child and youth care work

Who put the CARE into Child Care?

In the 1980s, the California Association of Child Care Workers, along with several local agencies, sponsored the first Child Care WorkersĒ conference ever held in the Los Angeles area. One of the speakers was Lorraine Fox. The following is an edited transcript of her talk.

What Iíd like to do for my address today is to look at our profession and our title. Professional titles are meant to tell you what somebody has expertise in. A lawyer has expertise in the law. A teacher has expertise in teaching. A physician has expertise in the physical body. Titles are meant to let people know what youíre good at. So letís look at our title: "Child Care Worker". Thatís our professional title. But only the middle word defines our area of expertise. Children will be children without us. The Child in the Child Care Worker is the Who. The Work is defined by your agency. theyíll tell you what to do. theyíll tell you when to show up and theyíll tell you how many days you work. They tell you when you are off and when youíre on, and what youíre supposed to do when youíre there. The work is defined by the agency. The care is defined by you. This is the area of expertise that gives meaning to our job title, because the child is there and the work is there, defined by others. But we are not child workers. Itís a mistake to say that youíre a child worker ďthat you work with kids. People who do a lot of things work with kids. People who take kids swimming work with kids. Thatís not what we do. We care for kids. Thatís quite different. So Iíd like to look at what makes caring work.

Usually caring is not seen as work. Caring is supposed to be a joyful experience. Caring is supposed to be something that happens and is often associated with violin music playing. Caring is supposed to flow from us in times of elation. So why do we say that we do Child Care Work?

One of the reasons I am convinced that weíre still not receiving professional recognition, and in some places weíre still having trouble being recognised as even paraprofessionals, is that weíre not doing a very good job of communicating the skill thatís necessary to care for kids. When you see these people that we take care of, you donít automatically flow with love. And thatís been one of the problems. People have thought that because they were children, that caring for them was something that just came to us. Well it doesnít just come to us. Itís work, hard work. And thatís why weíre professionals. Because these are the type of kids that ordinarily, if I saw them playing in my backyard, Iíd tell them to go play in their own yard. I wouldnít want them in my yard. I wouldnít particularly want them playing with my kids. So why do I give my life to taking care of them? Because thatís my profession. Thatís what I chose. Also what you chose. So I think that one of the things we need to do to enhance ourselves professionally is to stop saying "I work with kids", and let people know that you care for very troubled youngsters whom nobody else will care for. If somebody else cared, they wouldnít be in your face. If somebody was willing to have them in their home, theyíd be in their home. If Aunt Martha was willing to take them, theyíd be with Aunt Martha. If they hadnít messed up in four foster homes, they would be in a foster home. These kids donít come easy to care for. Thatís why we have them. So letís look at our caring.

I went to my little desk dictionary and opened it up and found four definitions of "care". One was to handle with care. Thatís one of the things we get paid for. To handle these kids with care. Because the fact is that theyíre pretty broken up. I like to think of them as something like a treasure, and if you had something like this thatís broken and damaged, you donít just toss it casually to someone and say "fix it". When something precious is broken and damaged, you carry it carefully, and you ask "Would you please fix this". Those are our kids. Our kids are all broken up. Someone has whacked them silly, either emotionally or physically or otherwise. And we are the ones who have to handle them with care. They look pretty good and sometimes it doesnít occur to you when you see them on the street corner that they need to be gently carried. They look like they need to be kicked across the street maybe. Thatís why they get in so much trouble, because they look like they need a good swift kick. But we know that they need to be carried. Sometimes, of course, it takes three or four of us to carry them, but we do it, and we do it carefully.

