An interview with Leon Fulcher and Thom Garfat

Date Posted: Monday, 14 June 2010




In January 2010 Leon Fulcher and Thom Garfat were in England as members of the International Advisory Board  with Foster Care Associates. They  also found time to discuss Child and Youth Care-NET business. They are both members of CYC-NET’s Board of Governors. Indeed Leon is the current chair of the Board. Both kindly allowed me time to interview  them over dinner at the Ladybird Hotel in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. During the interview they talked, among many other things, about CYC-NET, about the nature of  child and youth care, and about training for foster  carers and residential child care workers.

Charles Sharpe


An interview with Leon Fulcher and Thom Garfat 

Professor Leon Fulcher   is an American by birth, a New Zealander by declaration and a UK settlement spouse since 1973.  He qualified as a psychiatric social worker at the University of Washington before gaining his  PhD at Stirling University. He has more than 35 years cross-cultural practice and educational experience with children, young people and their families and elders – in both rural and urban settings – embracing health, education, justice, welfare and indigenous services. As an eminent author, researcher and teacher his areas of interest have included  social work, child and youth care, youth and family care, teamwork and care for the caregivers in foster care, group care and residential child care education.
Thom Garfat, PhD  is Canadian and he has been involved with troubled children and their families, and the staff who work with them for almost forty years as an internationally distinguished practitioner, supervisor, director, teacher, trainer, consultant and author. Currently Thom has a private consultation and training practice, Transform Action.   He is also the co- editor of Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, and co-founder and editor of CYC-NET. Thom will be the keynote speaker at FICE’s 31st International Conference in South Africa later this year.


Charles : One of  the challenges for those who take on the responsibility of developing practice in  child and youth care or residential child care is to keep practitioners involved and interested in their development. It seems to me that this has been a challenge that has been taken up by both of you in the various training initiatives you’ve set up and provided across the globe. You and your colleagues have also created a space at CYC-Net  for everyone interested in our work to express their ideas on any and, it seems to me, every aspect of child and youth care. I wondered how this level of interest can be sustained since it can appear that when people are taking the opportunity to talk  both critically and constructively about child and youth care then the status of the work and more importantly the quality of service to youngsters is sustained.

Leon : I think there is a great deal of theory out there but in practice we have to think of relational challenges too and their influence on the work.  Like where do the kids go ?  Where do the front line staff go ?

Thom : I think we have to figure out how we sustain a high level of professional interest and to do this we have to go with the “tell us a story”  idea. We want to hear your stories. They don’t have to be teaching tales. They don’t have to be academically correct, they just have to be, “So I went to work today and this is what happened” or,  “I talked to this kid today and this is what we talked about.” We just bring real life back into the field. It’s really easy for us to get caught up in all the academia, all the intellectualising, the theorising and forget what lies underneath it all. Now my opinion is that we should discover ourselves. There is a great deal of stuff in the theoretic literature which tells us that it would be really helpful to know who you are. I think that at work  what we are doing is discovering who we are. That is what a lot of the theorising is about. Yes ?  It’s about defining self so that self can be with the other but in the mean time there are also all these people out there too who are taking all my courses and  your courses who are crying out, “But where are the kids man ? that’s what I want to know.” So I think Leon has a good point.

Charles : I only found out about CYC-Net three years  ago and for me it was a revelation. A revelation because one of the struggles in child care and in particular residential child care or child and youth care is to get practitioners to see and understand that their views and what they say are probably the most valid thing that we’ve got. I think  people end up in this work because they want to do something to help others and they want to care but in the end one way or another they don’t feel valued enough to think that things that they say are of any significance. It’s a real struggle to get people who do direct work with kids to write about or to talk about what they do. To find that this can happen is what excited me about CYC-Net.

Leon : Because they’ve not had a history of writing they don’t think they can do it.

Thom : Well if you think of the average child care worker, some may have a  masters degree, PhD, or a social work qualification but most of them have pretty average educations and writing isn’t really part of it.

Leon : Hasn’t been part of it.

