Therapeutic residential workers? Who are we?

This blog is to introduce my recent research with therapeutic residential workers. Further blogs and practice guides relating to finding, keeping, acknowledging and celebrating the best person for the job of Therapeutic Residential Care Worker and Managers will be developed in coming months. Keep an eye out for them!

Why did I do this research?


After 35 years of residential work watching many amazing workers with young people in pain, I decided as a residential worker to go the next step and do my Doctoral research on identifying the characteristics (types of knowledge) residential youth workers with high-risk young people bring to the field of residential work? In my study, “Identifying artistry in youth residential workers: Fact or fiction?”, I interviewed 15 Therapeutic Residential workers who had been in the field for a minimum of ten years who were seen by their colleagues as coaches/mentors.

As therapeutic models of residential care increase across Australia and around the world it has become even more important that we think about what makes a good therapeutic residential care worker.

Therapeutic Residential Workers


I like the way Garfat and Fulcher (2012 p.1) think about the role of a therapeutic residential worker as…

 “…a way of being in the world. It is more than a set of techniques, a label attached to practitioners, or a way of thinking about working with children, young people and families. It is, rather, about how one chooses to be in the world with others.”

It is a focused, timely, practical and above all, immediately responsive form of helping which uses “applied learning and daily uses of knowledge to inform responsive daily encounters with children and young people” (Fulcher 2004, p. 34). It is immediate and focuses on the moment it is occurring. It allows for the individual to learn and practice new thoughts, feelings, and actions in the most important areas of their lives – daily life as they are living it. Workers develop a theory of work as they are doing it – what is in front of them at a particular time. These theories are difficult to articulate thus making the transfer of these skills only possible through mentoring and coaching. (Clark 2000; Bristow 2019)

Have you ever watched

  • a therapeutic residential worker ‘being with’ a group of young people in a residential home who just seems to effortlessly engage them. or interviewed someone and quite quickly thought they would be great in residential care?
  • a worker walks into a room and immediately calm the situation? They just seem to have a certain ‘something’ – a type of presence, artistry or intuition which is very hard to describe.

What is it? How do we identify the multiplicity of skills they bring and the ability to learn and apply theories to practice in this complex, often difficult, heartbreaking and/or exhilarating relationship-based, complex long-term care and nurturing?

Have you thought to ask an experienced therapeutic residential worker how they managed an extremely difficult situation, often alone – at night/weekends and they just answer (whilst looking at you a little quizzically) ‘we just did it – that’s what we do!”

Not much is known about these fabulous people and the work they do. The world would rather not know what can and does happen to their children and young people. Much publicity about this industry falls in the category of moral panic (often historically warranted), which always focusses on the negative outcomes, never the amazing stories of love, commitment and success of the kids and families we care for. It would be great to request unidentifiable stories from workers to highlight this. 

What does the research literature tell us?

My study highlighted a lack of research into the necessary characteristics of residential care workers to support the recruitment of the right people for work in therapeutic residential care.

Available research did not provide information regarding who the people were, what made them apply for the position or have any understanding of their life journeys.

The important questions of where did they come from? What impacted on their lives? What sent them on this journey into therapeutic residential care? What are the types of knowledge they bring with them to the field? And where did this special knowledge and understanding develop or come from? Was unknown in the literature.

What was helpful in the literature?

What stood out in the literature was the number of references to ‘intuition’, ‘gut feelings’ and ‘just knowing’ with reference to the importance of ‘a knowing’ or essence of a person – even ‘mother wit’.