The dictionary also said that caring means to like or regard. This is not easy. Give yourselves permission to find this hard. The defensive behaviours that our kids resort to are the very things that make our work work. Theyíre defending themselves against a world that they expect will hurt them, and it takes a lot of work to look under that and see a child who needs to be cared for. The world canít see this because most people in the world donít work in our field. They donít know how to care, so they give them another kick, or they put them in jail, or they turn them over to the cops, and they donít see their brokenness and frailty. But we see, and we call them "honey", and thatís care and liking. Another thing that makes it work is that our kids donít respond very well. Remember "caring" is when the violins are supposed to play, and then I start walking across this stage here and another person walks toward me and we meet in this warm embrace. We could run all day after our kids and never get a warm embrace. They donít come running toward us; they run away from us. Helen Pearlman made an analogy in an article written for Child Welfare and I loved it. She talked about starving people in some place like Ethiopia and watched the way they dished out food to them. They donít hand those kids huge barrels of food because theyíre so hungry. They give them little cups of food because their stomachs are shrunken, and if you give them too much food, theyíll get sick and die. They canít take it ďnot all at once. Itís just like after youĖve been on a diet and you start eating a sundae and you maybe get a little nauseous, and you canít believe it yourself, that you canít finish the whole thing. "Whatís happened to my old self? I used to eat three of these and now I canít finish one". Helen Pearlman says that our kids are like this. Theyíre starved for affection, and we come to their shrunken emotional selves and try to pour in huge doses of affection, and they canít take it. Thatís why they call us a "mother" after weĖve called them "honey". They canít take it. And itís not because thereís anything wrong with them. But theyíre shrunken emotionally and we have to feed them with an eye dropper. A little pat on the back at a time, a little bit of hand-holding at a time. ItĖll take years, though, before they come back to respond, and that again is why itís work.

Another definition of caring is to provide protection. Thatís our job also. Thatís why we have people like Paul Smith come to conferences like this to talk about the assaultive child. But how do you protect the child whoís out to get you? Itís kind of a funny thing, right? I mean, the child throws a chair across the room and itís aimed at your head, and if you werenít a child care worker, youíd think about protecting your own head. Instead, we think about how to protect the child against their own impulses, against their own violence, against their own tendencies to lash out at the world that they think hates them. Itís an interesting concept, and itís one of the reasons why professional caring is very different from just good feelings.

weíre supposed to keep our kids safe. Thatís also why we have a workshop here today about sex. We work with kids who have been brutalised sexually. They come to our place, and if we donít watch them in the shower, theyíre going to get brutalised again. If we donít watch them at night, somebodyĖll be in bed with them and hurt them again. We get paid to protect them. We get paid to make sure that they donít throw a chair at us, and that we donít throw a chair at them. And we get paid to make sure that they donít sleep with us and we donít sleep with them. And itís hard work, because normally people donít react to having a chair thrown at them by worrying about the person whoís throwing the chair. The last thing the dictionary says is that when we care we watch over and worry about. Unfortunately, we always get told not to take our work home with us. Breathes there a mother who goes away on vacation and never gives a thought to her children? It canít be done. You might tell yourself, "Iím going to leave these kids and Iím not going to think about them all weekend". Never happens. We promise ourselves that we will not bring these kids home with us, but we canít escape it. Not because we get paid to work, but because we get paid to care. And when you care, you worry. So instead of telling yourself that youíre not being good at your job because you canít shake it, remember that unfortunately, we bought into it. We bought into caring, and when you care, you lose a little sleep; you lose a little food; you lose a little peace of mind.

All of these are what makes our profession work. So give yourself permission to care and to call it "Child Care Work" because thatís what it is. We get paid to care, and unfortunately for our kids, they wouldnít get cared for if we didnít get paid. Especially the kids who are cast away and tossed aside because they have already bombed out with people who will take care of them for free.

