Recently while driving in the car with a 12-year-old boy who has been in care now off and on for three years in a Cape Town program, I realized with a sudden sadness what relationship can sometimes mean with certain kids in care. As we drove, this 12-year-old started to talk enthusiastically about going fishing to a secret and secluded spot he knows about, where he can pump for prawns and catch klipvis, or rock fish. He told me that he really liked this and wouldn't it be nice if we could do this? And maybe just he and one or two of the older boys can go with me, but none of the girls because they cannot fish!
My immediate inner dialogue said that this was not practical. After all, as Program Director I am not on-line at weekends and we would have to go fishing on a weekend. My second inner experience was an image of myself as a young boy with my own father, going fishing together. A powerful image pregnant with pages of emotion, connectedness, and the essence of my trusting and safe relationship with my dad. Next in rapid succession came the thought that I have from time to time in the past taken the kids away for weekends, gone on hikes and spent my own off-time with the kids in our care. So why not? This was followed immediately by the image of my wife and newborn baby son tugging on the other side!
My verbal response was to reflect on his excitement, his wish to go, which got him talking about fishing, what he knows and likes, and all the time I am experiencing this inner battle raging within, about boundaries, about personal commitments, about his needs and ultimately about relationship and what this means in child and youth care.
Then there came the image of a child and youth care worker I knew who took relationship to its fullest and extended the boundaries very wide; I knew he would have said, "Yes, let's do it," without hesitation. And I also knew how well he "worked" with the kids in his care, how connected he was to them, and how fond so many of the kids were of him. I remembered how he always seemed to be able to reach the hardest of kids, those most "at risk"; how he could use his "connectedness" to these kids to intervene in a crisis, to teach skills, to promote well being; and how they would gravitate towards him. I also knew that to a large degree this was because these kids felt that he really cared, that he had time for them and that what he did with them was more than a job. He wanted to be with them and demonstrated this actively, like the time he insisted on travelling 500 kilometres with a youth we were having to send off to secure care! Needless to say, six years later he still has a "connection" with this young man.
Then I thought of the staff whom I supervised, now and in the past, and remembered those who always struggled to connect with the kids, who always complained that the kids never went to them with problems, or reached out. And what struck me was that so often these staff persons always stuck rigidly to shift hours, never came in off-duty to attend a birthday party or special occasion, and always left to go home exactly at the end of a shift, regardless of what was happening. They never made any real effort to engage the kids unless it was during work hours and always treated what they did as just a job. Even if they objectively performed well and were skilled and experienced, something remained missing. I found myself categorizing members of my staff team into two groups, those who were flexible and fluid in their contacts with the kids and those who tended to be rigid, maintaining tight boundaries limited to work hours, never really allowing the kids into their "private or personal" space.
I realized then that relationship, certainly in my sphere of experience, seems to have a lot to do with "giving of the self," which includes the ability to convey to the kids a sense of being willing to go beyond the administrative and work boundaries, being willing to stretch the personal boundaries to allow the kids access to oneself beyond narrow confines and shift hours. Of course this is not done without maintaining boundaries and an awareness of the danger of overextending oneself as well as inadvertently giving dangerous messages and feeding profound fantasies, especially in severely deprived kids. However, my observations seemed to indicate that without the willingness and the motivation to offer this kind of relationship to certain kinds of kids, it becomes very difficult to offer a real healing relationship, to access these kids, to reach them.
This led to me to another child and youth care worker who has been on the team for more than eight years now and in all this time has always "allowed" kids into his personal space, inviting them for braais (barbecues), swimming at his home, taking them on hikes during his off time, going camping with them while he is on leave from work! Taking relationship to its extreme, he has set limited boundaries and has managed this successfully. The result: he has been able to develop connections and relationships that have lasted beyond the confines of the residential context with kids returning to visit him as young adults, working, married, or at university!
It was then that I turned to the 12-year-old sitting expectantly next to me and said, "Yeah, let's do it."
His smile was all the confirmation I needed!
Journal of Child and Youth Care, Vol. 13 No.. 2