I) Trajectory for family seeing and SofS network building
“Just when you think you know what you’re doing the work takes you to your next level of incompetence and asks you to think deeper and do better.” - Andrew Turnell
Most people are attracted to children in a healthy way. Think about the last time you saw someone bring a baby into a room full of people and just how quickly people lined up to hold the baby. Many traumatized children have developed the capacity to draw out this attraction, along with our protective instincts, at a level that puts even the cutest baby to shame. How do we best use this natural attraction to bring more safe and stable adults around children and families? If these relationships are what best helps children thrive in the face of significant adversity, what impact does having these people around have on the children’s parents? What difference does it make to children when their parents do better? In a world where many of us grow up to be more like our parents than we might like, what sort of parents do we want the parents of the children we work with to become?
A) Make it urgent.
Get a safety network around each family within a week of case opening. Few social workers could suddenly start doing this with every family, but most could begin doing it each time they start with a new family. Or if necessary every other family or every third family. The more we do it, the better we get at it, and the faster it goes. When there is a network, it can do a lot of things for the family that the social worker would otherwise end up doing. Once every family has a network around the children, the social worker’s job will be far easier and getting a network around every new family will seem more doable.
B) Ask family/network finding questions at intake.
- Who else is worried about this?
- Who do you see helping and supporting this family?
- Who do you think could help this family keep the children safe?
C) Invite parents to invite people they trust
When calling to set up an appointment, encourage the parent to have people they trust to help and support them at the meeting.
D) Get started right away
Within the first 5 minutes of the first interview with parents and children, ask questions to identify possible network members. You might do a genogram, family safety circle or have a values conversation. If the tool you choose doesn’t work well enough, try a different tool later or during your next interview. If you’re still struggling to find network members after you’ve tried all the tools that might be helpful, is there one you’ve tried already that might work better the second time around?
If any of the children have fathers not living in the home find out where they are and how to reach them. This isn’t just about involving the children’s fathers. It includes involving all of each child’s relatives on their father’s side. Follow this trajectory from A-M, as needed, as best you can, with each absent father and his family. If there’s a story about a father being dangerous to the children or other family members, make sure to do this work in a way that fully protects everyone, yourself included, while also holding the possibility that there’s a different, and possibly far safer, story on the father’s side.
Whenever danger is identified, whether imminent or not, describe the danger to the parents along with the urgent need to reduce the danger before leaving the home. Help the parents identify people who can help them keep their children safe in their home. Encourage parents to get these people on the phone and ask them to come over right away. Don’t leave the children until enough has been done to increase the children’s safety. Let parents know you or someone else from your agency will be checking soon to make sure the things the parents decided to do are working to keep their children safe or checking with the parents about what they’re willing to do to have their children safely returned to their care.
This is the moment of greatest leverage for quickly getting a strong safety network and plan around the children. If we leave children in danger, how do we come back later to insist the parents do something then to make their children safer? If we remove children without giving parents a fair chance to make their children safe enough in their home, they’ll most often be too angry and crushed for a time to work effectively with us or even to call the people in their naturally occurring network for help. If we immediately get more adults around the children and get a good enough plan to keep the children safe overnight, through the weekend, or through the next week, everybody involved will be in a better place to do the work that needs to be done, and to do it together.
G) Talking with Children and Three Houses
When talking with children or doing Three Houses or maps with children make sure to ask questions about who the children feel safe with and who they want in their house of dreams or their safety house.
Begin a map while interviewing parents and children, or as soon as possible after the interviews, draft a map with forensic details describing strengths and dangers/worries, harm and danger statements, safety goals and scales and next steps. Draft a words and pictures story when appropriate. Review the map and story with the parents and agree to make appropriate changes. Identify who the parents will invite to help them demonstrate safety for their children. Gently let the parents know that having a network is an agency bottom line. Transparently putting your assessment of the family in writing for them to see and challenge and working with them to resolve or accept disagreements builds trust. When parents trust us, they aren’t as afraid to introduce us to the important people in their life.
Even the families that tell us they have no one, almost always have people. They have people’s phone numbers, they have Facebook friends, or using buddies, and they have relatives somewhere. Often what they really mean is they don’t trust us enough to introduce us to their people. Once we’ve created a map and story that works for the family and the agency, we most often have a beginning partnership around the children’s safety, and the family will start to trust us with some of their people. Once the family sees us respecting their people and honoring what they can do to contribute to the children’s safety and well-being, we’ll often see more people dribble out from one conversation to the next.
I) Network meetings
There’s no need for family members or social workers to ask the people being invited to a safety network meeting to make a big or lasting commitment. Just ask them to come to learn more about what’s going on for the family and to help the family and agency figure out what’s best for the children. Honor their knowledge and commitment to the children and their family. Describe our need for their help in understanding how to be most helpful to the children and family. Once they know what the agency’s and family’s worries are, ask them what they are able and willing to do to help. Respect their decisions about what they can and cannot do. It’s better to have a lot of network members all doing just a bit to help, than to have a few members doing a lot. Whose problem is it if more network members are needed to keep the children safe? While at network/team meetings, ask if there are enough people helping to keep the children safe and who else can help. When necessary, schedule some more family finding activities with the parents and children, or with the parent’s permission, with existing network members.
J) Don’t give up
Just as we always keep looking for new strengths, always keep looking for safety network members and for the strengths and capacities safety network members bring. Do an Ecomap or Mobility Mapping with a child or parent. Do the Family Finding formulation exercise for a child. If one of these tools don’t work well enough, try the next, and the next, or try the tools with a different person.
K) Use your Authority
Do you have statutory authority to do family finding? Do you have or can you get a court order that allows you to track down and invite relatives and kin to a safety network meeting? If so, let the parents know you have this authority. Ask them if they want to bring some people around, or if they prefer you to find them on their behalf. Do everything you can legally do to get a network around the children and their parents. Seneca Search Services is a quick and powerful database search tool designed for child welfare social workers who need to quickly find family without much help from the family.
L) Relative search or family finding staff
If you still don’t have a strong enough network, get help from a dedicated relative search or family finding colleague or from a colleague in your agency who is good at getting a network. If you haven't found any relatives you might consider using one of the many available DNA test kits to get a list of possible relatives 4-8 weeks after a cheek swab or saliva sample is submitted.
M) Outside Consultants
If you still don’t have a strong enough network, seek help from a licensed Signs of Safety trainer or consultant or from an experienced Family Finder. It’s simply not up to us to decide that it’s okay for some children to live a miserable, lonely, or dangerous life.