Thom : My own experience is that there is a transition we go through from writing exams for courses to writing  essentially for pleasure. Something happens and I think someone has to mentor you in that transition. Gerry Fewster mentored me into writing my first article ; encouraged me and nagged me. Once I’d written my first little piece or two, and they were small little pieces, I found pleasure there. So I think someone has to mentor. Mark Krueger and  others had this wonderful idea to run workshops on writing for the average practitioner at child care conferences. They would put out calls for people to come to their workshop and they would say to would be students, “Even if you’ve just got a draft or just an idea come along and let us just try to help you shape it out.” I did a few of the courses  with them and what happened was people would come, maybe 20 or 18, and we’d break them into groups. This group just had an idea, or this group had scratched out a few outlines and this group had a graph.

Leon : Was that group the one for me ?

Thom : Yes, the ones with the graphs, these were the academics !  I thought the whole thing was a very interesting idea because behind it all was that you had to mentor somebody into writing or to facilitate them into writing and I think that is something we haven’t done at all. We don’t have the same tradition yet that other disciplines or schools have. It’s manifested in the publish or perish idea isn’t it ? You know that at schools in most colleges and universities you have to write something but most child and youth care courses run by colleges in North America tell their students they don’t have to write ! To be a college instructor in child and youth care there is often no expectation that you publish. In Canada we have two child care programmes in universities and they are the only ones who experience the publish or perish phenomena. So writing is not part of the culture.

Charles : I’m reminded of a recent conference I attended held at the Tavistock about the future of residential child care in England and how far it should go down the social pedagogue path or how far it should develop the English therapeutic community model influenced by Winnicott and Dockar Drysdale and people like that. It was interesting that the majority of the delegates were leaders, managers, psychologists and those important people called “budget holders.” Relatively few of the delegates were direct residential child care practitioners. At the conference we split up into smaller work groups of about 20 people and at the beginning everyone seemed positive about having well trained professional staff but 15 minutes into our discussion a consensus had developed, influenced in my view, by people who did not work directly for long periods with children. This consensus seemed to say  “Well not everyone wants a training. Some workers feel quite threatened by the notion of training and not everyone needs to be a social pedagogue or a trained this or a trained that.  If some one just wants to do the domestic tasks then that’s fine.” What happened in this meeting was that in a very short time the group seemed to have agreed that we should just keep things the way they are. Now I’m not saying that people who do this work as a career should necessarily pursue some high level  professional/ academic course but what I am saying is that in some way they should go through a process of learning how to reflect on themselves and their relationships with others.

Leon : Do you think NVQ allows that ?

Charles : No, I think all too often it becomes a process which is about collecting a set of Brownie badges.

Leon : Is it that way because we just give it away to the people who run it who can’t or won’t do what you’re asking even if in fact the NVQ framework may actually be more helpful to what you are suggesting. My sense is we gave NVQ away. We didn’t necessarily like it, so we gave it away and we gave it away to people who could not develop it to its full potential.

Thom : It seems kind of prescriptive I guess to an outsider. Here’s the ten things you need to know in order to change the car oil.

Leon : It is prescriptive, but the content and knowledge base could actually be much more substantial but we haven’t given that to the practitioners. We’ve given it up and the people who teach the S/NVQ are often people who haven’t done the job.

Thom : So by “we” you mean the child and youth care field ?

Leon : Yes, we’ve given it away and so the material which they use is all pretty generic and not very specific to child and youth care.

Thom : And who makes up that material ?

Leon : The people who decide that we’re going to offer NVQ level 3. We are looking at NVQ level 4 now and proactively using it because the opportunity is there to use NVQ level 4 to get supervising social workers to do a better job of supervising but that whole idea of using NVQ level 4 is there. Why don’t we use it ? Why don’t we take control of it ?

Thom : So what is it, because I’m an outsider, this division between the NVQ people –  the ones who make it up –  and the field ? Is there no relationship there.

