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Celebrating the Important Role of Child and Youth Care Workers

Nicole Brown's picture

Jakes Jacobs serves breakfast to boys living on the streets of Cape Town, South Africa in order to develop a rapport with the kids. Shelton Tshuna ensures children affected by HIV in Chinotima, Zimbabwe, receive ART treatments and attend school. In Umbumbulu, South Africa, Lungi Mkhize provides development and therapeutic care to vulnerable and at-risk youth.

Child and youth care workers (CYCWs) focus on the infant, child and adolescent within the context of family, the community and the life span. This unique work is carried out wherever children live, play or learn.

This week, during the annual Child and Youth Care Workers’ Week and on Thank a Youth Worker Day, we recognize the passionate contributions and dedication of those in the child and youth care field. This special week is an opportunity to celebrate the important role this cadre plays in improving wellbeing for vulnerable children while sharing information about this growing profession.

The 1992 meeting of the International Child and Youth Care Education Consortium adopted a formal definition of child and youth care practice: Child and Youth Care practice includes skills in assessing client and program needs, designing and implementing programs and planned environments, integrating developmental, preventive and therapeutic requirements into the life space, contributing to the development of knowledge and professions, and participating in systems interventions through direct care, supervision, administration, teaching, research, consultation and advocacy.

CYCWs build relationships with children through interaction in typical daily routines. They act as a child’s confidant and provide support in any area as needed in a child’s life. They stay with the child and family until their help is no longer needed.

For Jakes Jacobs and his colleagues, building relationships starts by cooking breakfast for street children at a drop-in center, where they discuss street life, careers, family, drugs and gangs. “It takes time to win their trust,” he says. He then follows up on what the children tell him by making home visits to assess a child’s family’s situation, provide food or school uniforms if needed, and determines if reintegration is possible. In his experience, it can take two to three years of hard work to persuade a child who has been on the streets for some time to begin to risk change. “If there are tantrums and crying along the way, these signal success because they show engagement. These signs of engagement are markers in the progression from street life to shelter to a children’s home to the family home of origin.”

As the profession continues to grow, so, too, do the opportunities for career advancement. There are now many universities around the globe offering advanced degrees in child and youth care work as well as many specialized certificate programs for the myriad of skills necessary for this career path. Several organizations and professional associations have been created specifically to support child and youth care workers.

One such association is the National Association of Child Care Workers in South Africa, for which Lungi works. They have developed a unique model for training child and youth care workers to meet needs in their immediate communities. Meaning “courage” in IsiZulu, the Isibindi program is training 10,000 child and youth care workers through a five-year scale up funded by PEPFAR through USAID.

“I’m happy to advocate for child and youth and be of service in 18 different communities in my area,” says Lungi. “I’m also proud to have had an impact on over 400 orphaned, vulnerable and at-risk children, youth and their families. One must always remember that if you help a child develop, you help our nation develop.”

Aspects of the Isibindi program are being replicated or built upon by the National Association of Child Care Workers Zambia and the governments of Zimbabwe and Kenya.

The Para Professional Interest Group of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance has drawn from the expertise of NACCW and many others to develop a competency framework, guiding principles and functions for para professionals that includes a section on functions and competencies specific to child and youth care workers. The framework has been field tested and the first edition was released during Social Service Workforce Week in September 2015.

While this week is a specific occasion to recognize and thank people like Jakes, Shelton and Lungi, every day of the year we are appreciative to the hard work of the countless CYCWs who make a difference in our communities.

You can help recognize and promote the work of child and youth care workers. Learn more about child and youth care work from these organizations: