Residential Child Care Workers as Primary Agents of Family Intervention
Diane Richmond Garland
There are several guidelines – strategies – which will move an agency
into a new model of family intervention:
- Draw the family generation line so that the child care worker is a
partner with the parents (Minuchin, 1974). Children will do to this
relationship what they do to any set of parents – try to manipulate one
against the other. Parents and child care workers need to understand this
and develop communication to correct misunderstandings and clarify
differences without being driven apart. This can, in turn, become a
significant model of the kind of communication which needs to occur within
the family itself.
- Expect parents to become frequent, active participants in the life of
the agency – to become “family members” with rights and responsibilities,
not just visitors. Keith-Lucas (1977) has said that the chief danger we face
is halfway believing parents and letting them believe that infrequent
visits, letters, and broken promises are better than nothing at all. Parents
must either accept the parental role or give it up so that other permanent
arrangements for a family for the child can be made. Although this sounds
harsh, it is less harsh than the reality of a child stuck in the limbo of
residential care with no substantial hope of living with a family. Fanshel
and Shin (1978) report, not surprisingly, that the amount of parental
involvement increases the probability of the child’s return home.
- Expect parents to have parenting responsibilities in the cottage or
living unit. These must be spelled out clearly so that parents, child care
workers, and children know what is and is not expected of parents. These
responsibilities include interaction with their own and other children,
discipline, and making decisions about school issues, clothing, and other
matters. The fulfillment of these responsibilities enables parents to
develop their parenting skills with the support and guidance of the staff in
a variety of kinds of family interaction. In a child care agency where
parents of placed children have almost unlimited visiting privileges,
evaluation indicates that parents with “severe problems” can increase,
sustain, and improve their parenting (Simmons, Gumpert, and Rothman, 1973).
In another program, the goal of parental involvement is for parents to learn
from and with the child care workers how to communicate more productively
with the children. “Parents learn how to take charge of the youngsters, and
how to evaluate intervention options” (Finkelstein, 1981; p. 97).
- Actively encourage parents to interact with other children in
placement as well as with their own. Interacting with another child than
their own may be less emotionally charged and thus an appropriate place to
practice skills such as listening and communicating empathy.
- Do not expect children care workers to model perfect parenting skills.
It is comforting to parents to realize that all parents and even
“professionals” make mistakes. Also, by recognizing that they are not
supposed to be perfect models, child care workers are free to model all the
attitudes and skills of good parenting – which include forgiveness of
children and self. For the child care worker and other professional
staff, greater parent involvement means, at least initially, a loss of
“superperson” status. Parents come to see that child care workers, social
workers and other clinical staff do not have all the answers, do have
problems dealing with difficult behavior, do make mistakes and, at times,
lose their cool with children. In short, they come to see them as more
human, more like themselves (Whittaker, 1981; p. 80).
- Include parents in planning for their own children and or activities
and changes in the agency as well as in the living group. This entails
including parents in staff meetings which concern their children. It also
may mean the establishment or nurturing of a parent organization which can
be represented in the agency’s decision making. By including parents in
planning, responsibility rests where it belongs and underscores the
importance of parents in the lives of their children and of the agency.
- Include parents in special projects – painting, group entertainment,
field trips, furnishing a recreation room. Tap any special skills they might
have. Some parents can serve as public speakers representing the agency –
their testimony will go a long way with many audiences. Practice wisdom from
group work practice advises that if you want someone to be more involved in
a group, give them a job to do or a role to fill. By including parents in a
meaningful way in which they can give to the agency as well as receive
services from it, they become persons with responsibility, not merely
clients to be served.
- Social workers and child care workers can collaborate on one or more
visits to the family’s home. We better identify with people when we see
where they live, and with what they are living. Child care workers thus
develop a greater appreciation for the family’s values and background. The
team of social worker, child care worker, and family is also underscored by
their involvement in one another’s spheres of activity.
- For parents too geographically distant or physically ill to be this
active in the agency’s daily activities, the child care worker needs to make
frequent phone contact, minimally once a week. Share day-to-day happenings
and problems as well as successes. This contact reassures parents that their
child is being well cared for and that they are still involved even if at a
distance. The telephone contact is also used to include parents in planning
and decision making, and extended conference calls can supplement less
- When the family is involved in counseling with the social worker,
include the child care worker as a team member or “co-therapist.” The child
care workers thus learn about the family and their dynamics and goals, can
share their expertise in working with the child, and can include life in the
cottage in any intervention plans that develop. The parents and child also
understand more clearly the professional role of the child care worker. The
child care worker also can avoid being stuck in the role of child advocate.
Because of the child care worker’s intense involvement with the child, the
social worker may need to help the child care worker to move back and forth
in siding with parents and child so that both parents and child feel the
child care worker’s support and understanding. In turn, the child care
worker can enrich the social worker’s knowledge about the family’s dynamics
from their first-hand observations and interventions with family and child.
Fanshel, D, and Shin, E. B. (1978) Children in foster care: A
longitudinal investigation. New York: Columbia University Press
Finkelstein, N. E. (1981) Family centered group care – The children's
institution, from a living center to a center for change. In Malucio, A. N.
and Sinanoglu, P. A. (Eds.) The challenge of partnership: Working with
parents of children in foster care. New York: Child Welfare League of
America, pp. 89-105
Keith-Lucas, A. and Sanford, C. W. (1977) Group
child care as a family service. Chapel Hill: University of North
Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and family therapy.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Simmons, G; Gumpert, J. & Rothman,
B. (1973). Natural Parents as Partners in Child Care Placement. Social
Casework 54, 224-232
Whittaker, J.K. (1981). Family involvement in
residential treatment: A support system for parents. In Malucio, A. N. and
Sinanoglu, P. A. (Eds.) The challenge of partnership: Working with
parents of children in foster care. New York: Child Welfare League of
America, pp. 67-88.
Richmond Garland, D. S. (1987) Residential Child Care
Workers as Primary Agents of Family Intervention.
Child and Youth Care
Quarterly. Vol.16 No.1 pp. 27-29