Leon : Well it’s more that there is NVQ and there’s university post qualifying courses or continuing professional development courses. The NVQ was designed to be field specific.  That’s what it was supposed to be but there was always supposed to be a knowledge base that went with it but the people who run NVQ are often not people who have worked in the field.

Thom : So the NVQ is like a separate entity.

Leon : It’s a vocational qualification.

Thom  :  So NVQ providers are separate from the universities, separate from the field, separate from…..surely they’re supposed to be integrated.

Leon : No they are not to be integrated. University learning  is level 7 and above while  level 4 is where practice and supervising is established.

Thom : They’re kind of like the college/university differential in Canada ?

Leon : Yes, except that NVQ and SVQ are Unit standards based.

Thom : At least you have standards.

Leon : And they’re sitting there but they’re not being used well. Now I maintain, why don’t we use them well ? I actually think a lot of people have just dismissed them because we don’t like them, not realising that they are not going to go away, and so let’s use them. Let’s put in the knowledge base that goes with them rather than just dismissing them.

Charles : I was excited when NVQs came along and I helped introduce a model of it in Devon but I have been disappointed in the direction they have taken and it seems to me the quality control is suspect at best. There is also this political thing that the social work discipline has a stranglehold on those who do direct work with children. You’re right. NVQ has been hi-jacked by government led empirical targets which incidentally are never met. When you do that –  to use the cliché –  it becomes tick box and cost driven rather than driven by the need for quality. It could have been used a lot better. I’m with you if we can save it but from my point of view who is going save it in England apart from the people who see it as a cheap way of claiming that everyone is being trained ?

Leon : I want to use it. It’s there let’s use it positively.

Charles : The trouble in England is that there’s a class thing about qualifications.  When did the last doctor in the UK qualify with an NVQ in medicine. Or when did the last solicitor qualify by having an NVQ in law ?

Leon : It is not part of their training.

Charles : But what other professions gain from their training is not only expertise but also status and that gives them influence. While people may notionally get excited about NVQ being there a significant number of service providers and other interested parties in this country don’t even care if residential carers –  and I think I’m talking about foster carers as well  –  actually complete their NVQ. It’s almost as if it’s enough to say “I’m registered to do NVQ.”

Leon : Well for foster carers the expectation is that they will have to complete an NVQ in order to become registered. That could be a requirement of registration. That’s actually a pretty big thing because most places don’t have registration. So given the point that that’s what you have to have in order to become a registered foster carer, I think that’s pretty good.

Thom : You know there are so many of us older folks, like me, who say we need a more serious qualification but we haven’t put the groundwork into the basic qualification. I’m talking about North America  which I know so well. We hire people with no qualifications.  We let them work with no qualifications. We let them testify in court with no qualifications. And so what happens is that everybody works really hard with this higher status without building the foundation. I think what Foster Care Associates is contemplating doing is making sure people have to do some kind of training and courses. What’s missing here is the idea of reflective practice. I keep thinking of Herb Barnes and his ideas about reflective practice and that this is where we should be going now.

Leon : We sometimes found when we began talking about reflective practice with residential workers in Scotland that they would say “I cannae dae it”   It hasn’t been part of their script.

Thom : Which couldn’t they do ?  The reflective part or the practice part ?

Leon : The practice part not the reflective part. What others say is, “I can’t write.” So what we might also find are foster carers who say, “I can’t record.” My view is that as long as you can’t develop that ability to record you can’t become a foster carer.

Thom : But that’s the position so many of us haven’t taken.  Remember when we were talking to Bill Carty, who is a guy who runs a big child care organisation and his workers have to be members of the child care association and in doing this he is saying we have to raise our expectations of  child and youth care workers.

Charles : You guys certainly get around the world and I wondered what the make up of child provision around the world tends to be, voluntary, private or state run ?

Leon : They’re all funded by the state.

Charles : But who runs them ? As soon as we have a market led culture, suddenly it seems those who are purchasing the services, the local authority social services departments (who never really liked the private sector anyway) are themselves intent on pushing the costs down. Quality must suffer. It’s said that when times are tough as they are now, private sector providers can only be a real force if they’re cutting corners.

