How to solve a family crisis the democratic wayby Larissa Anderson, Minnesota Public Radio
The child welfare system traditionally diagnoses a family crisis and then tells the family how to fix it. But another model called Family Group Decision Making gives the family in crisis a voice in the decision making process.
Ramsey county is one of several in Minnesota offering this program to families whose children are suffering abuse or neglect.
In The Loop producer Larissa Anderson recently talked to a family participating in the program. Because the family still has a pending court case, they asked that their names not be used in this story.
St. Paul, Minn. — Grandpa was in Texas when he got the phone call saying his three grandchildren were in foster care. Half a country away, his son and daughter-in-law were dealing with drug abuse and close to losing their rights as parents.
Grandpa felt powerless.
"What's going to happen with these children, their life is really at stake."
So he and grandma moved to Minnesota to help get the children back with the family.
That process was a little more difficult than they thought it would be. In fact, Grandpa's son says the county was trying to push their own agenda.
"You got some social workers that will work with the parents and keep on working with you and then you got some that they call the terminator, them the ones like to just terminate parental rights, and that's sure what we got. We got a terminator"
If the parents did lose their rights, Grandpa and Grandma thought that the kids should go with them. But one of the obstacles Grandpa immediately came up against was Child Protection Services. He just didn't feel like he was getting through to them.
"We better understand the needs of our grandchildren, and what was happening was even though we was communicating that, the agency apparently either didn't hear it or didn't believe it. It wasn't until family group decision making came into play that things started working out."
Family Group Decision Making is a kind of child welfare that is democratically-driven. Instead of the courts making all the decisions, the family gets together to discuss and decide for themselves what's best for their children. If they come up with a plan that satisfies the county's concerns, the county then recommends that plan to the court.
As part of this process, Grandpa's family met up with a group of social workers and a facilitator in a room completely outside of the court system, a neutral location.
"You got windows, it was you know nice sunlight, we had pizza, they ordered us food. It's a nice setting for decision-making."
To start the meeting, the social workers went over how the family got into the crisis. Then they talked about what the family had to address in their plan to ensure the children's safety.
"Then," Grandpa says, "all of those support services, all of the agencies' workers leave the room and then there's just the family."
That's Grandpa, Grandma, their son and their daughter-in-law. The son's brother and sister couldn't be there in person, but they joined the discussion by phone from their homes in Chicago.
Before even starting their conversation, Grandpa says they all agreed on some ground rules.
"You have to be open and you have to be honest at this meeting, so your life is an open book now and the people that is in that book is going to be all of the characters sitting there at the table."
The very structure of the meeting gave them an equal voice and encouraged them to listen to one another. It was empowering and humbling at the same time.
Grandma says for the son, the hard part of having a voice was being so honest in front of the whole family.
"Because now his brother and sister have more of a insight on what's going on with him and his wife and it's kind of an embarrassment for him."
Her son agrees, "Yeah, it was embarrassing because it was a lot of things brought up that I feel kind of ashamed about."
"But," Grandma adda, "by all us being there, and able to participate, it took the darkness into light."
In other words, the democratic process allowed her son and daughter-in-law to be more transparent.
Grandma: "At that meeting they were more open, they were more communicative about what was going on with them and it wasn't like that before this Family Group Decision meeting."
Her daughter-in-law agrees, "I think what she's saying is we kind of isolated ourselves a little bit when we was using -- when I was using drugs, I kind of isolated myself."
The daughter-in-law and the rest of the family sorted through their options and talked about the best way to reunite the parents with their children. If that didn't work then Grandpa and Grandma would adopt the kids.
They even came up with a contingency plan, so if something happened to the grandparents, the siblings in Chicago would then be the primary caregivers. For five hours they talked. When they were done, they finally had a plan.
Grandpa: "And there was sigh and then we started you know we it was a little light joking because a decision had been made. So we laughed and joked and finished eating the pizza that was at the table."
Then they called back the social workers to present their plan.
Grandpa says the legal system can be unforgiving and insensitive, but for them, Family Group Decision Making was a good form of checks and balances.
"It even protects against that terminating child protection worker. You know, it keeps them from over-exerting their authority because the family now has a voice."
Grandpa says that for the most part, Family Group Decision Making has been good for his family. It's empowered and united them.
But, the court date is still a few weeks away. Chances are the parents will lose their rights, and if that happens, Grandpa's waiting to see if the judge will accept the plan he and his family created together.
- Morning Edition, 10/18/2007, 6:46 a.m.