Raising the Threshold: Towards the Professionalisation of Residential Child Caregivers (Social Wellbeing UOM)

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by Dr. Marian Muscat AzzopardiVisiting Lecturer, Faculty for Social Wellbeing

Introduction

This paper focuses on an essential lacuna in the social welfare provisions that address the wellbeing of children taken into care by the State. It draws attention to one aspect of out-of-home child residential care: the status and role of ‘care workers’. It highlights the importance of introducing statutory measures and resources to ensure that the frontline child care workforce is afforded the professional status that this essential role merits. The criticism of the social welfare problem outlined below is not directed at the level of individuals who are working in out-of-home child care. It is situated in the wider context in which they carry out their work.

The currently proposed Child Protection (Alternative Care) Bill (CPA) is intended, inter alia, “to provide for appropriate alternative care and protection for children deprived of parental care or at the risk of being so” (Art 1 (2)). It invites reflection on the current position regarding what the Bill refers to as child ‘residential care’. The 2018 Social Care Standards Authority Act provides for ‘the regulation of social welfare provided to individuals by public or private entities…” (Art 1 (1)). These are timely and welcome pieces of legislation. However, more needs to be done.

Social welfare provision

 

Children in Out-of-Home Care require specialised and reparative upbringing. Currently, their day-to-day care is provided by persons employed as care workers. The CPA specifies that, inter alia, homes that provide residential child care are to ‘provide initial and on-going training to its staff’ (42(j)). However, there is no reference to minimum entry qualifications or an official register of these key workers. This is not the case in other areas of social welfare provision. The provisions laid out in the 2018 Care Workers Bill do not apply to the specialised quality care that is required to address the holistic wellbeing of children. In fact, the Care Workers Bill defines ‘care work’ as “the provision of personal and practical care services for people with a wide range of illnesses and disabilities including primarily the assistance to service users including both elderly residents or patients and, or their relatives with activities of daily living.” Evidently, this job description is not applicable to the area of residential child care. In residential child care, the persons responsible for the day-to-day care of children are also sharing the responsibility for the holistic development and the upbringing of the child. Their contribution is essential to the 24/7 provision of warm, individualised and holistic care to children within a safe and nurturing environment.

Studies commissioned by the Commissioner for Children have pointed to the requirements regarding frontline professionals in this field. Even though the focus of the Office of the Commissioner’s publication “A Fair Deal” (2006) is narrower, many of the conclusions drawn are applicable to the inclusive and broader area of out-ofhome child care. In her synthesis of this study’s main recommendations that were made by a team of experts, Naudi (2006) cogently states:

“6.3 Caring for professionals Current, as well as past, working conditions for professionals in this field have left much to be desired. These bring about high staff turnover and therefore the loss of knowledge gained from experience. Conditions of work of those who will be recruited to work in this area need to be good enough to ensure the recruitment and retention of suitably qualified personnel (pay; opportunities; training; supervision; support from other professionals; horizontal development).” (p. 13)

Conclusions reached in more recent studies regarding out-of-home child care also call for greater recognition of the professional nature of frontline work. In the Commissioner for Children’s 2012 research study, Abela et al. succinctly encapsulated the salient features of this issue:

“Care workers in this field need to be properly selected, trained, supervised and also adequately wellpaid. This is because the occupation of a care worker is complex and challenging and must be regarded to be at par with the work of other helping professionals.” (p. 100)

The above concurs with the feedback received through public consultation with stakeholders carried out by the Department for Social Welfare Standards (DSWS) (2006). Care providers stated that national minimum qualifications and the professionalization of the sector was required.