Leon : I don’t know. I’ve had to change my view on that.

Charles : I am told in residential child care it can be like that. Providers are forced to cut the quality of their services.

Leon : Well essentially local authority commissioning agents who buy places are looking for a place and usually they consider that it is secondary how much it will cost. First of all they’re looking for a place.

Thom : Yes they’re saying, “I need a bed.”

Leon :  Well, “I need a resource.”

Thom : Well, yes, a resource and then a bed.

Leon : They can’t provide these places themselves and yet they talk of planning for permanency and the most impermanent part of all is created by the continual changes in social workers.

Thom : You know there’s a part of me that thinks when you mention those professions that have status like doctors, like every strong professional group that I can think of, it has a really strong private component to it. A doctor can say to his employer, “If you don’t treat me well I’ll just go into private practice.” The same thing is true for therapists, psychologists and so on. It’s almost as if having a strong private component creates a kind of tension that causes an increase in value of those who work inside the system. I never thought of that before but it’s just a thought for tonight.

Leon : There’s certainly a lot of ideology which would support a state approach that would start by saying “The state should provide this.” The trouble is the state doesn’t provide this. The state talks a lot about foster care but it doesn’t provide foster care because it can’t sustain good foster carers or the people working with good foster carers because they don’t look after them. It is a treat for me to be working with a company that is one eyed about foster care.  They are simply determined that foster care will be a quality service. I really think that’s impressive because that’s where most looked after kids are.

Charles : This isn’t the case in Germany or Denmark where there are more substantial residential services.

Leon : Of course they have the social pedagogue there who can take up with the care for kids in their own home as well and that is  the alternative to foster care.

Thom : I was reading something about abuse in residential care recently and I was thinking that in Canada there are about 40 academic courses that provide training in childhood care in colleges and universities – there are at least 20 of them in Ontario alone and do you know that in only about 5 of those would you find a course in residential care and group care which could include foster care for three ? Yet after foster care, residential care is still the primary employer in childhood care in Canada at the moment. So we have these forty or so different programmes teaching people something other than what it is they are going to be employed to do in the end. It’s key to do all these other things like teaching about reflective practice, about caring for different ages, about counselling and about…..

Leon :  About “anger management ?”

Thom : Yes, but residential child care training is about finding out about caring for the group, living with the group, working the group, using the group to help the individual. All this is lacking in most training and yet every year in Canada millions of dollars are spent on education for childhood care workers to keep children in their own environment and so I ask, “I wonder why there is so much abuse in residential care?”  Well first of all the model is that residential care is not considered a good place to work otherwise the colleges would teach you about it, so by exclusion they are implying that residential care is a lesser environment. Today is the first day of my course on residential care at Ryerson University so I have been thinking about it and I have all these students who are signed up who are working in the school system or some other system and they’re taking this course because they’re interested in residential care but haven’t had the opportunity of learning anything about it and they are doing a four year degree programme and this is all you get; an online short course  about residential care with this one guy – me in this case –  to offer support and now you’re going to go and get a job in it, probably.

Leon : More training than some have.

Thom : Yet here we are taking our most troubled kids and putting them in an environment with the least qualified staff who feel they are not important and are told that real child care work is done when you do it in schools or in families but to see a real residential worker engage in his or her work is like watching a work of art. To see a woman or a guy out there with some half a dozen kids or in some cases twelve managing the whole thing, pulling it all together, dealing with the tensions and getting dinner on the table at the same time……

Leon : They don’t write about it. They don’t write about.

Thom : It’s stunning to watch. One of the best articles I ever read was one in the first issue of the Journal Child and Youth Care Work – Mark Krueger’s Journal. It was entitled something like “What do you do when the kids are all screaming, the police are at the front door or somebody’s circling the house in a helicopter ?” It just  encapsulated the complexity of residential child care.

