst” practice) and then write about issues that affect all of us - educators, students and practitioners. I have now been to well over 200 practice placements so have a networked with quite a few child and youth care personnel. Needless to say, one comes away a wiser, deeper man from interacting with the “clients” in these programmes.

Finally, a couple of years ago I was surfing the net (as one does when one is supposed to be working) when I came across the discussion group that is CYC-Net. I could scarce believe my eyes. Here were literally hundreds of people writing about the same issues, asking similar questions and dialoguing with each other. I tentatively sent the first question in received several responses and have been a regular reader and commentator since. It is a wonderful facility for someone like me. There are only seven third level training colleges for child and youth care workers in Ireland and there is not an established body of published knowledge so the discussion group has introduced new ways of thinking for me. It is worth its weight in gold.

Now that I have had the opportunity to introduce myself, over the coming regular articles, I should like to explore child and youth care as it is taught and experienced in Ireland. I intend to give very personalised accounts and responses to developments over here and invite you to come on this journey with me.

Niall McElwee has been lecturing and researching in the field of social care for a decade. He is Director of Social Care Programmes at the Waterford Institute of Technology, Academic Co-ordinator of the Centre for Social Care Research at that college, founder and Editor of the Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies and is currently President of the Irish Association of Social Care Educators. He is the author of Children At Risk (1996), To Travel Hopefully: Views from the Managers of Residential Child Care Units in Ireland (2000) and co-author of a number of books including Prostitution in Waterford City: A Contemporary Analysis (1997), Irish Society: A Reader in Applied Social Studies (1997), Worthy Not Worthwhile: Choosing Careers in Caring Occupations (2000). His forthcoming textbook is titled Five Scenarios and Solutions for the Social Care Practitioner (2001). He is also a frequent media commentator in the area of social issues and has a consultancy practice based in County Kilkenny, Ireland.

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