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Family Preservation Can Be an Appropriate Strategy
If Realistic Expectations Are Maintained

Document Author: Michael Weber, Associate Director National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse
Reprinted From: NRCCSA News, the newsletter of the National Resource Center on Child Sexual Abuse, March/April 1996 issue

At a time of social tumult when the ills of modern society are burgeoning, it is tempting to accept solutions so simplistic that they would be rejected out of hand under other circumstances or with greater scrutiny. Over the past two decades, dwindling resources, increased child poverty, growing numbers of child abuse reports, the crack/cocaine epidemic, domestic violence, and inconsistent leadership have caused advocates, professionals and elected officials with a special interest in the welfare of children to restrain a healthy skepticism and too gullibly accept unrealistic expectations about "family preservation."

Family preservation as an articulated goal emerged at a time when family structure was changing dramatically, family breakup was increasingly common, the number of foster children was growing, and politicians were proclaiming the importance of traditional family values. In this social context, family preservation emerged as an ideal rather than as a clear set of public policies providing guidance about the circumstances under which we expect children to be removed from abusive or dangerous parents and the commitment we are willing to make to these children to find them a different, safe, nurturing family.

At the same time, "intensive family preservation services" emerged as a promising method of keeping families together during a crisis until long-term services could effect more substantive changes in the family. In an environment of diminishing resources for services for families and children and minimal willingness to reallocate current resources or re-engineer the child welfare system to better prevent abuse, this new method was looked to--with some assistance from unrealistically optimistic promoters, as a short-term, low-cost means of resolving the entire spectrum of family problems which might result in the abuse or deaths of children.

The current debate is unproductively and unnecessarily polarized. No single policy can resolve the heart-wrenching lives of abused children and no single social service program can remedy every family problem facing our society. In addition, a viable family preservation program should not be defined as any strategy keeping children out of foster care nor should it attempt to avoid any use of foster care.

However, intensive family preservation services are an appropriate strategy for enabling some children to safely remain with their families while a crisis is being diffused and while appropriate long-term services are arranged. Enabling families and child welfare professionals to access this strategy when appropriate was the goal of the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect when it recommended in its 1995 report on child fatalities (1) that "Family preservation services should be available in every jurisdiction." The Advisory Board also strongly recommended that "States should follow guidelines when considering family preservation services" for individual families. With this recommendation, the Board proposed eight very specific guidelines, including the statement that "the safety and well-being of the children must be the priority in the selection of family preservation (or any other) service programs for families and children."

The public, elected officials, children's advocates, and families and children will be better served by the development of clear policies to guide our society in better protecting children and enabling them to live in safe, nurturing families. In addition, we need to develop program strategies and foster serious research to guide child welfare professionals in better determining which services and supports have a realistic expectation of assisting parents in safely raising and nurturing their children.

[Michael Weber is also the chair of the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect and is the founding chair of the Intensive Family Preservation Services National Network.]


(1.) U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, "A Nation's Shame: Fatal Child Abuse and Neglect in the United States," Washington, D.C.: 1995, pg. 139-140.

This article appeared in the March/April 1996 issue of "NRCCSA News," the newsletter of the National Resource Center on Child Sexual Abuse.


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