Charles : I had to learn this work as I went along. I was not a natural. I think are few naturals but someone I did learn from was a woman who was small in stature, quiet and not in any way authoritative and neither did she seek popularity votes but she had such an engaging relationship with the kids. What exuded from this relationship was that she loved the kids in a proper adult way and after watching her with them I worked out that they in turn loved her. It was a particularly difficult group of kids. I was struggling with them. I hadn’t been doing the job for long and in watching her I worked out that her communication with every single child was different.  When they came in from school she didn’t just welcome them all with generalisations like “Hullo, how did your day go?” No, each one got a different message from her that was saying, “This is for you and it could only be for you.”

Thom : You see Charles that fits with the whole idea of what in North America we call and what Leon and I have written about and call “a child view care approach” which is that every interaction with the young person, the worker has to be skilled enough to individualise care so that it is experienced and is interpreted by the young person as something that is specifically for them. The whole idea of a group approach has to be considered too. I was working in the province of Novia Scotia quite a few years back and we were working on the setting out the standards for a college course. One of the things that was written into the standards was that “group responses are not acceptable.” In other words treating everyone the same was not acceptable. For example if you run away and come back tomorrow I am going to respond to you differently than I will to another if he runs away tomorrow. My response will be based on how I know you as an individual. This is differential treatment.

Charles : That’s what if you like “differentiates” the good worker because most of us only feel confident to deal with things using a group response and to use what you call differential treatment needs a special kind of person but not too special a person because I do think these insights and skills  –  to be able in a way to contain chaos  –   can be learnt. Yet if I were to go back a little and relate this to NVQ training some might say that you can’t write about this kind of skill, this kind of interaction but if it can be conscientiously observed by a worker’s supervisor and if the worker is encouraged to reflect on what they have achieved or are not achieving or what is happening in their interactions with children it opens out a path for professional development. If this kind of support and learning were to be a part of NVQ then I think that would give NVQ some validity.

Leon : It’s to do with the coaching they get. If the person who is coaching doesn’t realise there is anything else to coach, then you don’t get very much.

Thom : I want to throw Jack Phelan’s idea in for a moment. He suggests that child care workers develop in stages. In the first stages which Jack argues can last for a couple of years – or forever, if you don’t get the right kind of support  –  you’re primarily concerned as a child and youth care worker with your own safety and security. If I’m concerned with my own safety and security then what I am going to say is, “Well you ran away so therefore this is the consequence.” Now, that I know what I’m doing and because I know what I’m doing, I feel secure, while asking an inexperienced child care worker to differentiate puts the worker in the territory of unclarity and insecurity. Most people don’t get adequate coaching or supervision and in its absence they’re left there and they do what makes them feel safer themselves as opposed to having a good supervisor who says, “So, you’re off balance, you’re anxious. That’s OK, don’t worry about it. We’ll get through this.” Instead the unsupported worker gets anxious, feels off balance and says, “Oh help ! I’ve got to fix this!”  One of the biggest things that we miss in our work is the training of supervisors. In the absence of the training of supervisors front line practitioners are left to their own devices and they fall back on their own insecure self and they can’t reflect because it’s too scary for them. Reflective practice is scary. Reflective practice forces me to say “Could I have, should I have done it differently? Is there a better outcome I could have had?  Is what I’ve been doing effective or not?” That’s very scary territory and you have to be pretty secure to look at yourself  and say, “Wow! I really blew it. I need to work on this area. I need to put more into this area.”  I think that when you’re out there, 19 years old, 20 years old, all by yourself without adequate supervision and all you’ve got to back you up is this older worker sitting in the office chair who’s been through the same thing and hasn’t had supervision himself or herself, who says to you, “Don’t worry about it, just do it this way.”  So this guy gives you something that is prescriptive for something that is abusive or whatever and you feel more secure. I think it’s absolutely outrageous that we put our youngest, least educated staff with our most troubled kids and we give them no supervision or support. Our expectations are so low.

Charles : Occasionally when I am reading a CYC-NET thread I get alarmed not about what is written there for it’s invariably valuable and interesting but more about “Who is helping this person in his or her work ?” At the same time I am saying thank goodness that CYC-NET is there to provide a vast pool of informal support.

