Child and youth care workers who gathered for a conference in a downtown hotel this week know all too well that their quiet, comfortable surroundings are far removed from the harsh reality that the children in their care have already known. 

"I think if you're looking from the outside in at our young people, often you kind of miss the fact that almost all of them, without exception, are coming from experiences of extreme trauma," said Heather Modlin, provincial director of the national foster care provider Key Assets.

Heather Modlin

Heather Modlin is the provincial director of the national foster care provider, Key Assets. (CBC)

Modlin said the children she works with have very complex needs and challenging behaviours.

"The behaviours that we see are pain-based, and we tend to often gravitate towards dealing with the behaviours and missing the child underneath," Modlin told CBC News. 

The Child & Youth Care Association N.L. presented lectures and workshops focused on the need to recognize the damage that trauma can do to young minds — and what that means for caregivers.

Those who gathered for the two-day conference said the kind of care they provide is a bit of a mixed bag — part science, part art — with no guarantees.

Skills and knowledge vs instinct

Modlin said one of the biggest challenges for the industry is ensuring practitioners are trained, skilled and fully equipped to do the job.

Jamie Lundrigan

Jamie Lundrigan has been a child and youth care worker for 11 years. (CBC)

"I think being able to work effectively with young people with this level of need requires a complexity of thinking and practice that we often don't attend to. So one of the biggest challenges is to have the personal capacity to do the job, and to provide young people with what they need in terms of support, caring and intervention," she said.

Modlin said there are no hard and fast techniques for breaking the destructive spells that trauma and pain can cast on children.​

"When you're working with a young person who's experienced years of trauma, you can't expect to remediate that damage in three months or six months, or a year, or even a couple of years in some cases. Change takes time."

'I think if you're looking from the outside in at our young people, often you kind of miss the fact that almost all of them, without exception, are coming from experiences of extreme trauma'- Heather Modlin, provincial director of Key Assets

Jamie Lundrigan, who has been a child and youth care worker for 11 years, said change and healing can take a long time.

Lundrigan said her work, however, is rewarding.  

"The young people, they guide you. When you listen, and you're paying attention, they're guiding you," she said. 

Those working in the industry estimate the burn-out rate among workers to be high — up to 60 per cent.