Can We Put Clothes on This Emperor?

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At a recent meeting of Child Welfare Administrators, one of its participants challenged his colleagues to say whether their child welfare agency was family-centered and, if it was, to describe precisely what it is they were doing. The consensus of the group was that "family-centered practice" is much like the emperor's new clothes: everyone is saying it is the right approach, but no one knows what it really means.

There is a problem in thinking about family-centered practice as the fashionable "set of clothes" that will win instant success for families. A family-centered perspective is a conceptual approach-a shift in the way we think about what is helpful for children and families in the child welfare system. It is not only a set of specific strategies or models (for example, family conferencing or family preservation) to use with families. Instead, it is a framework based on the belief that the best way to protect children in the long run is to strengthen and support their families, whether it be nuclear, extended, foster care, or adoptive. It requires specialized knowledge and skills to build family capital-resources for strength and resilience-by providing services to the family, extended family, and kinship group, as well as by mobilizing informal resources in the community.

Family-Centered Practice and Child Welfare

The idea of involving the family as a part of valid intervention in child welfare is still relatively new when compared to other, well-established modes of practice. Traditionally, child welfare efforts were child focused. They were intended to protect, provide care for, and plan for children who were separated from their parents because of abandonment or abuse and who were living in some form of out-of-home care. Children were seen as victims of bad or incompetent parents and the solution to the maltreatment problem was to separate the children from their parents, placing them in the hands of foster care providers.

The intent was to force parents to learn to become better parents. Parents were given conditions that had to be met to be reunited with their children. These conditions might include getting a job, cleaning up their apartments, learning better parenting skills, or engaging in counseling to solve the underlying problems that were thought to cause them to be abusive and neglectful. Many of the parents became labeled as "unmotivated," "resistant," and "in denial" or refusing to "assume responsibility" of their problems.

As a result of this approach, an increasing number of children were found to be drifting in foster care, often subjected to repeated re-placement, ultimately losing the affectional ties, but not the legal bonds, that linked them to their families. These children had no hope of either going home again or gaining permanency through adoption. Still others, largely because of race or ethnicity-mainly African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans-became overrepresented because of child welfare's historic misunderstanding of their needs.

As a result of the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (PL 96-272), the Family Preservation and Support Act of 1993 (PL 103-66), and the Safe and Stable Family Program in 1997, the scope and purposes of child welfare programs require a comprehensive plan of family-centered services:

1. To help families manage the tasks of daily living, adequately nurture children, and remedy problem situations

2. To make "reasonable efforts" to keep children and youth in their own homes whenever possible rather than placing them in foster care

3. To safeguard children from dangerous living situations, and protect the right of every child to grow up with a sense of well-being, belonging, and permanence

The basic concepts and values of family-centered practice are influenced by family systems and ecological theories. Family systems theory assumed that emotional and behavioral problems of individuals are maintained through patterns of interaction within the family. Thus, the goal of intervention is to evaluate and change these patterns of behavior and to help the family interact in more effective ways.

Ecological theories emphasize that the behavior of individuals and families is a function of their adaptation to the demands of the broader context. Thus, the approach to intervention includes strengthening the interactions between the family and other systems (for example, informal helpers, community agencies, and schools) that have an impact on their lives. They believe that these other systems in the community are an integral part of the decision-making and intervention process.

In practice, shifting the focus from the child to the family has often been viewed in child welfare as creating a dichotomy between the goals of protecting children and preserving and supporting families. But effective family-centered practice depends on a clear understanding of the relationship between these two goals. The belief that the best approach to protect children is to strengthen families acknowledges that there are times in the lives of families when they may be weak from exposure to stressors such as poverty, poor housing, substance abuse, domestic violence, or mental illness. Furthermore, help and timely intervention may not be available, some families may respond minimally or not at all to efforts to help them; and still others may require long-term help and support. Consequently, it becomes necessary to determine if out-of-home care is needed. When it is the plan of choice, the task is to manage placements in ways that minimize, as far as possible, the pain and bewilderment of separation and assure that children who go into care will be protected and well nurtured pending completion of a permanent plan.

The Essential Components of Family-Centered Practice in Child Welfare

1. The family unit is the focus of attention.
Family-centered practice works with the family as a collective unit, insuring the safety and well-being of family members.

2. Strengthening the capacity of families to function effectively is emphasized.
The primary purpose of family-centered practice is to strengthen the family's potential for carrying out their responsibilities.

3. Families are engaged in designing all aspects of the policies, services, and program evaluation.
Family-centered practitioners partner with families to use their expert knowledge throughout the decision- and goal-making processes and provide individualized, culturally-responsive, and relevant services for each family.

4. Families are linked with more comprehensive, diverse, and community-based networks of supports and services.
Family-centered interventions assist in mobilizing resources to maximize communication, shared planning, and collaboration among the several community and/or neighborhood systems that are directly involved in the family.

Family-Centered Child Welfare Throughout the Services Continuum
Family-centered practice in child welfare prescribes a continuum of services at five levels of intervention:

Prevention through education and other developmental services that can be useful for all families

Supportive, problem-solving, and crisis intervention assistance for families coping with problems or crises of life and the normal processes of growth and development

Rehabilitation of seriously disorganized families and protection of children at risk, including protective services to restore family functioning and to prevent family breakup

Out-of-home care and support for children at risk in their own homes, including placement, supervision, and consultation as well as family rehabilitation and reunification

Permanent planning for children in placement, either by reunification with their biological families or by plans for adoption or permanent guardianship. Follow-up and emancipation services are included.

To be successful, family-centered practice requires a different organization and management structure-a way of working with other agencies. It is, in essence, a different way of doing business.
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