Our Profession

History of Child and Youth Care in Ontario

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Excerpts from A New Profession by Karen Gilmour-Barrett and Susan Pratt

The history of professional child and youth work began in 1801 in France with Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and Mme. Guérin. In Ontario, child and youth counsellors (CYCs) have been working with disadvantaged and troubled youth since the mid-1800s. A century later, in the late 1950s, formal training programs were established and CYCs became known officially as Child Care Workers.

In 1957 Thistletown Hospital was set up as a treatment and teaching hospital dealing with emotionally disturbed children. Staffing the hospital was problematic in that, at that time, very few people in the Toronto area could actually claim experience in working with disturbed children in a residential setting. John Rich, psychiatrist, and Lon Lawson, social worker, were working at the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital, (later to become the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry). Dr. Rich was approached to set up the Thistletown Hospital for disturbed children and he in turn approached Lon Lawson. Together they agreed to give it a try.

Lon Lawson became the first Chief of Child Care Work at Thistletown Hospital. He has written with a good deal of wit and sage humor about some of the highlights of the first two years of the Thistletown experience. According to his account, Dr. Rich partially solved the staffing problem by writing to his friends in England and inviting them to come over.

Bringing staff from England was a comparatively easy matter. At that time all English people believed that the streets of Toronto were paved with gold, and in addition, the persecution of the dissenters by the Church of England was at its height. Within a few days the docks of Plymouth and Liverpool were crowded with ernigrees in their quaint Puritan costumes, and doctors, teachers, social workers and occupational therapists set sail for Canada. Most of them travelled by steerage, and had a very imperfect grip on the language and customs of the New World, but an interpreter met them at Halifax, escorted them to a colonist car, loaded on their snowshoes, rifles, sacks of flour, copies of the Observer and other necessities, and the long trip to Thistletown began.

Meanwhile, the problem of recruiting people to work directly with the children remained. These first two pioneers strongly felt that psychiatric nurses and attendants were not the answer. Lori was very clear about nursing being inappropriate training for working with disturbed children. He felt that nurses focused on ward control. They wanted a professional who regarded the ward not as a quiet place where children knew what they should do and what they shouldn't do, but a place where children could enjoy themselves, where they could find things to do that would interest them. Normal activities of living were what Lon thought should form the basis of treatment. This was integral to the conception of the future child care worker. Thistletown would be staffed with child care workers who would receive an initial training program. Lawson and Rich were able to sell this idea to the Ministry of Health. Their idea was contained in one of the earliest definitions of a child care worker submitted by Thistletown Hospital and by the Ontario Civil Service Commission.

These employees act as ward counsellors, guide children in a wide variety of day-to-day activities, such as dressing, washing, eating, play, sports, hobbies, etc. They live in an intimate daily relationship in order to provide a milieu of intensive, involved care. They must be able to recognize the underlying significance of various forms of behavior so that they can record this and deal with it in a general framework decided on by the psychiatrist for that particular child. They must be able to recognize the meaning of abnormal behavior and then to provide an environment which is therapeutic for that particular child for that particular moment. This required insight into emotional disturbances and also considerable skill in real life situations.

Therefore, anyone coming into work directly with the children, even if they had had previous training in another profession such as nursing, would have to take either a two- or, as in the latter case, a one-year training course. They would be paid for the time they spent in the course and the work they were doing when they were students. Lawson and Rich put ads in the Toronto newspapers and started to interview and recruit people. The people who came in those few months; firemen, pharmaceutical supply people, nurses, and mothers of grown children, and those who came in the next one or two years later, were very unusual and very brave individuals. They were starting out on a new career in an unknown field with only promises of a future and the formidable task of caring for disturbed children; for, as Arthur Bickerton, one of the first child care workers, was later to relate 'it was a crucifixion every day.

Several of these people later contributed pioneering work in other locations: starting courses in child care work; directing treatment; taking further training in the field; or making a unique contribution in another field, such as in working with crippled children or in specialized teaching.


Gilmour-Barrett K. & Pratt, S. (1977). A new profession in J. Shamsie (ed.). Experience & Experiment: A collection of essays outlining the development of services for emotionally disturbed children in the Province of Ontario. Toronto: Leonard Crainford