Imagine deciding tomorrow to hang a sign on your door and start taking patients as a dentist or a massage therapist or a podiatrist. Currently in most places in Australia – if not all – pretty much anyone can claim the title “youth worker” and start working with young people. While this is not necessarily negative, the diverse nature of the qualifications and experience these workers hold presents some challenges. In particular, it raises the question - what constitutes professional youth work practice?
A Code of Ethics offers an opportunity for an industry or sector to articulate the elements of practice that define why the work they do is valuable and unique. It also attempts to set a benchmark for the quality ways of working that we should aim for. For youth workers a code of ethics describes the principles that drive the work we do in improving the lives of young people in Australia. It also describes the practice responsibilities of youth workers that ensure the high level of professionalism that we should uphold. Another important facet of a code of ethics is its use as a tool to describe the work we do to the broader community, to differentiate how we work and the value of that work from other professions.
In Victoria YACVic is very proud to have developed our Code of Ethical Practice, following an extensive consultation process with youth workers, youth service organisations, youth work educators, employers of youth workers and young people themselves. It was truly a collaborative process.
A Code of Ethical Practice prompts us to reflect on the work we do, but it also raises questions for us to consider as a sector in terms of how we want to move forward – what next steps we need to take. A key question that the development of the Code has raised in Victoria is whether we should establish a professional association of youth workers. The Code has acted as a driver for us to ask the questions, who decides who falls under the reach of this document and how should we regulate it.
A code of ethics is a very ancient form of agreement by which a group of people holds itself to a common set of commitments. Modern examples include not only the professional codes, but documents like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is not, primarily, a set of rules, though it can include rules. It is more than a values statement, though it includes values statements. It is more than a code of practice, though it might specify practices. Primarily, it is a statement of identity: a statement that says ‘This is who we are, this is what we stand for, and these are the standards that we hold ourselves to’.
A key aspect of a code of ethics is that it is bigger than an individual. This is the source of many of the criticisms. In signing up to a code of ethics for youth work we relinquish the right to do whatever we want to in a youth work relationship, and to define as youth work anything we want to. We accept that youth work is a community of practice in which we participate, not just something of our own invention, and that our practice, if it is to be called youth work, is accountable to that community. It is not a passive participation, nor is it uncritical: if there are ways that the community of practice has it wrong (and there always are) participation involves the right, and perhaps the obligation, to contribute to change.
But this is also its strength. This is not just about us as individuals. We are part of a 170 year old tradition of seeing what is happening to young people, and engaging with them in ways that enhance their capacity to act, to take ownership of their lives and, even in the face of constraints and limitations, to recognise that their lives belong to them. When governments want to co-opt this relationship with young people for their own purposes, or when managers want us to coerce young people into this or that activity in order to improve the stats, or when other professionals want us to join with them in ‘pulling young people into line’ and it is time to stand up and say ‘No’, it is not just us as individuals. It is not just a question of a particular troublesome employee or maverick practitioner. It is the individual, and their colleagues at their shoulder, and the community of practice stretching back through time and across cultures and international boundaries, constituted by documents like the code of ethics. It is something bigger than saying ‘I disagree with this’. It is saying ‘This is unethical’. And it isn’t just one person saying so.
That is the outward face of a code of ethics. There is an inward face as well: a code of ethics disciplines the way we work. However, if it is written well, the code disciplines practice in the way that we would want it to be disciplined. Fears that this will lead to conservative and cautious youth work, dominated by top-down controls have not materialised: a code of ethics has had currency in Western Australia since 1997, and there is no evidence that practice there is more conservative than elsewhere. It is significant that there is remarkable agreement in youth work codes of ethics across all of the national contexts in which a code has been developed: in many, many conversations about ethics over the last fifteen years, across several different countries, core principles are generally not in dispute.
There are, of course, other ways to promote ethical practice. The approach in South Australia has been to provide a guide for practitioners to develop their own individual ethical position. This kind of training is really important. But I don’t think it is enough. In principle, ethical positions are collective, not individual. As individuals we are susceptible to rationalisation, self-justification, and petty corruption. It is through agreed principles that we are able to hold ourselves accountable through the knowledge that we don’t just have to convince ourselves (which we are often very adept at doing) that our action is ok. And ethical thinking can be difficult. To place the burden of developing and maintaining a coherent ethical position on (in our context, often untrained) individuals seems a high expectation. And, perhaps, a bit disingenuous. Are we really on for a situation where if someone (or some organisation) says they believe their practice is ethical, then it is?
A persistent problem for youth work has been in its capacity to articulate its practice. Core documents like a code of ethics provide concepts and forms of language around which we can develop consistency and clarity about our work, about its (sometimes critical) relationship to other practices, and its claim for legitimacy. Codes of ethics do draw boundaries, they do institute limits, but these limits also enable and empower, creating structure and freedom for creativity and innovation (and, indeed, radicalism) by naming what is essential and what is not, and the terms under which solidarity and collective action can be enjoined.
Western Australian youth workers have been functioning with a voluntary code of ethics since it was adopted by the Youth Affairs Council WA in 2003. I was a baby youth worker finishing my degree at the time so my youth work practice has grown up with the guidance of this code.
The WA Code of Ethics has been pivotal in helping me define my identity as a “Youth Worker”. The field has grown up knowing that we’re in the “helping professions” and that we focus on “youth”, but each worker would interpret this differently. In fact anyone could really call themselves a “Youth Worker”. Workers may be: Youth Activists, Youth Advocates, Youth Mentors, Youth Counsellors, Youth Recreation Leaders, Youth Chaplains, Youth Educators, anything with youth really. “Youth Workers” were just people who work with youth. The code of ethics helps us to cut through this sea of “anonymous workers with youth”. When I’m working with a Social Worker and a Physiologist with a young person, I know what my role is, and using the code of ethics, I can let the other workers know what I will and won’t do, working with this young person. We’re all “Workers with Youth” but a code of ethics helps me efficiently define my ideology and purpose as a “Youth Worker”.
This leads onto my second point. The WA Code of Ethics has been excellent tool to communicate with young people about what I do, and don’t do. We’re all familiar with the contracting that happens when we first initiate a working relationship with a young person, we let them know what we can do for them. Me to young person: “I’m happy to EMPOWER you with information and skills to get a job, but I can’t pay you to clean my house. That would be a BOUNDRY issue”. A code of ethics gives young people a clear idea of what their youth workers can, and sometimes can’t, do for them. I’ll be excited to see young people directly involved in the development of a National Code of Ethics and then empowered to keep their youth workers accountable to it.
A code of ethics not only gives a framework to the discussions we have with young people but also with other youth workers in the field. Youth work can be very diverse. Working with young people in rural areas is very different to urban centres. We dare not work with CaLD young people in the same way as Aboriginal young people. A code of ethics gives us a framework for considering our ethical practice in our unique situations. One male worker can argue that having a lunchtime Birthday beer with an 18 year old in a rural setting is totally ethical, whereas his female urban equivalent can see that action as very unethical. Both these workers can have this debate within the framework that a code of ethics gives us. And strangely enough, both can be right. A code of ethics gives us the framework for good, rigorous ethical debate, without tying workers to a strict set of rules. It gives workers parameters to create inventive, and ethical, youth work practice.
A National Youth Work Code of Ethics will give us a national framework to know who we are, will help Australian young people know what they can expect from us and will give us a potent tool for developing future ethical youth work practice.