Family Preservation Background


Initially, the term "family preservation" was applied to Homebuilders, a foster care placement prevention program developed in 1974 in Tacoma, Washington. The Homebuilders model called for short-term, time-limited services provided to the entire family in their home. Services were provided to families with children who were at risk of an imminent placement into foster care. 

The program was based, in part, on crisis intervention theory. This theory holds that families experiencing a crisis -- that is, about to have a child placed in foster care -- would be more amenable to receiving services and learning new behaviors. Early exponents of the theory also believed that crises were experienced for a short time (i.e., six weeks) before they disappear or are resolved.  Social learning theory also played a part in defining the Homebuilders model. Social learning theory rejects the belief that changes in thinking and feeling must precede changes in behavior. Instead, behavior, beliefs and expectations influence each other in a reciprocal manner.

Initially, the program was expected to serve families with older youth who were referred from mental health agencies. Subsequently, the program was used to serve families with children 0-18 who were referred from the child welfare agency. Key program characteristics included: contact with the family within 24 hours of the crisis; caseload sizes of one or two families per worker; service duration of four to six weeks; provision of both concrete services and counseling, with an emphasis on techniques that change behaviors and responses among family members; staff availability to families 24 hours per day/seven days per week; and an average of 20 hours of service per family per week. In addition, the program was characterized by a philosophy of treating families with respect, emphasizing the strengths of family members, and providing both counseling and concrete services.

Since the early 1970s, the term "family preservation" has been used to describe a variety of programs that are intended to provide services to children and families who are experiencing serious problems that may eventually lead to the placement of children in foster care or otherwise result in the dissolution of the family unit. Some of these programs differed in their theoretical underpinnings. For example, the FAMILIES program begun in Iowa in 1974 was based on family systems theory. Applications of this theory focused on the way family members interact with one another and attempted to change the way in which the family functions as a whole. Under the original program in Iowa, teams of workers carried a caseload of 10 to 12 families whom they saw in the families' homes for an average of four and one-half months. Both concrete and therapeutic services were provided and the principles of working with families in a respectful and positive manner were emphasized.

The Intensive Family Services Program which began in Oregon, was based upon a family treatment model. It relied less on the provision of concrete and supportive services and more on family therapy. Services were provided in an office as well as in the home and were less intensive than in the Homebuilders model. Workers carried a caseload of approximately 11 families. Services were provided for 90 days with weekly follow-up services provided for an average of three to five and one-half months.

Over the years, other states adopted existing family preservation models. Some of these programs were slight variations on the basic Homebuilders model, while others adapted the Iowa or Oregon approach to family preservation. Although these programs differed in treatment theory, the level of intensity of services provided, and the length of services, they shared a common philosophy of family centered services including focusing on family strengths, involving families in determining their case plan goals, serving the entire family, and treating family members with respect.

In addition, some programs began to provide services to families whose children had been placed in foster care and had a case plan goal of reunification. Often these programs followed the same service model that was used for placement prevention -- the difference resting solely in the foster care status of the children served. Reunification efforts have received considerably less attention than the placement prevention programs in the documented literature; nevertheless, they represent a related effort to reduce the length of stay in foster care and to prevent re-entry into care in cases where prevention of placement was not initially possible. 

In 1993, Congress passed legislation establishing title IV, part B-2 of the Social Security Act, creating funding for family preservation and family support programs. The legislation does not endorse any single program model for family preservation services. Instead, states are allowed to determine their own program models with the broad definition stated below:

Family Preservation Services -- services for children and families designed to help families (including adoptive and extended families) at risk or in crisis, including:
  • services designed to help children
  • where appropriate, return to families from which they have been removed; or
  • be placed for adoption, with legal guardian or in some other planned, permanent living arrangement;
  • preplacement prevention services programs, such as intensive family preservation programs, designed to help children at risk of foster care placement remain with their families;
    • service programs designed to provide follow-up care to families to whom a child has been returned after a foster care placement;
    • respite care of children to provide temporary relief for parents and other caregivers (including foster parents); and
    • services designed to improve parenting skills (by reinforcing parents' confidence in their strengths, and helping them to identify where improvement is needed and to obtain assistance in improving those skills) with respect to matters such as child development, family budgeting, coping with stress, health and nutrition.  
As evidenced in the above definition, the legislation further broadened the definition of family preservation services allowing states a variety of options in how new federal funds for family preservation would be utilized. 
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