The following article is based on a proposal prepared by the author last fall after Massachusetts Governor Edward J. King had established a Family Advisory Committee. His proposal, written when he was Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, focused on the role of the newly-formed Committee.
Are most state-funded activities structured in such a way that they allow families to be the best they can? And if not, could they be? I believe that activities can be structured to enhance family functioning. Establishment of a Family Advisory Committee, one that provides a clear perspective from which family policy may be viewed, can have an immediate and measurable impact on key state agencies and units of government-and on the health of families in the communities.
Such a committee could hold hearings, prior to the submission of a state agency’s annual budget, asking that program budgets and agency goals be explained in terms of their effects on families. It could examine how program policies and goals might be contributing to family difficulties and, conversely, it could encourage programs to help strengthen families and permanency for children.
“What is the welfare department doing to insure that children are not capriciously yanked from their homes and placed in foster care?” is one question that might be asked during the annual hearing. “Are group homes for delinquent youth accessible so that parents can visit their children?” is another. Other questions might be: “Is an AFDC mother able to receive requisite prenatal care in the community?”; “Is there sufficient public transportation between low-income areas (which show the highest rate of family collapse) and job sites in the community?”; “Are Probate Court judges given training sufficient to help them resolve child custody disputes?”; and “Does ‘community development’ include family development?”
Such a committee could serve as a lens through which all state-funded activity is viewed. It would not have line authority. It would not serve as a new Department of Families, for everything the state does directly or indirectly affects families. Neither would it promulgate policy. But it could prepare questions of the kind suggested, formulate a budget critique and draft recommendations to the Governor after the hearings. In this way the committee would be spared the almost impossible task of designing a comprehensive family policy for the state but could, through its questions, imply policy or, at a minimum, offer a significant perspective.
My proposal on the role of the committee is a modest one, but one that could save a great deal of agony and time. If a committee or any other group undertakes as its first task questions of policy, it could detour into an area of dispute rivaled in intensity and complexity only by Talmudic discussions, and it will have failed in its first task: to inquire how the state is helping to shape the family- intentionally and unintentionally-and why.
Family policy discussions can also derail for financial reasons. We would be wise to listen to Laurence Lynn’s caveat:
“Unless proponents of family policy shed a great many of their ambitions, we shall not have a family policy in this country; organizational and resource considerations strongly favor the aged, the handicapped, the disabled, and other individuals with specific needs. Even a focused, restricted, and affordable definition-one consistent with the reductionist tendencies of the policymaking process and with the competition for resources from other deserving groups-has only a limited chance of success.”
Finally, in view of our nation’s pluralism, we should be wary of family policy discussions and heed the advice of the Family Impact Seminar: “Because we respect the wide diversity of families and the sensitive and personal nature of family life, we oppose the idea of enacting a uniform, comprehensive national family policy.”
Forces Working Against a Family Focus
“My child has been seen by the school adjustment counselor, the welfare worker, his probation officer and now you people. Why the hell didn’t nobody talk to me?,” the mother of a 16-year-old who had been committed to the Department of Youth Services for the third time asked me angrily when I was Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. Her question reflects one small aspect of a large and frightening mosaic of local, state and national neglect-even abuse-of families.
Tradition, funding patterns, lack of monitoring, a narrow individualistic focus and a host of other reasons combine to keep children away from natural support mechanisms, allow for exorbitantly expensive programs for children out of the home (and, conversely, almost none in the home), inhibit family reunification efforts, stall adoption proceedings and consign thousands of children to the limbo of foster care or indeterminate stays in group residences. If we are worried about what happens to our children, we must worry about families. As a recent report concluded: “Much of what happens (good and bad) to shape the development of children occurs, then, in the home and the surrounding environment of their early years. The Committee concludes, therefore, that a national policy for child development must be based first and foremost on supports for the family.”
We have neglected the family, but a single villain is difficult to find. It may simply be a lack of perspective: we just do not think of families. But why don’t we? The answer to this question is difficult to pin down but reasonably sound guesses can be made.
“Save the Child” or “Children, Not Families.” Much of social work is based on a certain latent messianism-“Save the child!” Although certainly not an illegitimate motive, such a stance often does not take into consideration the family context in which the child lives. We can be a fairly altruistic people and we become outraged at what happens to children and youth. Landmark child labor laws and abuse and neglect statutes have followed such outrage. Programs also develop from this outrage but they are usually programs based on helping or treating the individual, apart from his or her family and community. The further a child is from home, it seems, the more we as a society are willing to pay for his or her care and treatment.
The view that by saving a child from pernicious influences we thereby “fix” the child has persisted with remarkable tenacity. When the state intervenes, the state becomes parent and rarely looks back to the natural parent. Alan Gruber’s sobering description of foster care and adoption abuses in Massachusetts proves that the state is not a particularly effective parent.
