This week the blog is written by Caara Goddard who is a licensed Signs of Safety trainer/consultant. She has been working in Aboriginal Child Welfare for over 6 years in British Columbia, Canada. Caara recently completed her Masters in Social Work and has trained with Susie Essex and Andrew Turnell and continues to work within a community of solution-focussed practitioners around the world. She resides on a farm with her husband and children. As a mother to eight children and a grandmother to five, working pro-actively with families and children have always been an integral part of her life.
Working in a solution focused child protection framework can be challenging, particularly when it comes to complex issues that plague our casework such as domestic violence. As a strengths-based practitioner, I understand the way I approach families and how I engage with them is as important as the nature of the work undertaken. However, the various layers of ambiguity and “denial” that practitioners, families and support networks are immersed in, often make difficult work seemingly impossible. How do we create safety and forward movement with families and establish co-constructive relationships with individuals when our systems operate in an anxiety-driven framework? We need to continually create energy within our practice to embrace our solution focused paradigm to see, appreciate and be curious about the hidden strengths and resources within families, while maintaining a firm balance regarding the child protection concerns. This is often a difficult dance that requires tenacity, and skill, alongside grace and compassion.
There are solution-focussed practitioners we can look to, who have lead the way, such as Insoo Kim Berg, Steve de Shazer, and more recently John Sebold and Adriana Uken who have developed a successful Solution-Focused treatment program for Domestic Violence Offenders as well as Andrew Turnell and Susie Essex who co-authored “Working with “Denied” Child Abuse. All of these skilled practitioners believe in the importance of language and compassion as well as accountability for solutions instead of focusing on individuals or families needing to take responsibility for their problems. These therapists have worked to create a shift in our culture and our social systems which have continually reinforced frameworks focused on deficits, blame and confrontation in order to create space for a framework that would initiate change by using our conversation as a change agent, and our language as our tools in order to help families construct a future focused reality to keep their children safe. “People who use conversations to facilitate change should be as serious about words as musicians are about notes” (Mo Yee Lee, John Sebold and Adriana Uken).
Most child protection research tends to focus on the causation of maltreatment rather than on what solves the problem and research rarely defines what constitutes meaningful safety relative to that area of concern. Therefore it is difficult for professionals to apply evidence based research to their work and they are more vulnerable within their professional judgment. This requires experienced workers to use more intuitive skills alongside a solution focused questioning approach to collaborative work with families and their networks to forge their own solutions and be accountable to not only to the statutory authorities, but also their own networks. “To bring rigour to relationship-grounded, strengths-based, safety-organized practice requires careful and clear-eyed attention to be focused on the enactment of good intentions in clear demonstrations of protection, over time.” (Andrew Turnell).
It is difficult to share the questioning process in one brief blog, however there are several strength-based questions that have become some of my favorites in working with families where domestic violence has become an issue that have been useful in developing safety plans.
- How would you like your sons to see you resolving conflict so that they can be in respectful relationships with their partners in the future?
- Who has been able to help you in the past that you consider a good support to you, your partner, your kids?
- During the period from 2007-2012 there were no intakes, what were you doing then? Who was your support then? What was different? What has changed?
- Has there been a time when you’ve been able to have a disagreement where it has been resolved without a lot of yelling or even hitting? What did that look like? What did you do?
- What do you think the doctors are worried about that saw you in ER?
- You’re right….all families fight and it’s good to see parents arguing and sorting it out their problems in a good way. What do you think fighting/arguing should look like so your children aren’t scared/worried?
- How do you want your kids to remember you as parents when they grow up? Would they be able to look back and say they showed us how to sort out disagreements in a good way?
- What do you think the child protection agency needs to see in order to convince them that you aren’t drinking and fighting in your home?
- I noticed that you were concerned about Johnny seeing you with bruises, broken jaw etc. how could you prevent him from seeing you like that in the future?
- Are there difficult situations where you get upset, angry? Has there been a time when you dealt with this better? In a way you think it was ok for the kids to be there?
- What would you need to have in place in order for Johnny to never see you drinking and yelling, hitting, kicking etc. his mom again?
Once we are able to engage with families in a more meaningful way and co-construct a preferred future with them, we are often able to help them recognize the impact of the child protection issues and start co-creating meaningful safety plans involving their safety networks. This creates energy for both the under funded, over stressed, fear driven child protection systems as well as the practitioners who are continually looking for opportunities to effect change and increase hope.
“Some of us tend to do away with things that are slightly damaged. Instead of repairing them we say: “well, I don’t have time to fix it, I might as well throw it in the garbage can and buy a new one.” Often we also treat people this way. We say: “Well, he has a problem with drinking; well, she is quite depressed; well they have mismanaged their business…we’d better not take the risk of working with them.” When we dismiss people out of hand because of their apparent woundedness, we stunt their lives by ignoring their gifts, which are often buried in their wounds. We all are bruised reeds, whether our bruises are visible or not. The compassionate life is the life in which we believe that strength is hidden in weakness and that true community is a fellowship of the weak”. Henri Nouwen