Main Page
This Issue
Next Article

2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 5, No. 1
April 2000

What is the Family Support Movement?

When you hear the words "family support program" or "family support movement," you may think of the family preservation services offered by your county DSS or of a family resource center in your community. Or perhaps you think of the Smart Start initiative or North Carolina's Families for Kids. The family support movement in North Carolina is all these things, and more.

Origins and Evolution of Family Support

In order to understand family support as it pertains to child welfare practice in North Carolina, it is important to look at both how this movement got its start and how it has evolved recently in North Carolina.

Family support emerged in the mid-1970s to fill gaps families were experiencing in their support. Combining knowledge about child development, family systems, and the impact of communities on families, this grassroots movement focused on preventing family crises and promoting healthy family functioning.

Most of these programs called themselves "family resource programs" to indicate their role as resources to be used as needed, on families' terms. They provided basic information about child development, activities for children and parents, and links to other family services in the community.

They fostered a welcoming environment so that parents could feel that in at least one place in the community, someone understood and valued the work they were doing with their kids (Best Practices Project, 1996). These programs emphasized family-to-family support rather than dependence on professional support systems, and their services were—and still are—entirely voluntary.

Family support programs are not just for at-risk families. They are founded on the belief that every family needs and deserves help, support, and access to resources. From a family support perspective, seeking help in parenting is a sign of strength. Such parents are seen as involved, concerned directors of their families' lives and children's growth.

Yet the idea of what constitutes family support has changed recently in North Carolina. We still have "traditional" community-based family support centers (family resource centers), which are usually run by and for parents themselves. At the same time, family support concepts and family-centered approaches have become more a part of DSS practice.

As a result, what constitutes family support to human services professionals in North Carolina has broadened to include family preservation (FPS) and intensive family preservation services (IFPS). Once seen as "after the fact" interventions, since to be eligible for these services a family must already be in crisis to some extent, FPS and IFPS are now viewed by many as part of a continuum of services designed to support and strengthen families.

Family Support Beliefs and Training

The philosophy of family support is based on nine principles for practice (see "Principles Underlying Family Support"). These principles, which describe good family support practice, closely parallel the family-centered principles that form the basis of best practice in child welfare in North Carolina.

To Laura Weber, director of the N.C. Family Resource Coalition, an agency that conducts family support training across the state, the principles underlying family support practice are the family support movement. As she puts it, "Family support is not about a particular kind of program, job, or agency. It is not discipline-specific. No matter what job you do, you can implement the family support principles."

Accordingly, the N.C. Family Resource Coalition's family support training is highly interdisciplinary. Its classes are attended by professionals involved in mental health, substance abuse counseling, transportation, public health, DSS, and especially family members. If we are serious about promoting partnerships with family members, Weber says, then family members must be involved at all levels of the system—especially in training.

Family Support in North Carolina

Since they first took root in North Carolina in the mid to late 1980s, family support programs have taken many forms. They were founded wherever people familiar with family support saw a need and were able to marshal the resources necessary to provide services.

In 1994 a big change came to North Carolina's family support community. At that time, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services selected family support/family preservation programs in 55 counties and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to receive state and federal funds to serve their communities (NCDCS-DHHS, 1998). These programs use a variety of service models, including some of those outlined in "Family Support Service Models at Work in North Carolina.". For a look at some of the services provided by North Carolina's family support agencies, refer "Services Provided by Family Support Agencies."

Another expansion of the family support community began in 1999, when, at the request of Governor Hunt, the state legislature provided funding to bring family preservation services to all of North Carolina's 100 counties.

Relationship with Child Welfare

To some, differences between the child welfare and family support communities are an obstacle. Viewed from the perspective of "traditional" child welfare, the sometimes time-intensive, family-centered approach and voluntary services offered by family support programs seem like unaffordable luxuries. And, because they want so badly to help families build themselves up, some involved in family support see child welfare workers as "the bad guys" or "baby snatchers" when they must exercise their authority to protect children.

Yet others see these differences as complementary rather than divisive. In the view of Becky Kessel, Families for Kids Coordinator for Buncombe County, North Carolina DSS, "We can't effectively do our jobs without family support programs." Kessel sees family support programs as an essential part of the array of services to families.

This perception of a "win-win" partnership with family support is in part a result of changes in North Carolina's approach to child welfare. In recent years training for child welfare workers has placed a greater emphasis on the importance of strengths-based thinking and a family-centered approach to working with families.

Initiatives such as North Carolina's Families for Kids and the Challenge for Children have also had an influence. In an effort to obtain positive outcomes for children and families, DSS's have begun to "open up" to their communities, embracing new approaches, such as family group conferencing, that are more inclusive of families and providers from other agencies.

In Laura Weber's opinion, this trend must continue. "Families hold the key to human services reform," she says. "We, the professionals, developed the system. We know the system is not perfect. But we will never be able to get the system to where it needs to be without the input of the people who use the system. Families are the missing piece."

References

Bell, S. M. (1999). Telephone interview. [October 20, 1999].

Best Practices Project—Family Resource Coalition. (1996). Guidelines for family support practice. Chicago: Family Resource Coalition.

Kessel, B. (2000). Telephone interview. [January 24, 2000].

Kirk, R. S., & Ashcraft, K. R. (1998). User's guide for the North Carolina Family Assessment Scale (NCFAS). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.

Littell, J., & Schuerman, J. R. (1995). A synthesis of research on family preservation and family reunification programs. Chicago: Westat, Inc.

N.C. Division of Children's Services, Dept. of Health and Human Services. (March 4, 1998). N.C. Family Preservation/Family Support Program, Resource Development Team. Online: http://childrensservices.dhhs.state.nc.us/resource..htm [1999, October 19].

N.C. Division of Social Services, Dept. of Health and Human Services. (1997). Family preservation services: Annual report 1996. Raleigh, NC: Author.

N.C. Division of Social Services. (1999). Families for Kids, the next generation: Child welfare reform in North Carolina (Grant Proposal submitted to Duke Endowment, August 3, 1999). Raleigh, NC: Author.

N.C. Partnership for Children. Smart Start home page. Online: http://www.smartstart-nc.org/ [1999, October 20].

2000 Jordan Institute for Families