Compounded Problems. Family work can be extraordinarily complicated. When confronted by warring parents, alcoholism, joblessness, poverty, economic deprivation and a pervasive sense of familial defeat, caseworkers naturally choose to limit the problem to the child. And, of course, when services are so designed, the child sees himself as the cause of the problem.
Absence of Ecological Thinking. In The Ecology of Human Development, Urie Bronfenbrenner asserts that we must recognize that the modern American family is not an autonomous unit. He claims that children and their families are inextricably bound to a complex of systems, all of which must be examined in detail if we are to truly understand and aid the family. He points out, for example. that “a child’s ability to learn to read in the primary grades may depend no less on how he is taught than on the existence and nature of ties between the school and the home” and that “whether parents can perform effectively in their childrearing roles within the family depends on role demands, stresses and supports emanating from other settings.”
The Family Impact Seminar report agrees with this view: “The theoretical base from which our values, preliminary findings and conceptual framework emerge is that of the ecology of human life and development. The core principle of this approach is the assumption that human beings need to be understood in the context of the relationships in their immediate and wider social environment.”
Although the fate and future of children and families are linked to other systems, we continue to treat families and children as if they were isolated entities. In his book, Haven in a Heartless World (Basic Books, 1977), Christopher Lasch worries that the family has ceded too much of its expertise to an army of helping bureaucrats who have stripped families of their functions as workers and parents. Education and health and child care, he says, have been progressively removed from the family or neighborhood and placed under the control of state- certified experts. The family is no longer a “haven in a heartless world.” “The citizen’s entire existence,” he writes, “has now been subjected to social direction, increasingly unmediated by the family or other institutions to which the work of socialization was once confined. Society itself has taken over socialization or subjected family socialization to increasingly effective control. Having thereby weakened the capacity for self-direction and self-control, it has undermined one of the principal sources of social cohesion …”
But we no longer live our lives on small farms, producing and preparing our own food and clothes and educating our young. Work has been separated from the home and society has taken on much of the responsibility for the care of children. These and other factors have caused the definition of parenting to change. Some would argue that the modern parent is a manager or service broker who makes certain that his or her child receives the best in goods and services. As one writer notes: “A major historical development of the past century has been the creation of non-familial responses to meet the material exigencies of life. Public health clinics, workmen’s compensation, unemployment insurance, pensions, and the like have rendered life far more predictable and the risk- balancing role of the family far less important.”?
The “risk-balancing role” of most families has certainly been reduced over time. However, inability to attain these “non-familial responses” or, in the case of the poor, to afford them, means that a vast number of children grow up cheated and parents, as a consequence, judge them- selves as failures.
On the other hand, Joseph Featherstone, writing on “Family Matters” in the Harvard Education Review (February 1979), speculates that urbanization and industrialization may in fact strengthen families because they now have more leisure and time to share childrearing. But whether our interconnectedness or dependency is lamented or accepted as fact, we continue to regard children as isolated persons unconnected to parents, relatives, neighborhoods and larger social realities. Our social services rest on a frighteningly simplistic concept: services focused upon the individual will benefit the individual. It is a bit like worrying about the quality of an automobile without devoting any attention to road construction or repair.
We must continue to dignify the individual by serving each person as a unique human being, but at the same time we must look at the larger context in which the individual attempts to move. If we do not broaden our focus ” … our public policies will be unable to do much more than help individuals repair damage that the environment is constantly reinflicting.”
There is evidence to suggest that lack of community support for families can produce results harmful to children. Dr. Julius Richmond, addressing a multidisciplinary conference at the University of Pennsylvania, noted: “Because of family separations and inadequate financial resources, parents themselves often lack the kind of emotional and financial support that will allow them to be good or adequate parents…researchers have noted repeatedly that one characteristic of abusing parents is social isolation.”
It is difficult to think ecologically because many of the forces impinging on children and families are not easily seen, identified or changed. When a child is sick, hungry, delinquent or a runaway, the problem is clear, but the cause of the problem remains elusive. So we focus on the manifest problem: the child.
The causes go beyond the child. It is estimated that “… a quarter to a third of all American children are born into families with financial strains so great that their children will suffer basic deprivations?” For example, if the nearest public health clinic is not on a public transportation route and is not open after working hours, a first-time mother and child may not receive proper care, thereby jeopardizing the child’s lifetime potential. Because child care options are not locally available, a mother, stuck in a tiny room in public housing, may begin to abuse her children. Because there is no money for respite homemaker services, an enervated father may put his handicapped child up for adoption.
We do not see these interconnected forces, only the results. And we continue to concentrate services on the child alone.
