INTERVIEW BY BEVANJAE KELLEY AND NANCY FORTUNATO
During a family crisis or investigation, it can be hard to believe you have strengths. Investigations, by their nature, make parents feel attacked and ashamed. But all parents have strengths, and being able to show investigators what’s positive about you and your family is incredibly important. Investigators need a full picture of families’ “protective factors,” because those factors have been shown to help keep children safe.
Here Corey Best, a parent partner in Flagler and Volusia Counties, Florida, and a member of the Birth Parent National Network, and Kevin Jackson, Kyla Clarke and Sarah Houser, Division of Child and Family Services, in Salt Lake City, Utah, explain:
Q: How can parents show their “protective factors” to an investigator?
Corey: During an investigation, parents feel outnumbered, outgunned and outraged. But when you know your own protective factors—the positive things you do to keep yourself and your children safe—you can have more confidence and can become part of a dialogue with an investigator.
For instance, when parents pick up the phone to call a sponsor, that’s a protective factor—using social connections.
When parents read a book or go to a parenting group because they’re noticing something concerning in their child’s behavior, that’s being pro-active in gaining knowledge of child development.
The times you spend listening and talking to your children are protective because they support your children’s social and emotional competence.
It’s hard to know what an investigator is going to consider important. But if you can tell an investigator all the ways you build healthy relationships with your kids, from activities you do together to books you read, that can begin to change the picture that investigator has of you.
During an investigation, everything we as parents have done wrong is magnified tenfold. Therefore, it’s a parent’s responsibility to magnify all the positives they possibly can.
Q: How can child protective investigators use protective factors in their work?
Sarah: When investigators look through a protective factors lens, it gives them a broader view of families rather than just focusing on the allegation.
Instead of just seeing “lack of supervision,” for instance, we might see a parent who is depressed but is also doing things that are successful. Even small successes—like that the kids ate breakfast—can be important. A lot of parents have been through hell in their lives, for lack of a better term, and they’re still pushing forward. That’s resilience.
Once we understand both the positives and the challenges, we can ask: “Where does this parent need support to be more effective as a parent?”
When parents have protective factors in their lives, that can also help us make a safety plan with them. For instance, just because a parent is using drugs does not mean removal is needed. We might ask: “Can we bring in that family’s support system to create safety for the children?” The question is: “What’s the impact on the children and what can we do to resolve it?”
Kevin: When we ask about social connections, some families will say: “I don’t have anyone.” But when we brainstorm with parents about all the people in their lives, often they’re surprised. They’ll say: “Oh, well, my brother does take the kids every couple of weeks so they can hang around their cousins.” Or, often there are burnt bridges we can work to mend in order to bring more safety to a family.
For many parents, a religious organization is also part of their support system.
Kayla: Just including parents in problem-solving can help them and the investigator see that they have the ability to get through a difficult situation rather than needing the state to dictate what happens next. We have a protective factors self-assessment tool that workers give to parents. We’re also training our workers that if they observe some example of good parenting, or a parent overcoming a challenge, they should point those out.
Q: What if you aren’t strong in some of the protective factors? How can you start building them?
Corey: Parents need to be careful about sharing what they’re struggling with during an investigation, because when we we’re too open, that can come back and bite us. But parents can also use an investigation as an opportunity to grow.
The investigator or the judge may outline their requirements for you. But you can do your own self-assessment and become your own case manager. Whatever you think you need, you can learn what resources are out there and reach out to get your own goals accomplished.
The 5 Protective Factors
Below are qualities in parents that have been shown to help keep children safe:
- Resilience: Most simply, this means that when you hit tough times, you are able to bounce back and keep moving forward.
- Social Connections: Research shows that it’s easier to handle parenting challenges when you have positive relationships with family, friends and others.
- Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development: There’s no such thing as a perfect parent, but when you have a basic understanding of what to expect from early childhood through the teenage years, you’re less likely to get frustrated.
- Concrete Support in Times of Need: All families go through tough times. Knowing where to get help—from food, clothing and shelter to domestic violence or drug treatment—can help you rebound.
- Building Children’s Social and Emotional Competence: When parents are able to help their children with their emotions, children become better able to manage their own feelings and build healthy relationships.