Learning to Listen—What I Learned from My Fulbright Experience In Portugal

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I entered my career in the Academy with a drive to study ways to help to improve the care of children in out-of-home placement in the United States. Over the course of my 25 years in (and out) of the Academy, my focus transitioned to the “outcomes” of out-of-home “treatment” for maltreated children and away from the maltreated children who drove me to this line of work in the first place and their rights that they had as human beings to a safe, nurturing, and loving home. Before I left for my Fulbright experience in Porto Portugal in September 2017, I had stopped taking the time to listen and reflect, and this was negatively impacting my research. I was no longer focused on the process and listening to the experiences for children and staff.

I realized that my perspective was being narrowed by my context of large datasets and secondary data and that I needed to go to another country and look at the situation of residential care with “new glasses” if I was to be of any use to children and their families here in the United States.  My best chance of doing this was through a Fulbright.  But I had doubts.  While I was proud of the body and the quality of my research scholarship and teaching, I knew that it was a “small” career with a small “c” in the perspective of the Academy.  A “big career” in the Academy is often one that is driven by the quantity of papers and grants that one is able to produce, and not the way in which that scholarly activity changes the world. Therefore, my surprise, delight and anxiety of being awarded a Fulbright to Portugal were equal in measure.

To be successful in achieving Fulbright’s mission, and the goal of my research and teaching, I had to re-learn how to listen and not be so quick with answers and solutions.  This later part would be easy as my Portuguese was at a toddler level of fluency and not up to speaking in complex sentences!  Consequently, I had to read body language, listen very carefully and observe and ask simple questions. This would prove to be particularly important in understanding why institutional care is utilized in Portugal at a much higher rate than any other Western European nation.  According to the 2016 report authored by Instituto da Segurança Social, 62% of children were in long term residential care (institutional, group homes), 26% were in temporary small group home care (also institutional) which is approximately 88% of all children in out-of-home care who have been referred for reasons of maltreatment.  In contrast, only 3% were in foster care.

Being in Portugal for an extended period and observing and interviewing helped me to understand that this is a complex situation not given to simple solutions.  Culturally, there is a religious history of institutions, and a strong tradition of family. There is no history of people being “paid” to make children family members.  In addition, working in a group home or institution is a career. People can spend their lives in this work which is the case in the United States in only a small handful of model organizations.  On political and economic levels, the government is neither structured for nor is there a history of ‘risk taking’ for financing innovative practices to develop alternatives to long-term residential care for children.

More importantly, during my time in Portugal I changed my view about residential care.  Initially I had a negative view of residential homes.  But I came to appreciate how these were homes, even if they did not look like a typical home.   Even the language used in Portugal is different.  At first, when translating written interviews, I back translated the Portuguese term for care “Casa de acolhimento” a “residential” when the literal translation is “Welcome house”.  After talking to staff and observing homes, I had an “ah ha” moment in which I realized that my translation was wrong and the literal meaning of welcoming homes should be used.  Because this idea of “welcoming” and “home” was very much the model of care.  I witnessed a much more attachment/affectional style of working with children and it has helped me to think about how a social learning model which also includes structure and affection can be implemented in the United States.  Now that I have returned to my “welcoming home” in United States I want to do some more thinking and listening to people in residential care so that I can continue to develop my ideas.

Teaching also broadened my perspective.  Up until now I had placed my research area within child welfare measurement and evaluation, but being asked to teach about my research in the context of human rights forced me to broaden my thinking.   I began to read and think more deeply about human rights, specifically child rights in the EU, and about the right to a home when you have left your family and your home behind in another country.   I concluded that the right to have a place that you feel is “home” is a universal right, and as this is controversial considering the world-wide refugee crisis, that my contribution may be to create a measure that preserves youth voice but provides empirical data to support living in the most home-like and least restrictive setting.

As an instructor, I was impressed by how much the students enjoyed learning about theory and their passion for promoting human rights.  I was in awe of how well my colleagues managed their teaching and research loads.  I appreciated how the doctoral students made it a mission for me to NOT eat my lunch at my desk working, and to learn to love salted codfish, and included me in their social plans for the weekends.

Finally, it is impossible to describe the utter sincerity and generosity of the Portuguese.  I think that is Portugal’s greatest natural resource.  I hope to continue my work in Portugal in some way, and share my experiences with faculty at my university and other academic institutions, encouraging them to explore the great opportunities a Fulbright grant has to offer.

3 thoughts on “Learning to Listen—What I Learned from My Fulbright Experience In Portugal”

  1. Now with near 40 years of leading residential and substitute care for children and youth, I share the following:
    1. Everyone does the best they can
    2. Institutions which serve children and families are only as good as the the front line staff who care for the children
    3. Outside observers/ journalists/ board members/politicians/researchers/ academic professionals/ directors should work 3 shifts or one week overnight in the institutions they write about before they publish anything
    4. Parents of children And communities want their children to be safe and happy – achieving consensus on these these values is extremely complicated
    5. A socio-ecological-cultural-neuro- developmental treatment approach is efficacious and prudent
    6. Outcomes should be functional and longitudinal
    7. To actualize idealism and system change we realize “ we don’t save them all, but we work daily as if we must “

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  2. Mary Beth – I am proud to call you friend. What an experience you had! “…we don’t save them all, but we work daily as if we must.”

    Like

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