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Family engagement practices in residential group care: differences between public and private cases

Miriam McNown Johnson

One of the most significant changes in residential group care in the past 20 years has been an increased commitment to parent participation. Support for family involvement is part of a larger paradigmatic shift in the field of child welfare, away from a “child rescue” philosophy and towards a notion of services offered as family support. Often referred to as family-centered services, the new paradigm calls for an approach to the delivery of social services that maintains emphasis on the family as the central unit of concern, and on the preservation of family ties even when family members must be physically separated.

Many authors and practitioners have identified real and perceived barriers to family involvement. A common (though often faulty) argument for not involving families emerges from perceptions of parents as inadequate, incapable, and unwilling to help their child (Haimes, 1991, Maluccio, 1981). Studies on how professionals and families interact in a variety of settings suggest considerable parental dissatisfaction. “Families repeatedly have reported that they are tired of being blamed for their children’s problems and of the tendency of many professionals to focus on parental inadequacies rather than strengths” (Collins & Collins, 1990, p. 523). Both Sinanoglu (1981) and Tracy (1988) noted that the way in which professionals perceive parents accounts largely for the manner in which they intervene in child and family problems, the services offered, and the roles deemed appropriate for families to assume within those services. While a decline in the amount of contact between children and their families may mirror the indifference of some parents, it also reflects their powerlessness to intervene, lack of a meaningful role, and overwhelming feelings of guilt and inadequacy (Millham, Bullock, Hosie, & Haak, 1986). Parental “resistance” can be refrained as a need for overnight accommodations, or for transportation services, or for more flexible scheduling (Carlo, 1985). Some children in care are said to lack an identified caretaker relative; Maluccio (1991, p. 23) reminds us that children who appear to be without families may very well be victims of a child-placing system that condones “losing” the family or “provoking or encouraging them to abandon or neglect their children.”

An extensive review of the literature on residential group care produced only one example of a study that examined issues related to private versus public placements. This was a 1985 federal government report on 478 residential care facilities in three states, Florida, New Jersey, and Wisconsin (United States General Accounting Office [GAO], 1985). Analysis of the survey results showed that 15% of the children housed in the responding facilities were nongovernmental placements. In this study, nongovernmental was defined as “placement effected by parents without contact or consultation with state or county officials” or “placements arranged by private physicians and private social service agencies of which the state or county has no awareness” (p. 56). The data further revealed that children coming from families with entitlement income (e.g., AFDC, Medicaid, or SSI) were “much more likely to go through a state or county agency to enter residential care than their counterparts whose families were employed” (p. 61). Other factors associated with governmental placement processes were the child’s history of criminal activity or status offenses, previous placement in a residential care setting, and a family history of abuse. Children whose families had private medical insurance available to them were frequently placed via a nongovernmental process. The authors of this study expressed concern on three accounts: first, that “it is important to understand how pervasive nongovernmental placements may be” (p. 58); second, that “the opportunity to place a child through a nongovernmental process is [not] uniform for all families” (p. 58), and third, that “the economic incentives of insurance plans, which pay for inpatient care, but often do not support group homes or day treatment programs, may lead to nonconformity with the principle of least restrictive form of intervention” (p. 64).


Carlo, P (1988). Implementing a parent involvement/parent education program in a children’s residential treatment center. Child and Youth Care Quarterly, 17, 195-206.

Collins, B., & Collins, T. (1990). Parent-professional relationships in the treatment of seriously emotionally disturbed children and adolescents. Social Work, 35, 522-526.

Haimes, R. (1991). Partners in caring: Family and agency. A report card from the 80’s – a plan for the 90’s. The Roundtable, 5, 4-7.

Maluccio, A. N. (1981). An ecological perspective on practice with parents of children in foster care. In A. N. Maluccio and P. A. Sinanoglu (Eds.), The challenge of partnership: Working with parents of children in foster care (pp. 3-21). New York: Child Welfare League of America.

Maluccio, A. N. (1991). Response: Eagerly awaiting a child .... Child and Youth Care Forum, 20, 23-25.

Millham, S., Bullock, R., Hosie, K., & Haak, M. (1986). Lost in care: The problems of maintaining links between children in care and their families. Brookfield, VT: Gower.

Sinanoglu, P A. (1981). Working with parents: Selected issues and trends as reflected in the literature. In A. N. Maluccio & P A. Sinanoglu (Eds.), The Challenge of partnership: Working with parents of children in foster care (pp.3-21). New York: Child Welfare League of America.

Tracy, E. M. (1988). Supporting families: Practice skills for Child and Youth Care workers. In R. Small, R. W, & Alwon, F. J. (Eds.) Challenging the limits of care (pp. 159-178). Needham, MA: The Trieschman Center.
United States General Accounting Office. (1985). Residential care: Patterns of child placement in three states. (GAO/PEMD-85-2). Washington, DC: Author.

McNown Johnson, M. (1998). Family engagement practices in residential group care: differences between public and private cases. Child and Youth Care Forum, Vol. 27 (2), pp. 139-141

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