Leon : Probably nobody is giving him support at work, that’s the sad part.

Thom : Yeah, probably nobody and support is one of the things we hope CYC-NET offers while we don’t for a second make the assumption we replace good education or training or supervision. What we hope for is that on some days when a young child care worker writes in, someone will respond and say  “You’re doing OK” or maybe someone will say  “I wonder if your ever thought of trying this…”  CYC-NET can give them the opportunity to reflect in the way that they may not be able to do in their work setting. What’s interesting is that I get emails from people saying how many conversations are stimulated behind the scenes by CYC-NET discussions. Others tell me that many people contact each other offline as consequence of CYC-NET threads. They tell me too that these offline contacts have become important and stimulating educative opportunities for them. The international aspect of it is exciting as well. For instance someone from New Zealand will answer someone from Canada and then an offline conversation will begin. Here’s one of my favourite stories. One day a student had written in a comment or a question about something they were doing and a few days later there was a response to it signed by “Henry” suggesting a few things that might be helpful for children as they grow up. And of course no one knew that it was Henry Maier who had written the response because some people just sign off using their first name. A few days later the student wrote back, “Dear Henry, I don’t know who you are or what experience you’ve got but you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about.” One of the things that happens is that because there are old folks and young folks on CYC-NET there is interaction which hopefully helps the younger person.

Charles : It’s the fact that so many people do respond to comments and questions and often put themselves on the line in their response that makes CYC-NET so exciting and I also I like the egalitarian feel that it has.  I sometimes wonder if what CYC-Net offers cannot be channelled into some kind of international force for the education of child and youth care workers but I guess what you don’t want to lose is the spontaneity.

Thom  : What I notice with online discussion groups, and I say this because I also teach courses online, is that you have to tweak them to stimulate them at times. So if somebody writes in a question “We work in a group home and we’ve got this kid who’s just come in and she lights fires. I don’t know what to do. What do you do with fire starters ?”  Most people will write back and say “Well, there’s a programme called ‘Stop Fire Starters Right Away’, and I took that course and it’s really helpful.” That information can be helpful but what is also required is for someone to take a reflective role and rather than just answering the question, someone might respond by writing, “So what are you thinking about when you are thinking about starting a programme that will help a fire starter?” or “What does having a fire starter in your group home mean to you?”  People will answer those kinds of questions because by asking that question they’ve been validated so strongly. CYC-NET works really well when someone takes that responsibility. Historically that has been my role. I think facilitators are not just there to put limits on but they are there to stimulate by asking those reflective questions. And yet you know sometimes you ask those reflective questions and people don’t like it and they’ll say, “What difference does it make what I think about it ?”  Then thirty other people come to your support and say, “Here’s why it is important.” But someone’s got to get into that discussion and pull out this little piece that’s important and put it on the table.  Too often nobody’s asking, “But what’s going on between you and the kid?”

Charles : What’s going on for this particular fire starter ?

Thom : That doesn’t get asked enough.

Charles : What is the role that you are now taking on with CYC-NET  Leon ?

Leon : My role is to be the chair of the board of governors so I’m trying to get a board of  governors that’s active ; that’s looking for materials; that contributes materials and that aren’t just sitting back and letting it all happen.

Thom : Eventually a board if it’s going to be meaningful starts to provide and to shape and to influence direction. Leon’s managed to solicit a number of board members who are knowledgeable and who are in the forefront of their areas who can then look at CYC-Net and perhaps say, “What about this and what about that?” That’s how I would like to see the board  : leading, consulting and influencing somehow what CYC-NET will eventually become.

Charles : I sense from the emails I receive from you Leon that you are someone that likes people who do things as well as those who reflect on them or those like me who merely comment.

Leon : I like people to be active. They don’t have to be but it is a field that lends itself to people being active.

Charles : It’s also a field that lends itself to people saying much but not necessarily doing much. I remember Adrian Ward once saying to me when we were having a discussion at a conference, “All that you’re saying is very well Charles but if you could get up and do it that would be even better.”

