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Practice Hints

A collection of short practice pointers for work with children, youth and families. Contributed by Brian Gannon.


Complex boundaries, complex questions

We hear a lot about boundaries — between worker and client, between work life and personal life, between this professional role and that one ... We use the concept of boundaries to maintain professional standards, to establish role clarity, to optimize our impact in the program, to avoid confusing and unhelpful “noise” in our work.

But these ideas might seem very abstract and forbidding to the confused youngster in our program who is looking for contact and support — and with whom we as the staff and adults in the milieu we would value any opportunity to establish a relationship.

What happens if young Pete seeks out the attention of Kate who is the social worker, or young Tracey attaches herself to Gary who is the cook, or Billy reaches out to Ted who is a child and youth worker in a different unit? Do we throw up the ramparts and declare certain people in our program to be off limits? Would we say “You may only see Kate by appointment,” or “Kids are not meant to fraternize with kitchen staff,” or “You can only deal with a care worker who is assigned to your unit”?

In most organizations typists are hired to be typists, electricians to be electricians and janitors to be janitors. Child and youth care organizations are inevitably a little different. We hire people whom we can trust to play certain roles (including typing, electrical repairs and cleaning) as they move about through our milieu. What if we are struggling to make contact with Billy who in turn finds it uncomfortable to relate to us with our professional qualifications and degrees -- yet he clicks instantly with Bob who mows our lawns and fixes the windows? Do we, even if Bob is the ideal “bridge” between Billy and his familiar culture, say No, this is inappropriate, or do we try to find a way past the obvious boundary?

Can we say to Kate, you join our team as Kate the social worker and we will all benefit from your specific training, experience and knowledge base. But you also join our team as Kate the person, and this program is about people and we all find ourselves having to walk the talk with certain kids. And to Bob, your job is to help us keep the place in good repair, but with your vocational background and skills you may also be uniquely closer to some youth in the program than any of us can be. With our back-up and supervision we would also like you to accept, when needed, the role of just being "Bob".

Task clarity is always essential. But in a program where relationships are the tools of our trade, and where there are so many kids and adults moving about through each others’ space, maybe we can (always within the intervention plan and our staff supports) be flexible about those boundaries.

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