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Competent communities have been invaded, captured, and colonized by professionalized services.” - John L. McKnight

Almost all of us can tell stories about professional services that have helped us build up our naturally occurring relationships and as a result have been incredibly helpful. Some may have even saved our lives. We don’t know what we would do if services like this weren’t available. Yet we also see times when people in naturally occurring relationships keep their distance because they’re afraid they don’t have the right expertise. Times when people suggest professional help instead of listening, lest they say or do the wrong thing. Times when professional helping crowds out the helping we still need from naturally occurring networks. 


We’ve accepted the single story that recovery from alcohol or drug abuse is hard. We believe people have to go through treatment, then abstain and attend a recovery group for the rest of their lives. How many of us have even heard about Lee Robins research which found that 43% of the American soldiers in Vietnam used opioids, that 46% of those using did so often enough to experience withdrawal symptoms, and that without treatment or therapy, 90% of those who used in Vietnam didn’t use at all back in the United States? Who knows about the United States National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Study which found that 75% of persons who recover from alcohol dependence do so without seeking any kind of professional help? Whose heard about Bruce Alexander’s rat park experiments and his conclusion that addiction isn’t about the person, but about living environments that lack close ties to family, culture, and traditional spirituality?


It’s okay to drive an old car when we can’t afford a new one, but we can’t understand people who stay in bad relationships for lack of good relationships. Social workers are happy to help people fix their old car when they can, but have regularly told people to just get out of their bad relationships. How many of us know about examples of work like that done by Adriana Uken, John Sebold and Mo Yee Lee that helped participants end their violent behaviors simply by improving their relationships? Every time we develop a safety network for children we simultaneously develop a healing network for their parents. We use our best professional skills to help parents learn to navigate the sometimes-treacherous relationships they have with the people with whom they belong and with the people they need to be able to trust. As parents and network members heal, they grow their ability to teach the children adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child teaches us that it’s within these relationships that children heal. 


In 2009 the United States Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an Insight for Practitioners of Parent Training Programs. At the time, they estimated that child welfare refers many of the approximately 800,000 families that go to parent training programs each year. They found 5 important components for acquiring parenting skills and reducing children’s externalizing behaviors;

  1. teaching parent’s emotional communication skills;
  2. teaching positive parent child interaction skills; 
  3. teaching parents the correct use of time out;
  4. teaching parents to respond consistently to their child; and 
  5. requiring parents to practice with their child during the sessions.

Good parents have good relationships with their children. They model good relationship skills to their children. How much have collective parenting skills improved since parents started going to training in the 1960’s? How did parents learn these skills before formal parent training programs were started?


Take a close look at the families that have been investigated or assessed 3 or more times by your system. How many of these families are already connected to several professional service providers? Is there something about these families that keeps them from getting enough benefit from the services, or could there be something about the services that keeps them from providing enough benefit to these families?


For a powerful story about families overwhelmed by services that aren't making much of a difference and the possibilities involved in redesigning the welfare state using the power of relationships, check out this 17 minute TED talk by Hilary Cottam.



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