ISSUE 21 OCTOBER 2000 BACK

readers' questions

“Intervention” – attempting a definition

“We run a small campus of four group homes with about thirty youths aged between about 13 and 18 “and this seems to keep us busy enough! We often hear the word "intervention" in connection with this work, and wonder whether we could ask for a definition of this term as it refers to work in group homes.

This is the kind of question which at first sight seems to demand a whole text book, but we are sure there is a short answer! It is a good question to ask because the word can easily be under-defined and thus lose its usefulness “or it can become a clich” for everything we do with kids and families, and thus lose its meaning altogether.

Back to Latin: inter = between or amongst, and venire = to come. So at its most literal, intervention would be "to come between" or "to come amongst". Better phrases would be "to get involved" or "to step in" or "to add something new or different to the existing “mix” or cycle of events."

Whenever a process is underway which is proving ineffective or dangerous, someone may have to "step in" to help correct the course of that process or make things safer. A five-year-old birthday party which moves into a gravel pathway and stones begin to fly would require intervention. A student’s repeated failure and discouragement in a course would merit some intervention. A community becoming ill through some environmental problem would justify an intervention.
In child and youth care, there are two levels of intervention.

Level one
The first is when the organs of society (for example, a school, local organization, health service) notices that a particular community or family or individual is struggling “not thriving or getting into difficulties. The question is asked: Is there something we can add or move or change which will make it easier for them to survive and manage?

At this first level, the aim is always to maintain whatever is working and to try to enhance resources and skills so as to avoid situations which are hindering progress or success. In an area with a high youth crime rate, for example, police, churches, social workers and others may get together with the local people to identify such things as shortcomings, negative influences, and inadequate opportunities in the community. A number of people and organizations might therefore plan an intervention in order to correct course, avoid further problems, work with those who are already in trouble.

Of interest to child and youth care workers, interventions at this first level might include starting a community activity centre, a parent support group or skill building program, or creating employment opportunities. These would include the input and services of child and youth workers as well as those of educators, social workers and other professionals. Or at the individual level, this first level of intervention may be to attach a youth worker to a specific family or to place a youngster in a group home.

The point of this first level is that in some way things are heading south, and, if nothing is done, things will get worse. Someone needs to "step in", to intervene.

Level two
Once it is agreed to "something must be done" or "someone must step in" we get to the second level of intervention, which includes the actual ideas and methods we bring to bear in the lives of individual children, youth or families. We narrow our focus from wider systems to the life space of people who are in difficulties or dead ends. This second level of intervention is just as complex as the first, because before we try something new or different with someone, we have to be pretty sure about how far they–ve come already, which areas they are experiencing as difficult, what resources and strengths they have available, what things have been known to be helpful with others, and so on.

Think for example about a parent who is having difficulty in managing a 16-year-old son; a school which has problems with an aggressive fourteen-year-old girl; an abused eleven-year-old who is preoccupied by her feeling of vulnerability and distrust; a fifteen-year-old exposed to crack cocaine; an anxious nine-year-old who is bed-wetting and being ridiculed by all in his class; a seventeen-year-old involved in crime and gang activities; a seven-year-old traumatised by the loss of her family in a fire ... Each of these represents a very specific person with a very specific experience, and we are asked to plan a very specific intervention “an approach/method/program/course of treatment which we have reason to believe will be helpful.

There are a number of general approaches to the interventions we choose, for example, the developmental, psychodynamic, behavioral, educational, group or peer models “and these would take something more like a text book to discuss “but it is safe to say that in our field all of these would necessarily be used within the context of the relationship we establish with the kids we work with. That is, no intervention is applied "cold" “and most would agree that the respectful and mutual relationship often proves to be intervention enough.

You will know in your group home that it is never enough to impose one regimen (or one kind of intervention) for all the kids in your program. Those who adopt a "one size fits all" intervention will miss the target on all counts: they will miss the strengths and resources (for these are different for all kids and families); they will miss accuracy of definition of the problems faced by their clients (for all problems are necessarily viewed in terms of type, intensity, duration, etc.); they will miss the developmental data (for people are at different developmental levels, not only simplistically in terms of age, but along all development continua); they will miss the contextual assessment of youngsters” behaviours and perceptions (for everyone, ultimately, has a unique history and life experience); and they will miss the teaching of the experience of their profession (for we have all worked hard at documenting our success in work with gangs, with anxiety, with abuse, with retardation, with violence ... and there is no simple formula which works for all).

At this level we are careful to decide how much is needed to help this child or family, because it is irresponsible to accept responsibility for helping people if we don’t have the skills and resources to do this; and we are careful to decide how little we can do to get a child or a family able to function adequately again, because we avoid making people unnecessarily dependent on our support and intervention.

In short, society makes one intervention when they decide that someone needs the services of an agency or individual; and our agency or team makes another intervention when they decide on exactly how we are going to work with this particular child or this particular family. Neither of these decisions is easy. Each demands the highest levels of respect, honesty, knowledge and skill “that go into any one intervention.

THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net)
Registered Non-Profit and Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (031-323-NPO, PBO 930015296)

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