There is another aspect of the cost of caring. It costs to care either way: well, or poorly. If caring is done badly, it costs the recipient. If caring is done well, it costs the person who is caring. So somebody in this little dyad has got to pay for this job. The best example for me is my car. What happens when you take your car in? You leave it there all day, you arrange for a ride, you call and make sure itís done, you go to pick it up and itís not done yet. You wait, and you pick it up and itís still broken. It costs. It costs me for them to have loused up my car. It costs me a day of trouble, it costs me time, it costs me all that mess of going back and forth, it costs me money that I paid and didnít get anything back for. So when a job is done badly, the recipient pays. If the job is done well, it costs the person thatís doing the job, because you canít do a job well and have a good time. If you do a job well, any job really, you have to work hard. You have to pay attention. You canít make any mistakes. You have to sweat a little bit. So the way we care for our kids is going to cost somebody. If we donít care well enough, itís going to cost the kids; and if we care well, itís going to cost us. If weíre willing to slip shod around, come into the unit, drink a little coffee, hum a little music, put our feet up, every so often say, "Kids, stop that", theyíre going to pay, because they are not going to get cared for and they are not going to get better. If, however, I come to the unit and I decide Iím really going to care, my stomach knots up, sweat pours from my brow, and they make me cry and go to the bathroom to hide. I canít think of what to do, I have to work longer because I have to stay even though my shift is up. So, if weíre going to be true professionals, weíre going to have to give up being careless and sloppy, and weíre going to have to accept that being a professional is going to cost us. The other thing is that when we love our kids, it hurts us. Any of you who are parents or are married or are in love with somebody know that when somebody that you love hurts, you hurt. Think of the last time you planned to visit someone in the hospital. Think of the last time somebody fell down and got a boo-boo and you had to take them to the doctor and they were crying, and all of a sudden, you hurt too. In child care, we donít have any kids that donít hurt. As soon as they stop hurting, we send them away. As soon as our kids stop hurting, theyíre better, treatment is over and away they go. We get in a new kid who hurts. And if we care, and they hurt, we hurt. Freud has used the word "empathy" which is a German word for feeling into or being one with. If youíre going to feel into these kids who live with you, youíre going to hurt. If youíre going to be one with the kids who live with you, youíre going to hurt.

So, ours is a profession that demands personal involvement. I can bake cookies without hurting. I can even fix my car without hurting. We canít care for these kids without hurting, and if we donít hurt, we donít care. So we have an emotional profession. Beyond getting paid to feel, however, we also get paid to act and to behave in certain kinds of ways. A good child care worker canít just walk around feeling all day. You have to be able to feel and to be one with, but if you canít put the kids to bed when itís time, youĖll get fired. And if you canít anticipate which kid is going to hit you, youíre liable to get hit, and fired too. For us to do our job, we have to act. We have to cook and clean and sew and do the beds and rock them when theyíre sick. And all of this for a few hundred a month! And one of the reasons that we get paid what we get paid is that we have not convinced people that what weíre doing is work. Itís not just "do-gooding". I would not do this on my own if I wasnít getting paid. And most of us wouldnít. And we have to get the word out. Because this is not something that comes naturally. This is a very hard, demanding job that demands all that we are and all that we have. But nobody is going to give us what we deserve until we convince them.

There are many ways to say "I care". Loving gestures, for example, being kind, being respectful. They all say "I care". Another way to say I care is to know what youíre doing. The caring mother who learns how to be a mother. Professional development which is what the Child Care Worker Association is all about, demands that we move from defining caring as only a feeling, and add to that definition skilled ability and practice. Thatís a profession. WeĖve already said that the job demands our feelings. WeĖve said that the job demands our action. It also demands our thinking. We have to do it well. We have to know what weíre doing. Think about what needs to be done, and care about the way we do it. In many ways, weíre still paying for the orphans, you know. weíre paying for that time when there were lots of kids around who didnít have any parents, and what they needed was a roof and some food and some basic nurturing. But there arenít any of those left in our programs. weíre still living with the stigma, however, that there are poor orphans in our place and we give them food and shelter and thatís good enough. But itís not true. Our kids need a lot more than food and shelter, and if weíre looking into the future, itís going to get worse. Money has dried up. People do not like institutions. People do not like placing children in institutions, and they will only place into child care agencies those kids who cannot be handled any other place, and theyíre going to get worse and worse. Think about the kids that are coming in now ďthe idea of feeding them and clothing them is so removed from their real needs that you donít even think about it. Itís not where your energy goes. You donít think about their sneakers. You think about providing them with what they need, and they need care ďprofessional care ďand that demands of us our feelings, thoughts and actions.

