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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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 frequent sessions.
  10. 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 Carolina

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

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