Close collaboration

Working in close collaboration with stakeholders that included children in care and young persons who had been in care, National Standards of Out-of-home Child Care were developed within the DSWS and officially launched in 2009. The standards identified the areas of work and the main goals or outcomes that the out-ofhome care sector is expected to achieve. The introduction to these standards is clear about the need for the statutory requirement of suitable qualifications of frontline professionals:

“In order for the standards to be implemented, the competent authorities need to establish the required qualifications of those persons who are responsible for your care and ensure that resources are available for such qualifications to be attained. This will enable the DSWS to ensure that the persons in whose care you are entrusted have the minimum qualifications required.” (p. ix)

In 2012, following intensive collaboration with stakeholders, the DSWS developed draft occupational standards for the sector (DSWS, 2012). In 2014, the DSWS also started collaboration with the National Commission for Further and Higher Education for the publication and public consultation of these occupational standards (DSWS, 2014). It is hoped that these qualifications will be pegged at an appropriate level and refer to a job title that distinguishes it from that of a care worker.

Frontline work

Stakeholders have long suggested that the job title of ‘care worker’ should no longer be applied to frontline work with children in care. Furthermore, a more appropriate and correct nomenclature reflecting the status of this occupation would also make it more feasible for the State to provide the necessary funding and working conditions to attract and retain professionals in this field. This will allow the profession to be pegged at a higher level than it is at present, without affecting the level of the sector of care work that falls under the 2018 Care workers Bill. Furthermore, the motivation for focussing on the need for official recognition of the professional nature of front-line work is based on two main reasons. One reason is that the qualifications of other professionals working in the sector are already regulated and accredited. The other reason is that front-line workers are the ones in whose hands the specialised day-to-day upbringing and reparative care of children is entrusted.

Conclusion

Similar arguments have been brought forward in the U.K. where it is also widely believed that the time is ripe for a conceptual reappraisal of the very nature of the complex task of formal care with a view to giving it the recognition of a profession in its own right (Smith, 2009). In view of this, leading scholars in the field have been extolling the merits of the European Social Pedagogy model of care that has proved to provide much more successful outcomes for children in care (Cameron & Moss, 2007). It is believed that this profession has an important role to play alongside the other professions such as those of the social worker and the psychologist. Comparative research has shown that the participation of the social pedagogue alongside other professions in the out-of-home care of children and young persons is positively correlated to better outcomes along four main indicators: school-leaving age, employment, teen pregnancy and criminal activities (Petrie et al., 2006). In Malta, we could benefit from borrowing insights from such a successful model of care.

To conclude, the ideal of residential care as a positive choice that has good outcomes for children is what should motivate us to aim for a higher professional threshold in the sector. This will be in line with the 2010 UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children which specify that:

“In order to meet the specific psychoemotional, social and other needs of each child without parental care, States should take all necessary measures to ensure that the legislative, policy and financial conditions exist to provide for adequate alternative care options” (Art.53, p.10).

References

Abela, A., Abdilla, N., Abela, C., Camilleri, J., Mercieca, G., & Mercieca, G. (2012). Children in out-of-home care in Malta. Office of the Commissioner for Children, Malta.

Cameron, C., & Moss, P. (2007). Care work in Europe: Current understandings and future directions. London: Routledge.

Department Social Welfare Standards. (2006). Report on the public consultation on: The draft code of conduct and practice for social service workers. Retrieved from https://family.gov.mt/en/DSWS/Documents/consultation_code_conduct.pdf

Department Social Welfare Standards. (2009). National standards for out-of-home child care. Retrieved from https://family.gov.mt/en/DSWS/Documents/Out-of-home-child-care/national_standards.pdf

Department Social Welfare Standards. (2012). Annual report. Retrieved from

https://family.gov.mt/en/DSWS/Documents/DSWS%20Publications/Annual%20reports/annual%20report%202012.pdf

Department Social Welfare Standards. (2014). Annual report. Retrieved from

https://family.gov.mt/en/DSWS/Documents/DSWS%20Publications/Annual%20reports/DSWS%20Annual%20Report%202014.pdf

Naudi, M. (2006). A fair deal: a study on children and young people with very challenging behaviour. Valletta: Office of the Commissioner for Children.

Petrie, P., Boddy, J., Cameron, C., Wigfall, V., & Simon, A. (2006). Working with children in care: European perspectives. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Smith, M. (2009). Rethinking residential child care, positive perspectives. Policy Press. UK.

United Nations. (2010). Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org

 

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