A Family’s Right to Privacy. Emerging children’s rights notwithstanding, the right of a parent to parent has historically been seen as inviolable: “When the family was the focal point of a child’s life and enjoyed a virtual monopoly as the source of education, health services, employment potential and recreational diversion, legal doctrine rested on an assumption that parents had a natural or inalienable right to raise their children as they saw fit.” Ironically, however, many of our policies and practices turn out to conflict with and even actively erode the strength and integrity of the family. AFDC payment structures may be the classic example. There is also an assumption that parents and relatives should not be paid or helped to be parents. It is assumed that love and caring are natural functions which, if imperfectly performed, will result in services to the chi/d. We do not take into consideration that most parents wish to parent properly. Some do not know how or are too overwhelmed to find the opportunity. In short, some of our policies imply that families have a right to disintegrate and that the state will intervene only when the situation becomes very serious. Then it will focus its attention on the victim-the child.
The Law. Children in many states are routinely locked up for the crime of disobeying their parents or not getting along with teachers in school. Either the law allows the state to seize children quickly from families which are in trouble or it seems geared to protect parents’ rights. Family integrity, or at least permanence, is not the thrust of the law, which seems to bounce randomly between the inviolable nature of parents’ rights and the right of a child to be free from abuse, neglect and exploitation.
We should strive for a more holistic view-family integrity and continuity. Our legal response to a family crisis is often to exacerbate the break-up, not to support, repair or guarantee permanence elsewhere. By not doing so, we damage children: “Continuity of relationships, surroundings and environmental influence are essential for a child’s normal development. Since they do not play the same role in later life, their importance is often underrated by the adult world.”
Research: Bronfenbrenner has also argued that our research has tended to take place in unnatural environments, far removed from the child’s natural context. For example, disruptive behavior, impaired school performance and feelings of anxiety and insecurity are often noted among children of divorced parents. The parents themselves often seem to be less communicative, more inconsistent and to use more negative sanctions on their children. A narrow look would blame the fact of divorce alone. A more ecological interpretation may reveal a new picture:
“These developmental disruptions do not seem to be attributable mainly to father absence but to stresses and a lack of support systems that result in changed family functioning for the single mother and her children … ”
Head Start studies and the Child and Family Research Program of ACYF are examples which demonstrate the value of a family perspective for public policy analysis and better scientific understanding of children’s needs. In addition to looking at the influence of certain types of educational materials in Head Start programs, at how Head Start children perform in public schools and the impact of its health services upon children in the program, ACYF has also looked at the effects of Head Start on parents and families. For example, it has asked whether a mother’s involvement in her child’s program persists after the child enters public school, to what extent Head Start parents attempt to improve their educational and occupational status and how their views as parents may have changed as a result of participating in Head Start.!” If we accept the notion that a focus on the individual is but half the battle, our research efforts must reflect ecological concerns.
Concern about families is inescapable. It has crept into the media, political rhetoric, budget formulations and personal lives. The reasons for concern at this time in our history are easy to understand. Divorce rates are skyrocketing and the glue of tradition provided by churches, neighborhoods and job stability has been loosened. Some have called the cult of “me” or the “new narcissism” the main culprit. It is the fault of the state, Lasch asserts, that we are too preoccupied with our own pleasure to be worried about the next generation: “The atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence in one area after another and has made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation and other bureaucracies. Narcissism represents the psychological dimension of this dependence.”
Women are entering the labor market in unprecedented numbers and there is concern about the kind of substitute care available for the children of working mothers.
Out-of-wedlock births have increased dramatically- from five percent of all births in 1960 to 15.5 percent today!”
Each year about 600,000 infants, or one in five, are born to teenage mothers and these children have a higher than average risk of birth defects. (For black babies, the rate is one in three).”?
Mobility, which makes neighborhood attachments difficult, means that” … the average American moves 14 times in his or her lifetime and 20 percent of our population moves each year … ”
In the face of these seemingly alarming trends and statistics stands Mary Jo Bane who, while acknowledging that the American family needs attention and assistance, urges us to look hard at what the data is really telling us: that while family and parenting configurations may change, the modern American family as an institution is resilient and durable, harboring strengths that should be recognized and taken advantage of.
The need to improve services to families is inescapable. But in planning them, we must keep the following aspects of service in mind.
Accessibility. Last year, a youth in the care of the Department of Youth Services asked, “Why did you put me in a foster home in Barnstable? There isn’t any busses from Brockton to Barnstable. My mom could never get to see me.”
Families must be able to reach the services they need and parents should be able to visit their children when temporary removal from the home is necessary.
Comprehensiveness and Decentralization. It is not uncommon for a troubled family to see many different workers from different agencies (with different intake criteria) from different parts of the city or state. Mother might be seeing an alcoholism counselor; father, a vocational counselor; brother, a probation officer; sister, a school adjustment counselor; and older brother, a CHINS (Children in Need of Services) worker. Besides the inefficiencies such a system creates, the bewildering array of helpers confuses and demeans the family.
