Saturday, August 04, 2007

What are the arguments for and against family-centered practice in foster care?

Traditional social work services typically focus on the individual and are provided in an office setting.

In family-centered practice, the social worker goes to the family's home and/or community, in order to work with the family as a collective unit. The idea is that both the foster and birth parents are recognized as having a continuing place in the child’s life and are accepted as equal partners in the treatment process.

Is Family-Centered Practice Perfect?
I was recently asked to come up with a list of pros and cons of family-centered practice in the child welfare system.

The first thing that I found interesting is that if you Google this subject, you will find nothing but praise for family-centered practice when it comes to foster care. It is the latest trend, it seems, the cure-all, the panacea.

I guess it's the inner cynic in me that rejects the idea of a magic bullet that somehow works in each and every situation. There is no magical formula for families that break down. Sometimes biological parents are willing and able to change, sometimes not. There are varying levels of emotional investment between parent and child.

A one-size-fits-all approach does not work for children in foster care. It depends on many factors – like why child entered care in the first place.

But I have yet to find a resource listing both the positives and negatives of family-centered practice, when it comes to foster care.

Here is what I have so far... I welcome reader input on this issue!

· Looking at family environment: The underlying tenet of family-centered practice is that people can be best understood within their environments. An ongoing family assessment can lend a lot of information regarding child safety if he/she ever returns to their biological parents.

The primary goal (on paper at least) is child safety.

· Empowering foster parents: There is wisdom in listening to their insights on child behavior. Foster parents should know the child better than the social worker, because they spend more time with the child.

Cons might include:
· Listening to the biological parent voice when that voice is not in the best interest of the child:

One foster care alumna recently shared with me that her bio-mom was the best of friends with her social worker. Her bio-mom was allowed to control her contact list - who she could visit or talk to. Her mom misused that privilege…

Her aunt was willing to adopt her, but because her mother and aunt didn’t get along, she wasn’t allowed to have contact with her aunt. In this instance, family squabbling was allowed to stand in the way of this foster child's chances to achieve permanency.

· Physical risk to social workers: When social workers step out of their offices and into the homes of families in crisis, they run the risk of an assault. More than 50% of the social workers surveyed reported being physically assaulted at work.

The current solution offered by National Association of Social Workers is security training. However, let's be frank here, if a birth parent has a weapon, the social worker can end up dead.

· Insisting that foster parents and birth family stay connected. Couldn't this insistence can put foster parents and even their biological children in danger?

· The unwavering idea that, despite family problems, parents remain experts on their own youth. Hmm... This really varies.

Was my friend M's father an expert when he offered her up to a male friend in exchange for drugs? How attuned could he possibly be to her personal needs while he was offering her up to service a stranger so that he could get a quick fix?

Inviting Input from Readers:
The family-centered approach is founded on the unwavering idea that families can change. However, I am against prioritizing family preservation above the safety and best interest of the child.

Would we ask a domestic violence victim to have regular visits with her abusive ex-husband? Does a father who repeatedly sexually abused his daughter for years deserve to have the right to decide to whom she can talk on the phone?

I want to invite reader input: I know that there are social workers and child welfare professionals who read this blog.

Please tell me more about the pros and cons of family-centered practice from your point of view. I want to learn more...

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I totally think that no one practice is a solution for every case of ANY situation! I think the family practice idea could work very well for families that just needed a little help... for instance, a single parent who hit her children because she was going through depression and was overly stressed out, could probably be helped A LOT by the family practice and some ongoing support to help her take care of her children. But a seriously abusive parent who burns her children with a hot iron when they spill their milk and allows her boyfriend to molest her kids and tells them she wishes they were dead... a little support and a leg up isn't gonna cut it!
Hmm..A dicey issue indeed. I think it works IF and only IF the courts are looking to reunify the child with his/her parents. If parental rights are terminated, there's probably a good reason for it...

Whether it's a therapist or a social worker going into the home..they should be highly trained and highly aware of their ethical obligations to do NO harm (emotionally speaking). I feel a neutral place to meet is more appropriate...not home based. Not in this situation.

As a therapist and social worker who use to do home based services for "in tact" families, I would say that a family centered practice in foster care can be risky. I agree Lisa.

We need to always consider the children in all of this..always.
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I agree that family-centered practice is good for kids who are reunifying. We had contact with one parent who really worked to get her kids back and it was wonderful. Unfortunately, her circumstance was unique.

We have found that parents who have been bypassed for services are in that situation for very good reasons. Over and over we have been asked to make contact with a bio-father who is actively using and dealing drugs. We have held our ground firmly, and have also suggested that visitation be terminated for the safety of the kids.

It seems like the foster-care system is trying to use the foster parents to teach the bio-parents how to do their jobs. That method enables both bio-parent and social worker to do less work! I always want to tell them that I am glad do do that training for an extra 60k a year.
Hi Lisa,

Good to hear from you, too. I posted a comment on your previous post (About Hands).

In fact, I'm going to use this idea with some of my foster kids. I'm going to ask them to trace their own hands and identify their family or circle of support. It'll be interesting...A Hand Genogram!

Stay in touch..Keep Doing What You're Doing!!!
By the way... I must tag you for this meme: Please list the five of your own posts that are your favorite or that you think are the most important for new readers to see! :D
I had a situation where family therapy was urged because it was more likely that the parents would actually be there for the sessions, since they constantly missed the office-based therapy sessions.

There was another co-worker who refused to do family sessions for this one client because other people were constantly coming in and out of the house. She didn't feel safe, and nothing was accomplished because of the constant interruptions.
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