People some times assume that because the Restorative Approach emphasizes relationships and speaking from the heart, we are throwing out the idea of boundaries. Quite the opposite is true! For relationships to be safe and healing, the boundaries must be clear, reliable and trustworthy. This is even true of personal relationships, and it is all the more true of professional relationships.
Because abuse is in its essence a violation of boundaries, it is especially important that we pay attention to boundaries when working with abused clients. Our children have experienced major boundary violations, such as sexual abuse. They have also experienced many other chronic, less obvious boundary problems. Many of our children have had to handle responsibilities far beyond was is reasonable for their age, such as an eight year old being responsible for her two year old sister. They have been way too involved in adult issues, such as being worried about the rent or finding food. They have been exposed to adult sexuality and to relationship worries. They have had to parent their parents- care for a sick mother, listen to parental problems, help ease a parent’s depression.
Often times within these inappropriate adult responsibilities our children have found great satisfaction. Janeese is proud that she of kept her two year old sister safe. Louis feels good about having been the man of the house while his mother was sick. Darlene felt special when her mother confided her problems with her latest boyfriend.
Also, being aware of adult issues and taking on adult responsibility is a survival strategy. The adults that these children have known were not capable of protecting them. If the kids didn’t do it, no one would. So when Jackie asks her therapist fourteen times if she has called her DCF worker to approve a visit yet, and also places a call to the worker herself, it is because she has no experience that adults will do what they promise to do, and she has much more experience that if she wants something done she has to do it herself.
So we come along and say- it’s okay, we will take care of everything, you can relax and be a kid now- our children’s answer is "yeah, right." They don’t believe us- and they don’t want to give up the sense of competence and strength that they have developed.
Our children pull for boundary violations. They are eager to become staff’s best friend. They try to engage with staff sexually. They continually test, asking with their behavior: who are you to me? Can I trust you? Are you really who you say you are?
It is up to us, as adults, to maintain the boundaries. We are professionals, and our relationships with the children must be primarily to meet their needs, not to meet ours.
We ask staff to speak from the heart. Yet there is a big difference between saying:
"You ran away last night and I was worried about you. I was wondering if you were safe."
"You ran away last night and I was worried about you, and I haven’t been sleeping anyway because of my financial problems and the fact that my grandmother is sick and I can’t believe you added to my stress."
Some boundaries are clear cut:
Do not have sex with the kids. Or with their families.
But within our field there are a lot of gray areas, and a lot of disagreement between treaters. Many boundary issues arise out of good intentions- someone wants to do something extra for a child, someone feels compassion for a family.
Here are some examples of the many issues that can arise:
Margaret is a teacher and one of her students, Rachel, is having an especially hard time as her mother has disappeared and no one knows where she is. Margaret plans to come in and take Rachel to lunch this Saturday to help her through this.
Danny’s mother felt that his team mate, Seth, was particularly kind and sensitive to her during a recent episode when Danny ran away and was missing over night. She brings Seth a $30 gift certificate to a local restaurant as a thank you.
Doug recently bought his son some new expensive sneakers, and his son wore them once and didn’t like them. It is too late to return them, but he knows that Jarell is just the same shoe size as his son so he brings the sneakers in for Jarell.
Sarah is a therapist and is seeing Anita’s family. They can’t concentrate on their issues with Anita because they tell her they do not have any food in the house and do not know where to get any for that night. Sarah wonders if she should just give them $20.
Many other dilemmas arise. The issue of staff/child touch is a particularly sensitive one, and different agencies have different policies around this. Another area fraught with complications is when a staff or a child leaves the agency.
Amidst this morass of complexity, how is a staff member to know what to do? The answer is simple: talk about it. First, know and consult your agency’s boundary policy. Yet no policy can cover all the decisions we are faced with. So if you are considering doing anything out side your job description, before you say anything to the child or family, discuss it with your supervisor and/or your team. What would be the effect of this action on the child? On the group? On other staff? Are you making any implicit unrealistic promises about your role to the child? How will you feel if you do this extra thing and then the next day the child is mean to you? There are many sides that must be considered. Supervisors and team members must be alert to boundary issues on their team, and challenge decisions that seem problematic, even at the risk of seeming like the Scrooge of the team.
No matter what treatment system we are using, boundaries are crucial in creating healing relationships. Supervision and team discussions are our most powerful tools to sort through the complexity and do what is right for the children. The children cannot grow and change unless they feel completely safe in the strong, clear relationships we offer them.
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