No profession allows learning on the job. I donít want my doctor learning on the job! When Iím sick, I want her to have gone to school first. I want her to have gone through a residency. Then, maybe, I want her to touch my body. We have to move toward a professional reputation. We have to move toward education. We have to go to school. We have to visit other agencies and find out what child care is all about. We have to go to conferences like this one today. We have to combine our formal and informal education. Our kids deserve from us all that I expect from my doctor.

What do other professions do? Other professions combine education internships and experience. But in child care we give somebody a set of keys, point to the classroom or the unit, and say, "There they are". We also have to supplement our formal "book" learning by learning from the kids. When youíre sick and you go to the doctor, and he says without even looking at you, "Ah, I see exactly what your problem is", how does he know? He doesnít. He only knows if I tell him where and how it hurts. I say, "It hurts me here, or here". Our kids tell us where it hurts and how it hurts. We can learn how to take care of them by asking, "Where does it hurt?" and by listening and observing and seeing where they hurt.

We have peopleís lives in our hands. We have to break away from the myth that too much learning and education interferes with caring. You know, when we hear people say that you canít learn how to do this in school, and book learning doesnít help, donít believe it. Itís kind of like a mother who only cleans up vomit and never reads Dr Spock. Most good mothers clean up vomit and read Dr Spock. Thatís us. We need to care and we need to do whatever is required to learn how to care better.

The other thing about caring has to do with doing whatever is necessary. When you care for kids, you do all thatís required. That means that you lock up at night to protect them. It means that you clean up after them. It means that you clean the house. It also means that youíre going to study and you learn how to take care of the more disturbed. Itís easier to care, by the way, when you understand. If you go on a course, youĖll like the work better. I always like my kids better after going to a conference like this. When you hear about them, when you think about them, you like them better. Education and training will enhance your caring. YouĖll like them better. So there are at least three elements to professional caring: feeling, thinking, doing. Professional caring requires emotional involvement. It requires a willingness to act in whatever capacity is needed. And, it requires a willingness to study and learn, to constantly improve our skills. And this is hard work. To be a professional and involve all three dimensions of our self requires considerable dedication.

We have not communicated this; and because we have not communicated this, we allow agencies that employ us to employ child care workers for little pay, to employ child care workers who have no prior training ďafter all, they can learn it on the job ďand to employ child care workers who may not have the brain power. It is up to us, it is our responsibility, to begin to communicate the kind of skill, knowledge and emotional maturity it takes to properly care for our kids.

In conclusion, Iíd like to say that professional skill and knowledge is no longer a luxury. As Iíve said, there are no more sweet young things referred to your agencies. Theyíre all gone. The other thing is that the eyes of the community are on us. Everybody knows that. You canít get insurance. weíre being watched. weíre being scrutinised. We canít just diddlybop around. We have to do what we do and do it well, and we have to communicate what we do and describe what we do to the community. This requires ethics, integrity, morality, and all that which is governed by professional associations. Not just anybody can be a member of a professional association. The doctor with too many malpractice suits against him gets kicked out. A doctor who has never gone to medical school would never get into the professional association to begin with. I really believe that if we have only professional child care workers, we would have no institutional abuse. There just wouldnít be any. If everybody who worked with our kids were professionals in their caring, there would be no institutional abuse. There would be no newspaper stories. There would be no hurt kids getting hurt again!

So letís give up our low self-image. We talked about low self-image for the kids all the time. It must be contagious because I think weĖve caught it. When is the last time that a mother asked her doctor son, "So, when are you going to get a real job?" How many child care men have been asked by somebody, "youíre still working with those kids? Why donít you get a real job?" We have to turn that around, and we canít do it by saying "I work with kids" and we canít do it by accepting myths like formal education isnít necessary. We need to have a professional identity so that we feel good about what we are doing and so that people stop thinking that weíre different and apart from everybody else that has a job to do and does it well. So letís care. Letís learn some things. Letís join our professional organisations. Letís begin to pay the price for caring and stop complaining, and letís communicate the value of our kids and our work to the community. So "Who put the care in Child Care?" Itís not the kids; itís not the agency. You did. We did. We put the care in Child Care.

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