Working in youth centres: spotlight on an exceptional profession

Working in youth centres: spotlight on an exceptional profession

On May 26, the APTS gave a moving presentation at the public hearings held by the special commission on children’s rights and youth protection.1 To mark the occasion, we decided to highlight youth protection workers and the challenges they face. We spoke to Natacha Pelchat, a youth worker at a rehabilitation centre and the APTS provincial representative in Laval.

Natacha Pelchat

As a youth worker in a residential unit ensuring intensive round-the-clock supervision for up to a dozen young people, Natacha has provided support for teens between the ages of 13 and 17 who have behaviour disorders that put their personal safety at risk. Some had run away from home repeatedly, while others had turned to crime or prostitution.

After spending up to 30 days in the residential unit, these teens with special needs are assessed to determine whether they’ve met the objectives set when they were first admitted. If they still aren’t doing better, their stay can be extended.

“For these youths, it’s an opportunity to stop what they’re doing, take some time for themselves without outside influences, and think about what they want to do with their lives,” said Natacha.

A profession that requires determination

Natacha readily admits that the career she’s chosen isn’t an easy one, given the emotional toll it can take, but she finds it motivating to provide practical assistance to young people whose future depends on the support they receive.

She is astounded at the difficulties that workers in youth centres face in obtaining services for the young people in their care, whether it be getting them an appointment with a psychologist or wangling a budget to sign them up for a basketball team so they can develop a new circle of friends.

“Kids who end up in youth centres, especially if they require intensive supervision, should have the right to see a psychologist! It’s not every day that we get to witness success stories. We’re there, above all else, to save lives, but there are so many administrative obstacles standing in our way,” explained Natacha, clearly frustrated by the rigid ways of doing things in the social services system.

Rehabilitation centres have worker-to-client ratios that are gruelling for youth workers, with just two educators for 12 young people in the residential units. These educators need to have eyes in the back of their heads to be able to pre-empt crises or de-escalate those that can’t be avoided.

Urgent investment is needed to increase staff in residential units, in Natacha’s view

She nonetheless recognizes that it’s difficult to recruit workers. Before new recruits can obtain a permanent position, they have to start on the availability list, which means they aren’t able to develop relationships with a regular clientele and don’t have guaranteed earnings or regular work hours. As a result, people aren’t exactly vying for jobs in youth centres. To make matters worse, the budget for replacing absent workers has been slashed in a bid to save a few pennies. As a result, replacement workers are only assigned to work four or five hours of an absent employee’s full work shift.

“This is a big problem in youth centres. Staffing shortages put tremendous pressure on youth workers and cut into the time we devote to meeting with the kids and their families or sharing information with social workers, outside of our supervision duties. This is an essential aspect of our work, but we no longer have time for it,” says Natacha, expressing concern about prospective recruitment and staff renewal. With all these disincentives, she thinks candidates would rather go for jobs that are less demanding and more readily accessible.

The impact of the Barrette reform

Youth centres are still feeling the effects of the last reform in health and social services. Natacha decries the fact that managers and clinical activities specialists have seen their workloads increase. Integrating youth centres into CIUSSS and CISSS megastructures has meant that department heads are now responsible for twice as many residential units as before and face an increased administrative burden, and this has distanced them from their employees and the young people in their care.

“Before, my department head could step in and intervene directly with the kids, to make the dynamic a little less personal and to give the workers some back-up. She was part of the team. That never happens anymore. Supervisors are far too overloaded.”

In Natacha’s view, improvements in youth services depend on greater recognition of the role of youth workers, better working conditions, and adjustments to reflect the specific realities of employees in youth centres.

In the past, these particular realities were recognized in youth workers’ conditions of practice. But when youth centres were integrated into the CISSS and CIUSSS, their working conditions were modelled on those of professionals and technicians in other sectors. These changes were made despite repeated requests from the APTS to take into consideration the special character of youth protection work.

“We need to be able to exercise judgment and be flexible. The quality of the services we offer depends on it. That will be a win-win for youth workers and the kids under our protection!” Natacha concluded. She hopes that the ‘recommend-actions’ presented by the special commission on children’s rights and youth protection will re-energize her coworkers, who have been working to the point of exhaustion for far too long to keep the youth protection system afloat.”

1The brief presented by the APTS to the Commission is available here (in French).

By Maxime Clément | June 18, 2020