These are but a few examples from the literature of hard-to-name characteristics of residential workers that illustrate this idea:

  • Youth workers ‘twinkle’ – they are alive – especially in their eyes, which invite mine; tense, eager
  • They have a presence and individuality– the way they smile, walk stand, engage, and something else that’s hard to identify
  • “The spark – this personality trait is critical when dealing with youth. It is easy to determine who has the spark. I often hire from the spark then see what training is required”
  • They are intuitive, creative and spiritual
  • They have spiritual depth
  • They have it!
  • You just know…
  • They have an artistry you can’t totally explain
  • They know their territory
  • Playful (without frivolity). It is how youth workers express their twinkle, their joy, their bounciness, and their focused intensity. It makes it hard to walk away.
  • “… they have it – but you can’t explain it”
  • “You know immediately when you see it but it’s hard to explain”
  • “You know – that gut feeling – the knowing – you just know when you see it”

These are not skills or strengths that we see identified in position descriptions or on the adverts for the role of therapeutic residential workers very often.

Key messages from my study  

I found four different types of knowledge exceptional workers bring to the field of Therapeutic Residential Care and identified how they developed over their lives:

  1. Intuitive ‘artistry’,
  2. the impact of their life journey,
  3. their social networks and learning. and
  4. formal learning/training which together explains the enormous range of skills and knowledge making up their commitment and love for residential work and young people.
Critical findings


Whilst many of the workers in the research had little or no relevant qualifications at the point of entry to the field, all of them – following employment completed multiple tertiary qualifications. They all confirmed the importance of ‘getting the right person for the job’ and then using this passion to undertake ongoing training, learning, and development to benefit themselves and the young people and their colleagues


This study set out to research the question “Identifying artistry in youth residential workers: Fact or fiction?”- It is Fact!

Ernest Hemingway wrote “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.

As a researcher it was important for me to find a research method which respected the stories of the residential care workers and allowed me to meaningfully analyse, honour and respect the voices and experiences of the work of therapeutic residential workers who often have a language all their own. I didn’t want to miss anything. Part of my approach was to draw out and put together all the ‘I statements’ in the stories to emotionally engage everyone and to resist the urge to turn a participant’s celebrated life story into a flat and single narrative.

By following these ‘‘I’’ statements I listened for their ‘‘thoughts, desires, wishes, needs, conflicts, and even the silences – to get the “sense of I” – What is he or she really saying/thinking?

To illustrate this the following is a poem, drawn from “I statements” made across the interviews. I think this describes who I am and what I do which I always had trouble explaining prior to this research:

“I believe a supportive relational organisational culture is paramount

I would never ask anyone to do anything I wasn’t prepared to do

I think the ‘being there for staff teams’ is the best thing you can do

I don’t judge

I work hard on positive caring relationships

I want workers in this field to be valued for the magnificent work they do

I totally believe they deserve it

I firmly believe that ‘whatever we do for children and young people we must do for each other


Question for Reflection:


  • How do you think about your role or the roles of therapeutic residential care workers? What makes you / them good at their job?

I would love to hear your thoughts as this level of research is rarely designed with and for residential workers.

Dr. Glenys Bristow
Senior Advisor, Centre for Excellence in Therapeutic Care


Angelou, Maya. Date Unknown. “Mother Wit: What black old people used to call ‘mother wit’ means intelligence that you had in your mother’s womb. That’s what you rely on. You know what’s right to do.”

Bristow, G. 2019, What are the characteristics (type of knowledge) Residential Workers with high risk young people bring to the field of Residential Work, Identifying Artistry in Residential Work – Fact or Fiction? Doctoral research, Victoria University

Clark, R 2000, ‘It has to be more than a job’: a search for exceptional practice with troubled adolescents, Deakin Human Services Australia.

Fulcher, L 2004, Programs and Praxis: A review of taken for granted knowledge, Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 33–34.

Garfat, T & Fulcher, L 2012, Applications of a Child and Youth Care Approach, Relational Youth and Child Care Practice, vol. 24, no. 1–2.

Garfat, T & Fulcher, L 2012, Characteristics of a Youth and Child Care Approach, Child and Youth Care Approaches. Viewed 10 January 2014.

Morton, J, Clark, R & Pead, J 1999, When care is not enough, A review of intensive therapeutic and residential service options for young people in out-of-home care who manifest severe emotional and behavioural disturbance and have suffered serious abuse or neglect in early childhood, ResearchGate, Department of Human Services.