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Parenting Programs

By: Lynne Katz l

It wasn’t that long ago that I stood in a Juvenile Court courtroom for a case that was moving towards a termination of parental rights trial. The father of the children was brought from the detention center in his orange jumpsuit and in shackles, flanked by two police officers. The judge asked the father if there was anything he’d like to say, noting that he had been charged with physical abuse of his young son. His response had a strong impact on me, as a child development expert witness in the case. He said,” I don’t understand your honor, my father beat me and I’m fine…so why am I being charged with doing the same thing to my son?” Was the father really fine, given his incarceration? Had there been no interventions for the abuse he had endured from his own father, which he had, in turn, perpetrated on his own son?

In that moment, it drove home to me, that this father was expressing what we know to be true—that for many of us, whether we admit it or not, we will parent in some of the ways we were parented, in the absence of alternative role models or options, and we may often still believe in the right of our parental authority figures to have parented and disciplined us as they saw fit. Parenting itself, is a tall order. It is the process of promoting and supporting the social, physical, intellectual, creative, emotional, and spiritual development of children. (Bavolek,1983)

The intersection of parenting styles and beliefs about the status of children, with the potential for child maltreatment, has been studied for decades. And when risk factors, including substance abuse, mental health challenges, parental stress, lack of familial support and family isolation issues are present, either singly or in combination, we know that the parent-child relationship has an increased chance of being negatively impacted, and that ‘parenting’ can be challenging and potentially dangerous for children. The demands of caregiving in any family can lead to emotional and physical fatigue, diminished patience, and strain. (Dexter & Deckard, 2004). Adding additional risk factors, however, such as what we see in dependency cases, may result in child maltreatment.

Knowing these facts, we can better answer the question, why do so many dependency case plans include the requirement for the parent(s) to successfully complete a parenting program?

And part in parcel, we need to ask the second question, what kind of parenting program is typically available to our parents in dependency, and how will we know if the program works to bolster parental strengths and decrease harmful behaviors? Parenting programs range from content that teaches parents how to feed their baby, how to take a baby’s temperature, how to use CPR and First Aid, for example, while others address the daily care of children and overviews of developmental milestones. While learning these skills is essential, we must also do a deeper dive into the fundamental issues that have set a parent on a path to maltreat or neglect their children.

Programs that address these deeper issues are typically evidence-based (science- informed) programs that have been shown to be effective in developing protective factors that strengthen families and in turn, reduce child maltreatment. These programs recognize the high incidence of substance abuse in child welfare cases, and co-existing mental health and developmental issues faced by families which are impacting the ability to parent in healthy ways.

Dr. Karol Kumpfer, a leader in the field of parenting program development, identifies five protective factors of strong families in her Strengthening Families model:

Parental resilience Social connections

Concrete support in times of need Knowledge of parenting and child development Social and emotional competence of children

Her model focuses on Increasing family strengths, enhancing child development knowledge, teaching parents alternative discipline methods, decreasing the risk of substance use in children and youth, and reduces the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. The Strengthening Families program is one of the current curriculums being delivered in our child welfare system. (Center for the Study of Social Policy, Washington, DC)

Dr. Stephen Bavolek is also a parenting expert, and developer of the Nurturing Parenting (NP) programs and the Adult-Adolescent Parenting Inventory (AAPI-2.5) assessment tool, both of which are also being implemented in our system of care, notes that 70% of our personality is developed from the way we are treated during our process of growing up (November,2011.) He identifies a range of parenting styles: permissive, authoritarian, empathic/caring and abusive/neglecting, and stresses that these styles cross all cultures, socio-economic levels, and family systems. His NP curriculum and AAPI –

2.5 maltreatment risk assessment tool rest on five constructs related to parental risk for child maltreatment: Inappropriate expectations of children, the inability to demonstrate empathy towards children’s needs, strong parental belief in the use of corporal punishment, reversing parental-child family roles, and oppressing children’s power and independence. These risks are classified as low, moderate, or high. Using the AAPI-2.5 and the NP curriculum with our dependency families allows us to identify risks for maltreatment, target intervention and allows us to determine if the curriculum has decreased those risks post-participation. These data have been used as evidence in permanency decision-making and have been validated in cases that have gone to appeals. (Bavolek, 1979@ Family Development Resources, Inc.)

In summary, the risk factors identified in many of our dependency cases are consistent with what we know about the compromising effects on healthy parenting that are derived from parental substance abuse, co-occurring mental health issues, lack of consistent or appropriate parenting role-models and or inter-generational neglect, exposure to violence and maltreatment. Given the high incidence of these factors, parenting interventions are recommended as case plan tasks and should be seen as just as important as treatment interventions, psychological counseling, and medication compliance. We should expect to see a parenting task included in many of our dependency case plans and should advocate for the use of evidence-based curriculums and risk assessment tools with our families, to increase the chances of long-term successful outcomes and to help reduce the chances of re-abuse of children.