Classic experiments in the 1970’s demonstrated that it’s not so much adverse events that result in deleterious consequences, but rather a lack of perceived control over those events. Subjects in these experiments who learned that they could not influence their challenging situations eventually gave up trying. As a result they experienced a broad range of long-lasting effects, including decreased immune function and increased sickness, signs of depression, and elevations in drug use, including alcohol. Researchers named this condition “learned helplessness.”
Our present moment in child welfare will yield this phenomenon in abundance if we are not careful. These parents and children live in a shrinking present and face an uncertain future. Regardless of where they are on the continuum of services, kids and families who were already hanging on by their fingertips are now more likely to fall into the chasm of total collapse.
The context for this widespread despair has far-reaching implications for our primary prevention and alternative family support models. We should be vigilant about the much discussed “surge” in child welfare cases, but far more concerned about the horizontal spread of futility and apathy among parents already utilizing social services.
The convergence of factors is stacked against families in these precarious situations. Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have brought to the surface long-simmering disparities and difficulties facing children, youth and parents who are known to the system. We can consider older youth, developmentally in a transition period and now facing tremendous uncertainty. Or imagine what it is like for families who lack access to technology and wireless connections, making teletherapy services moot.
Affordable options for housing and transportation are diminished
, as salaries shrink or are lost altogether. In addition, this autumn will present educational uncertainty for countless kids, even as we know that schools can be an accessible option for support and alternative care for children during and after school hours. Already at higher risk for compromised health, poor families are experiencing medical insecurity in myriad ways – not just COVID-19 related, but everything from asthma to dental care to acute emergencies and chronic care appointments. Most concerning is the intersection of parental addictions with child maltreatment.
This is occurring at a time when we are asking all families to live in a country of diminishing expectations and opportunities for children. The parents and children known to child welfare exist within the subset of our country’s short-term restricted resources and long-term economic contraction and social divide. So many of them are joined together by what they perceive as total disregard, not necessarily by an agency or a social worker, but by the circumstances of their lives.
That perception and narrative may lead people to eliminate themselves from the social equation by giving up. Hope implies the possibility of a better future and carries the burden of responsibility. As cracks in social safety nets turn into chasms, many abandon hope entirely. And once that happens, interactions with social services become marginal or nonexistent. A combination of growing economic and social disparities, often mixed with racism,or the dynamics of addiction or mental health issues, is the perfect cocktail for parental abandonment.
A large body of research on learned helplessness shows that the perceived ability to do something about a situation is more important than the situation itself. It also suggests that agencies concerned with family well-being amid the coronavirus should focus on strategies for promoting individual and family self-determination by developing small, achievable plans for progress in collaboration with families and provide clear feedback about these goals on a regular basis.
Agencies should look for the strategic points of intersection between medicine, substance abuse treatment, schools, and child care to increase their engagement with families who are in need of extra support. Finding and leveraging shared values within those partnerships of child safety and parental engagement can be used to develop opportunities for families to create a narrative of success built on incremental acts of accomplishment.
Small steps toward self-efficacy will realize broad benefits for individuals and families. That requires agencies to make a conscious effort regarding the message of support, as well as a responsibility to prepare its messengers, the front line social workers.
This is not a feel-good strategy. It is an equation of simple math that always seems to elude child welfare. Adding the higher number of risk factors to the lower numbers of protective factors explains a total of more children in care. Unless we change the equation.