Approach Aims to End Abuse While Keeping Families Intact

By Kim A. Lawton
American News Service

Just over two years ago, Jamie Hart Jones almost lost her children to foster care, even though she had done nothing wrong.

Jones had taken her 3-year-old daughter to the hospital for what she thought was simply a bad case of sunburn -- and turned out to be a case of child abuse allegedly by her then-husband.

Shortly after getting home from the hospital, Jones was called into Child Protective Services of Michigan, interrogated for hours about the scalding of her daughter, and then given a dire ultimatum.

"They told me I could not go home, or they would take my children," said Jones, who also has a 6-year-old son. "But I had no place to go. I had nothing."

At that point, in stepped Mike Hawkins, a social worker with a Michigan special program called Families First.

Hawkins helped Jones find emergency housing, food and day care. He helped make supper and carry in the groceries. He also helped her deal with two confused and angry children and to find family counseling. In all, Hawkins helped Jones locate the tools she needed to stabilize her troubled family's life.

Today, Jones, her two children and their new dog and cat have moved into a house built through the humanitarian group Habitat for Humanity. The children are doing well in Catholic schools, and in addition to holding down a full-time job, Jones volunteers for community service projects.

She credits Families First for helping to preserve her family. "If it weren't for Mike and his program, I don't know what I would have done," she said.

Families First is a leader in a national movement that, when possible, tries to remove the risk to the child rather than remove the child from the home. It is called "family preservation."

Advocates argue their approach is needed because keeping the family intact is often in the child's best interest and, in any case, there are just too few foster families to care for the growing number of endangered children.

If current increases continue, by the end of the decade some one million children will be removed each year from their homes, say child welfare experts. The majority will be placed in foster care, with the rest going to juvenile justice, mental health or special education facilities.

At the same time, the National Foster Parent Association reports the number of foster homes and other facilities are declining while out-of-home placement costs are spiraling. Many child protective service workers believe that all too often children are needlessly placed "in the system" simply because there are no other alternatives to handle cases of abuse and neglect.

Now, growing coalitions of citizens, social workers, family judges and child advocacy groups say one key answer to the crisis is to provide families like the Joneses with resources to eliminate the risk to their children themselves, so foster care is not needed.

But the movement has been a controversial one, with critics arguing that preserving families may at times conflict with the goal of protecting children.

The family preservation concept has actually been around since the 1970s, when three family therapists in Tacoma, Wash., set out to see if intensive work with families could end abuse and therefore prevent family breakup. They launched a pilot program called Homebuilders and claimed success in safely keeping families intact.

The idea has now spread to more than 30 states, although Homebuilders' parent organization, the Behavioral Sciences Institute, says that only about 15 states trying to expand family preservation services statewide.

According to the institute, while the models vary somewhat from state to state, the most successful programs share several features.

Specially trained caseworkers, responsible for only two to five families at a time, go into the home and act as coaches -- for up to 20 hours a week. They help parents on everything from budgeting to how to set clear rules and how to express anger nonviolently.

On call around the clock, the social workers focus on a family for a concentrated period of crisis intervention, usually for four to six weeks. They offer counseling and practical assistance and help the family to connect to services or employment.

Charlotte Booth, executive director of the Behavioral Sciences Institute, said that in addition to being better for children -- who sustain long-term emotional consequences from being separated from their families -- the idea is also cost-effective.

In Michigan, for example, the average cost of family preservation services is about $3,900 per family compared with about $13,000 per child for foster care, according to Susan Kelly, director of Michigan's Families First program.

But critics argue that focusing on family preservation can keep children in dangerous situations. New York City is now rethinking its family preservation program after 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo was allegedly beaten to death by her mother late last year. At a press conference last spring, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the city's system had been "too rigidly focused on keeping families together" without ensuring child safety.

"Many hundreds of children die each year who have been left in families they should have never been left in, and many hundreds of thousands have been injured because of the movement's success in over-marketing the effectiveness of intensive family preservation," said Richard Gelles, director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island and author of "Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children's Lives."

Gelles acknowledged that family preservation programs do have "a limited utility in terms of assisting families where maltreatment has taken place, especially for families whose level of harm to their children is moderate to low."

However, he asserted, "In families where the primary problem is the antisocial personality disorder of the offender, you can give them all the parenting classes you want and you can intensively work with them every hour of every day and still never fundamentally change their behavior."

Supporters of family preservation say they are well aware that their services are not for every family.

For example, Families First in Michigan will not try to fix problems in a home where a sexual abuser denies the abuse and has continued unsupervised access to the children or where physical abuse is considered life-threatening, according to a 1991 report published by four foundations and distributed by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.

Family preservation efforts were "never intended to be a stand-alone program or fill all the needs of every at-risk family. It's a false dichotomy to say we should have foster care or family preservation. We need both," said Kelly.

The advocates further note that abuses and tragedies also occur within foster care settings.

In Michigan, Jamie Hart Jones says she is convinced:

"Thanks to Families First, my kids and I can say 'we made it, and we made it together.'"
Posted June 5, 1997

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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