Troubled families should be able to see one worker-a family services worker-who can either deliver needed services personally or broker the necessary ones. This would require a common language among service agencies, a somewhat common intake form, and much inter- agency cooperation and memoranda of understanding. It would almost certainly mean the eventual merger of those agencies serving troubled youth and their families, at a minimum the youth and welfare services and the children’s portion of mental health services. It would also suggest the creation of locally-based family and child service centers whose budgets were controlled and programs created at the lowest possible community level. (The programs would be monitored and overseen by a central office.)
We now have a jungle of programs affecting families. As the Family Impact Seminar report noted: “At least 268 programs (as listed in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance) provide direct financial assistance or services to individuals and families and have potential impact on families … countless other federal policies have substantial impact on families, including tax policies, court decisions, government employment practices, general revenue sharing, policies of regulatory agencies and macroeconomic policies … ”
In addition to the resulting confusion and overlap, we have structurally removed ourselves from families. Welfare was once the responsibility of towns. Although there were cases of dramatic inequity, workers assumed responsibilities for families. But the welfare system has fragmented its functions.
Stigma. Ideally, services should be provided on a sliding fee scale so that they are not perceived as the last resort for the poor and defeated. In addition, doors marked “Family and Children’s Center” seem less demeaning ones to walk through than doors marked “Welfare” or “Mental Health.”
Center services should be available to all and agencies should be able to respond to the needs of non-English- speaking people.
Participation. “You know, I’m really proud of my mom,” a delinquent high school student told me recently. “She talked to my principal. They may take me back in school.”
Many children and families have been helpless all their lives. Probably the greatest gift we can offer families is the sense of empowerment gained by learning the skills which allow them to negotiate the system. Unfortunately, the usual mode of operation is to provide services, not the ability to obtain these services. We should always consider such questions as: Are parents involved in treatment plans for their children? Do they know their rights? Are they consulted when their child is moved from one foster care placement to another? Or are they perceived only as helpless? Teaching families how to confront landlords and speak with school officials are examples of how we might “empower” families.
Family Focus. This means quite simply that what we do must be seen in terms of its effect on families. For example, plans drafted for a delinquent youth must indicate, at a minimum, how that youth’s family will be affected. Ideally, families should be the consideration in all service plans, not only those of social service agencies. President Carter has given serious thought to requiring all federal agencies to submit family impact statements much analogous to environmental impact statements.
Programs for Families. We must initiate programs for families. Out-of-home placements are inevitable in certain cases, but we must ask why family support programs are not in place. Since they are not a traditional part of our service spectrum, family programs appear to be extremely vulnerable. Last summer, the Deputy Director of the Massachusetts Office of Social Services observed:
“Reduction of homemaker time can result in costly foster care. Recently, the maximum number of hours for which homemakers can service families was substantially reduced. We are already receiving complaints that this reduction is forcing some relatives … to be unable to continue caring for children. For example … two children may have to go into expensive foster homes since their grandmother, who is handicapped, cannot provide physical care. There is no question that the children are better off with a blood relative, yet without homemaker support a family may be dismantled.”
Accountability, Monitoring and Data. All programs for children and families should be monitored at least annually by a combination of credentialed professionals, interested citizens (through local councils and boards) and clients. Programs must be accountable to the funding source and to the locales they serve. Such monitoring implies the existence of standards.
Data, too, must be assembled in such a way that we can see what is happening to children and families. A common language among human service agencies is needed.
Prevention. Three fundamental aspects of family life- schools, jobs and health-must be strengthened. Often we are too quick to pass children on to the welfare or youth services systems when the solution might be utilization of such strengthened and expanded mechanisms
as local school and health programs.
Measuring Outcomes. We in human services are able to make dramatic and convincing statements of need. We know how many teenage girls become pregnant; we can project roughly the number of abuse and neglect cases that will be reported; and we can state the shockingly high rate of minority teen unemployment. But we should also be able to demonstrate what works to ameliorate these situations. The launching of family initiatives must be accompanied by the tools to measure such initiatives. We have to be able to determine whether family-focused services are more effective and what the cost implications are.
Training. Training which concentrates solely on the counselor/counselee relationship must be expanded to include training in working with families and understanding the social and economic pressures which bear upon them. Our present pre- and in-service training modes may be major factors retarding a family-focused human service delivery system.
Permanence for Children. The all too common situation in which children languish in uncertain foster care placements, waiting year after year for adoption proceedings to inch forward, must cease. Our guiding principle must be permanence for the child: “This means that all child placements, except where specifically designed for brief temporary care, shall be as permanent as the placement of a newborn with its biological parents.”
In all of these activities, the projected role of the Family Advisory Committee is not a radical one. It suggests only that when the state conducts its business, it should seriously and formally consider the effects its activities will have on families. It can be a practical and exciting beginning.
*Attribution line: Originally published in the March-April 1980 issue of Children Today, a publication of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.