I’d like to share a cautionary note with my colleagues who are building family resource centers and community-based programs as if they were the golden arches. Many agencies are finally discovering the value of these approaches but in some cases, moving too quickly. This might eventually backfire.
In the haste to open multiple centers, agencies make the mistake of not clarifying their purpose, or not engaging with the neighborhood from the start. Such endeavors fail to understand the social justice implications of family support, and more importantly, miss the point that these approaches are rooted in how we do things, not simply how much. At their core, community-based centers are relational in nature and should enhance the capacity of both families and professional helpers.
My three-decade involvement with community-based programs has been driven in part by my discomfort with “good enough parenting,” a term I learned early in my career. Good enough parenting is intended to reflect a standard of care that Donald Winnicott described as “the sound instincts of normal parents … for stable and healthy families.”
Winnicott was trying to counter the idealized notions of parenting and to minimize outside intrusion of experts into family life.
I believe there is a subtext to this description when used by child welfare professionals. On the surface, it seems like a practical and balanced approach to the social policy question of when to enter the circle of family privacy and what standard of child safety and well-being is acceptable to avoid government overreach.
But even as a young professional, I thought it meant this is as far as the path goes. We accept as a given that the conventional way of doing things is adequate. To expect more of ourselves, or the families, is unrealistic. There is no possibility or next level for anyone involved. We are absolved because this is as good as it is going to get.
That troubled me, and drew me to family support programs, especially those that resembled our settlement house history and our current community-based family resource centers. In those settings you can do more because everyone knows more. You build relationships that energize our collective potentials. When done right, these relational approaches can be a spiritual experience, and the direct opposite of good enough.
There is the option to remain involved with a family, but not overstep or become punitive, as our system is wont to do. In these settings, every encounter means something to a family and to the helper. It’s an approach that calls on all parties to grow, learn and to communicate through interdependence.
This is similar to what Jesuit priests call Magis, their belief of doing more to connect with God, and therefore doing more for each other. Magis is based on the importance of pushing beyond the minimum, not settling for good enough. More quality, not quantity, in your connections with others.
And, there are parallel threads in the Judaic and Islamic belief systems, where the value of relational life has been known for centuries. In social work, we call this trauma-informed practice.
I’ve seen people have these experiences and connections at 12-step programs where everyone is welcome, with no judgment, with humility and gratitude as the guiding principles, along with a desire to make every day better than the one before. All of it is in connection and in community with others — embracing self-knowledge and self-worth through shared experiences.
This spiritual connection is never about religion. Instead, it’s the possibility of change, the capacity for trusting others, caring about oneself. Perhaps for the first time, someone experiences an intentional act of kindness and respect. It is not compliance-driven. This level of engagement encourages us to go beyond our tired, transactional interactions with families, and requires everyone involved to practice self-reflection.
You see this at thriving community-based, family support programs. It’s not exactly clear why it’s happening, but it is happening. People building relationships with others and creating social capital. Each encounter leads intuitively to the next one, unlike the totally unnatural human service settings where most families receive services. If someone comes for food or diapers, it’s an opportunity for everyone to engage — or not — depending on comfort levels. Helpers, with collateral intelligence, create a moment to ask more, learn more, do more.
Rushing the development of family support centers will simply lead to the creation of satellite offices for child welfare, and ultimately revert to the “good enough” standard of care. To avoid this, child welfare agencies and their newfound partners — including community residents — must ask themselves, what is our aperture for change? How do we keep ourselves from receding into our former selves?
How can we become a resource to the community and contribute to the personal growth and healing of families and our team? Are we welcoming each day with humility, hope and self-reflection, or only concerned with how many people come through the doors?
Our history of trying new things in child welfare has frequently taken a wrong turn, reverting to that feeble standard of good enough. Hopefully, the enthusiasm surrounding community-based family support programs will be different, provided we fully understand the enormous responsibility of being more, and not just doing more.