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Paper

Gifts between family support workers and families: an unacknowledged topic

abstract

Background. In France, social work has been constructed and theorised in opposition to charity. If charity theorises the exchanges mainly from giver to receiver, professionalism excludes the idea of exchanges as they are considered to be incompatible with the very notion of autonomy.

The family support workers (FSWs) spend a lot of time with families for domestic and educational tasks. The child protection services ask them to work with families when the parents have educational difficulties with their children, often young children. By supporting parents, their intervention avoids out-of-home care or allows a progressive return to the home. In their daily activities, they gradually gain parents' trust.

These gifts although often important in everyday relationships, are nevertheless criticised by some employers. Sometimes they consider exchanges as professional faults and then nobody dares to speak about them. Other managers try to help family support workers to keep a correct distance and to give without being too involved.

By Using Mauss' theory of the gift and Paul Fustier's work on the supporting link, the purpose is to examine all sorts of gifts between family support worker and families. This question is in the core of the professional activity, despite the difficulty of proposing "evidence-based practices". The topic is not unanimously regarded as a professional matter.

Purpose of the research. What roles do the different types of exchanges: objects, time, attention, services or relationships play? In which direction do these exchanges take place: are gifts given by families to support workers or by support workers to families? Which exchanges are permitted by associations that employ the family support workers? Which ones escape their control?

The data was collected by an ethnographic methodology. The participatory observation took place for four hours each week, for three months, in nine families, beside five family support workers, in two associations. At the end of the trimester, the professional and the family were met separately for an interview. Furthermore, we did interviews with the managers of several associations, including the two observed associations.

Key findings and implications. We can describe three kinds of gifts:

  • the gifts managed by the associations, from the FSWs to the families (gift of availability, objects given in an educational strategy, objects given after having been in the attic of the association);
  • the gifts outside the control of the association, but that take place in the activity, from FSW to the family, and/or conversely (coffee, cigarettes, objects or services given, phone calls to the ill FSW, personal information from the FSW about her family, public acknowledgement of her job, ecc.). The FSWs accompany the daily life of people in need. In this hard job, we see that there is very little money for helping the FSW by supervision with qualified professionals, such as a psycho-sociologist, for example;
  • the gifts clearly considered by the FSW as unpaid work (time with the family in mourning, a FSW godmother to a child, etc.).

In short, we noted that the FSWs use different strategies to give without appearing to do so. They seek to legitimate the gift by the educational aim and they undervalue the gifts. Sometimes, they try to organize reciprocity to avoid the families feeling to be in debt. However, in other cases, they openly expose a part of their activity as voluntary help. Thus, they locate certain gifts out of the professional field, in agreement with the families.

Recommendations. These recommendations are for the managers who manage teams of service or social professionals:

  • consider that exchanges are a normal practice in professional relationships in service and social trades;
  • create or strengthen new strategies to give with less personal involvement, and more collective conscience (such as in the example of the attic);
  • create or maintain a minimum of supervision for the service and social professions. The supervision would be led by external professionals, not involved in hierarchic relations;
  • ensure that professionals have the opportunity and the time to discuss these sensitive issues and their contexts in the relationships.

The question of gifts is an example of topics at the heart of the relationships that service and social professionals share with families in daily life. In this way, it would be possible to highlight specific abilities developed by these professions who are in very close contact with the target population in child protection. This recommendation could be done in conjunction with research.

Key references

Fustier, P. (2000). Le lien d'accompagnement. Entre don et contrat salarial. Paris: Dunod.

Mauss, M. (1923-1924). Essai sur le don, Année sociologique. In Mauss M. (1950). Sociologie et anthropologie. Paris: PUF.

Tillard, B. (2004). Les interactions entre les familles et les technicien(ne)s d'intervention sociale et familiale [TISF]. Lille: Uriopss Nord-Pas-de-Calais. http://www.oned.

gouv.fr/recherche.htm

Tillard, B. (2007). Anthropological contribution to family intervention studies. In Grietens, H., Knorth, E., Durning, P. & Dumas, J. (Eds.), Promoting Competence in Children and Families: Scientific Perspectives on Resilience and Vulnerability (pp. 345-357). Leuven: Leuven University Press.

 

Contacts. Bernadette Tillard, University of Lille3, associated research member of Paris X-Nanterre, 8 avenue des roses 59790 Ronchin, France. E-mail: bernadette.tillard@free.fr.

 

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