Thom : It’s an interesting point because there’s a limited number of writers in our field and in particular there is a limited number of females writing but that’s another story. There’s a limited number of writers and speakers and a huge number of practitioners and what we’re talking about is how we get the voice of the practitioner to be present and I think it’s the same in every field. There’s an even more limited  number of writers who can cause practitioners to react. For instance someone may read something that you write and say, “That’s sounds really good we should get him to talk to our staff,” and they’ll ask you to come and talk to their staff. And so there you are writing and then you’re shaping and you’re talking. There are many more practitioners than there are writers. I was at a meeting once and somebody, a pompous fellow, who is one of the writers in our field said, “I worry about the next generation. Where’s the next generation of leaders ?” There were twenty or thirty of us self important people sitting around a table and he said, “Where’s the next generation of leaders ?  I don’t see them anywhere.”  I said, “Call a meeting, I’ll bring twenty.” I said this because I see them all the time out in the field who are just working and doing, people like Ernie Hilton and Kelly Shaw. They’re taking and doing and writing and doing.

Charles : I would like a debate about that : how we stop leaders charging along on a white horse completely losing touch with the troops.

Thom : I think in an unspoken way we are trying to develop a new kind of leadership in the field of child and youth care. It is more important to have leaders who have solid experience as practitioners as well as qualifications. It’s getting harder and harder to simply be a theoretician and a leader without practice credentials. I’m thinking we need more people like Laura Steckley and Mark Smith. In years past we used to go and listen to psychologists who had great theories or social workers with great theories but who had no experience of practice with kids and now what we’re saying is, “You’ve got to have a solid grounding in the work if you aspire to leadership.” I think this is an interesting transition for us.

Charles : I wanted to ask about the status of our work. It’s a topic which  frequently comes up in CYC-NET discussions and also I wondered what you thought of the relative differences between the British (mainly Scottish) contributors to CYC-Net and say those of the North American ones. I was thinking for instance of the position taken up by some like Jeremy Millar in Scotland who if I read him right suggests that it is difficult to do this work sincerely without regard to its social context which takes into consideration poverty and power and other aspects of society. Should we just turn up to do our job and say, “Well all I’ve got to do is to care for these kids and everything else is extraneous to my work. It just so happens that human society directly and indirectly creates these needy youngsters but that’s no concern of mine. I’m just one of the gals and guys who turn up to help the kids.” I am probing in the darkness of my ignorance here for I sense that in North America there is a tendency not to be political about the work.

Thom : I can only talk about Canada. I think there are groups of workers who consider themselves radical and who concern themselves with social justice but I tend to see more parallels rather than differences between say Canada and Scotland.  One of the things I find most fascinating of all when we think about differences is that the South African Child and Youth Care Association is probably the most powerful I have ever experienced. When it has a national conference it brings all the child and youth care workers together and they actually pass national directives that tell the assocation what they are expected to be doing in the next year in all aspects of the work. It is amazing. They may say for instance that one of the things that the association should be promoting in the next year are community based initiatives in rural communities. The South African CYC Association employs about 25 full time people just to administer it. It attracts millions of dollars every year to do special projects in areas where there is great poverty. It is a model for us all as far as child care associations go. It has strong leaders who are powerful advocates for child and youth care as a profession. It has advocates who have been strong enough to ensure that child and youth care is incorporated under the board for professional practitioners in South Africa. The difference is stunning.  Social context is central to child care in South Africa. The association thinks about children in the context of  AIDS, poverty and oppression but it isn’t making grand political or philosophical statements about it. It is just saying, “This is the reality.” The reality is AIDS, poverty, discrimination, children without parents, the history of apartheid and so on. The association takes all this into consideration and it gets on with the job in hand.

Charles : This is good news. I sometimes think that residential child care or child and youth care as you name it, is in England at least, a profession that doesn’t think too much of itself.

