Donna Fayko: Strengthening families

  • Posted: Friday, April 26, 2013 9:47 a.m.

In my many years of working with families, I have reached my personal conclusion that there are no perfect textbook families. Being the parent of teen-agers has only reinforced that conclusion.

There is a wide variance of parenting skills. We have families with many strengths, families with challenges and some families with varying degrees of dysfunction. I have seen the pendulum of child welfare swing from the philosophy to remove children from their birth families and give them a better chance with an alternate caregiver to the philosophy that it is better to keep children with their birth families if their safety can be assured.

Those families that come in contact with “the system” are often under a microscope. Social workers, juvenile court counselors, teachers, mental health professionals, GALs, judges – we are all involved in assessing families to determine their deficits that need to be “fixed” in order for their children to be safe and successful. Often, we get so caught up in identifying those deficits that we fail to look for the strengths.

How do we change that paradigm? How do we build stronger families and improve outcomes for children by keeping them safe and addressing their well-being needs and goals of permanence?

I believe that we begin by understanding and embracing the principles of partnership developed by Appalachian Family Innovations which I’d like to share with you. Then, I’d like to talk about how to strengthen families using these principles.

Everyone desires respect. This is based on the idea that everyone has worth and the right to make their own life decisions. Many times in our work within “the system” we don’t honor families’ opinions and views. True partnership cannot occur without mutual respect.

Everyone needs to be heard. By this I do not mean just listening to what a person has to say. It means actively seeking to understand the other person using empathy, without having a personal agenda. This principle helps to minimize defensiveness and brings parties together to develop solutions.

Everyone has strengths. Yes – that means everyone. It includes the abusive father, the drug addicted mother and the sex offender. Because the majority of us become involved with others through our role as “helpers,” it clouds our ability to see their strengths. I am not suggesting that we overlook problems or fail to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. I am suggesting that we truly attempt to balance the problems by also identifying strengths. This gives families hope.

Judgments can wait. This fourth principle is a tough one because most of us are paid to assess others. Once we form a judgment, we no longer seek to understand and do not gain new information. It is important that we stop and really think about the power that we, as helpers, exert upon another person’s life. If we don’t remain open to receiving new information, we have taken hope away from familiesand negatively impacted their motivation to change.

Partners share power. Again, I ask you to look at the power imbalance that helpers have. We assess families, we provide the official diagnosis or recommendation to the court. Those parents who appear hostile or resistant – we judge them more harshly. I would encourage us to try harder with them, appreciate their fear and situation to gain their cooperation and trust. This by no means takes away accountability for their behaviors.

Partnership is a process. This recognizes that all of the principles have merit but cannot successfully stand alone. They support and strengthen one another. Putting these principles into practice is very difficult and requires us to focus our efforts on implementing them, checking in for feedback on how we’re doing and then changing our behavior if we need to refine our use of the principles.

In Rowan County, we can take concrete steps to strengthen families. We can support funding of evidence-based programs that use coaching as a primary tool to teach effective parenting. This model provides family practice sessions that allow parents and children the opportunity to practice what they learned in their individual sessions. They encourage positive interactions, including praise and communication that reduces criticism and sarcasm. They promote effective and consistent discipline, based upon child development knowledge, including consequences, time-outs and effective alternatives.

We have the power to strengthen families by engaging principles of partnership and making changes to our practice which, in turn, will reduce risk factors to children while building protective factors for families.

Donna Fayko is director of the Rowan County Department of Social Services. This is an excerpt from a speech she gave at a Prevent Child Abuse event.

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