Thom  : I’m not so sure about this. Read a professional journal, social work, psychology or even a medical journal or two and I wonder how many other fields would sit around and say, “It’s all very well all this stuff that these learned people are sending in but what is it the front line doctors or the front line psychologists in private practice are saying?” I wonder if we’re the only field who are actually concerned about this. This is a question. We’re so concerned about it in our field because of where we work in child and youth care whether in residential care or with groups of students in schools. We are so concerned with the voice of young people and the voice of the practitioner. I am not certain that the average medical association is so concerned about the voice of the patient or the average psychological association is concerned with the voice of the clients. So maybe part of the struggle we have to get people to write is because we are trying to do something different which is trying to encourage the voice of the practitioner, the voice of the encounter and I don’t think other fields bother with this. Every six months I go to my doctor for a condition I have. He says “How you doing?”  I say, “ Oh I don’t know, I got a headache. The kind I get every couple of months or so.”  He says “How’s your blood pressure ?”  You know the kind of discussion.

Leon  : The voice of routine.

Thom  : The voice of routine.  Your average child care practitioner is more concerned about the voice of the child rather than the voice of routine.

Charles  :  This brings us back to the NVQ and how it would be a relevant training worth pursuing if it could be made to be a reflective form of training ; if it listened to the voice of the child, and enabled the worker to be more aware of her own voice.  I know reflective is a buzz word just now and reflective practice is an “in phrase” but they mean so much more than what is usually neatly fitted into a short training module. Reflective practice demands a whole new way of being while at work. I think that if you are speaking about or you are writing about your relationship with kids then you are on the first rung of the reflective practice ladder. Whatever the quality, if you’re saying something, even if your syntax is poor and you’re not grammatically correct, you are being reflective and with the support of a good supervisor your reflection can be thought about and interpreted in order to help the child and develop the practitioner. This is the beginning of reflective practice.

Thom  : I think that’s right. If you want to be doctor you have to do an internship and be supervised for a long period of time by someone who is always asking you a lot of questions. There’s a TV show called “House.” It’s about a hospital. It’s not great TV but what’s good is the head doctor is always making his people think.  He may be a lunatic but he’s always making them think. Now if you’re going to get qualified in psychology, medicine and the rest there is a demand that you think by using the supervisory process and before you can set yourself up as an independent practitioner you have to have gone through this ritual of reflection and there is no ritual of reflection in our field. It’s like “Congratulations you’ve done your two courses so away you go now.” Then they send you out there to be supervised by someone who has never been through the ritual of reflection. I come back to my earlier point, I think it’s a failure of supervision.

Leon  : If the supervisory model isn’t there then nothing really works.

Thom : That’s right. A friend  and I ran a training programme for supervisors in residential care in a province in Canada which went on for 14 months. Once a month we met with all the residential staff and they were just blown away after about six months. They would say, “I’ve never thought about the work like that.” In fact they never used to think about it all. The supervisors began to realise that their job was to engage with the staff with the same qualities of experience that they wanted the staff to engage with the kids. It had never dawned on them that they had to talk about practice. Supervision as they thought about it was the lowest item on their list. We asked the supervisors to prioritise the things they did in their work and the first thing was writing reports.  Then there was the administrative paper work they had to do to make sure the staff got paid, and finally if there was time, they would talk with the staff about what to do with the kids. The biggest and most dramatic change that came about from the training – because it was a real battle  – was to get them to talk on the idea of helping the staff  to engage with the kids. Even then there were observations about the situation such as if the report doesn’t get done the service is good and if the report does get done then the service is not good. It was making a shift from this that was a struggle because the pattern of work in place was what they were rewarded for. They were rewarded for the paperwork not for the service to the kids. If the reports were on time, if the administrative paper work was on time that was when the big bosses said good work was being done. Nobody was ever saying “Well done for that intervention you made with Mary when she wanted to stab the cook.” I think the failure to provide good supervisory experience remains a major problem in our the field and very few courses in child and youth care teach supervision to any great depth.

Charles  : Thanks to both of you for spending this time with me and thanks Thom for treating us to dinner.