Imagine that you are an educator, a teacher, and one of your students comes to school one day with an unkempt appearance. Clothes are soiled, hair slightly messy, and you detect slight body odor. What do you do? What can you do?
Imagine that happens a few days in a row. Do you speak to the child? Contact their parents? Or do you just avoid close contact, and dismiss it as a symptom of poverty?
At a certain point in this scenario, if a child is experiencing homelessness or other distressed circumstance, it is imperative to bring in the family or adult caregivers. Family-focused interventions have become and are a necessary service to be implemented and delivered in 21st Century school settings. So, where are they and who coordinates and facilitates these services?
First, let’s explore what we know about youth homelessness and the facts about family-focused intervention models that target family and youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
FACT #1: A recent analysis of national survey data suggests that nearly one in five youth run away from home before age 18, and half of those run away multiple times. This is an indication of the need for schools to be instrumental in the identification of students who are ‘at-risk’ or are experiencing homelessness, and provide preventive services to engage families within that setting.
FACT #2: Most runaway youth who leave home because of family conflict or abuse are reunited with their families after a relatively brief period. Also an indication of the need for schools to perform collaborative, restorative and family focused interventions in the best interest of the student.
FACT #3: Youth homelessness is often linked to family conflict. Although family conflict may lead youth to leave home, familial and social connections remain key protective factors for youth experiencing homelessness. Strengthening those connections is often beneficial even when youth are not living with their families, as in cases where reunification is not safe or appropriate.
Family connections will often serve as a protective factor, so most programs serving youth experiencing homelessness aim to reunite youth with their families when safe and appropriate. It is important to determine which family intervention practices will be most effective and adaptable to school settings. Unfortunately, the current evidence base for family interventions and practices aimed at preventing homelessness among youth lacks greatly in many key areas that may or may not intersect with school settings, but will benefit students and promote positive outcomes.
PARTIAL LISTING OF INTERVENTION TYPES
Multidimensional Family Therapy: A family-based therapy approach that aims to reduce adolescent substance abuse.
Multisystemic Therapy: An individualized treatment approach for youth demonstrating antisocial behavior that incorporates interventions targeting several areas that may influence problem behaviors.
Treatment Foster Care Oregon: An intensive system of treatment for children and adolescents delivered by trained therapists, foster parents, biological family members, and case managers.
Support to Reunite, Involve, and Value Each Other: A family therapy approach for youth who are newly homeless and their families.
Ecologically Based Family Therapy: Family systems therapy designed to support positive family connections as well as communication and problem-solving skills.
Functional Family Therapy: Therapy designed to change maladaptive patterns within and around the family by enhancing family interactions and communication.
These interventions have certain core components in common. All include a home-based component in addition to community or clinic settings, and all include clinical services and parent training. The interventions are designed to include weekly sessions that last between three and six months, and most are delivered by master’s- or doctoral-level therapists with clinical experience. Each also provides additional intervention-specific training to staff. Expert therapists often supervise these clinicians. Either the interventions focus on reconnection or prevention, and we need a well-focused combination of these approaches integrated and aligned with educational goals of schools. In the youth’s best educational and social-emotional interests, more information is needed to better inform both education policy and practice.
Challenges we face are that:
- FEW RIGOROUS EVALUATIONS OF FAMILY INTERVENTIONS FOR YOUTH EXPERIENCING HOMELESSNESS
Although most homeless youth providers include family engagement or counseling as part of their service model, very few formally documented interventions are designed for youth experiencing homelessness and their families. Most family interventions were developed for other systems, notably child welfare and juvenile justice. We need effective family intervention strategies and models that are appropriate to adopt more family-focused practices in school settings.
- LITTLE CROSS-SECTOR SHARING OF INTERVENTIONS
Most family-focused interventions were developed for youth and families involved in the child welfare system, and youth in juvenile justice. K-12 education, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems would benefit from sharing resources and collaborating to develop programming for youth at risk of homelessness, given that many such youth are served by more than one of these systems. It is especially important in urban, underserved and under-resourced areas. Schools, where family engagement efforts are now continuous and ongoing, must identify and adopt family-focused intervention models that are appropriately suited for that setting.
- FEW INTERVENTIONS ADDRESS THE NEEDS OF LGBTQ YOUTH
Research suggests that youth who identify as LGBTQ are overrepresented among youth experiencing homelessness, yet very few interventions focus on their needs or address family conflict related to sexual orientation. And while LGBTQ youth and their families might benefit from other interventions, few evaluations examined outcomes specifically for LGBTQ youth. In school settings, many of the risk factors can be addressed with targeted programming with a family focused component.
- FEW INTERVENTIONS ARE DESIGNED FOR RACIAL AND ETHNIC MINORITY YOUTH
Among the interventions, only a handful specifically address the needs of minority youth. Given that family values and expectations are largely influenced by cultural norms, family-focused interventions must consider the cultural norms of the youth they serve. Most interventions do not tailor strategies for different ethnic and racial groups, and produce little evidence on the effectiveness of interventions for youth and families from different backgrounds.
- LITTLE EVIDENCE OF WORKING WITH SCHOOLS TO IDENTIFY STRESSED FAMILIES
Schools are a key place to identify at-risk youth who could benefit from family intervention programming. Schools increasingly recognize the benefit of meeting the broader health and wellness needs of students. Yet, we still find very few school-based family interventions. We will find interventions that explicitly contain a school-based component, either by including schools in tailoring an intervention plan or helping families engage with schools to support youth education. We need models that are developed and designed to be implemented in school settings, and fully integrated into special educational services, as well.
Although the McKinney-Vento Act requires schools to identify youth experiencing homelessness, it’s difficult to find any school-based strategies for identifying or serving youth at risk of homelessness specifically through family interventions. School Counselors, Parent Liaisons, School Social Workers, and School Psychologists should optimally practice within a framework of referral, consultation, collaboration, and communication- across disciplines to provide fully coordinated, comprehensive services.
- LACK OF SCREENING TOOLS TO APPROPRIATELY TARGET INTERVENTIONS
Some interventions use assessment tools to identify need, target services, and gauge progress. But we must use screening tools to triage for appropriate interventions and services, including the appropriate type of family intervention services to provide in school settings, and determine the best suited professional as provider. Such tools could help to better target interventions, and prevent any confusion among staff. Clearly defined responsibilities at each professional level is better supported with triage approach to service delivery.
We need more high-quality family intervention strategies that are school-based, and aimed at diverse and special populations. The most promising models would have a well-developed theory of change, a means for targeting the intervention to the appropriate youth, an outcome measurement tool, and some evidence of program effectiveness. Research is especially needed on family-focused interventions that could be implemented by intake workers, case managers, school-based Parent Coordinators, Liaisons and other professionals without formal social work or mental health training or practice credentials.
Several family intervention strategies with strong evidence bases currently exist for youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness, and child welfare, juvenile justice, and education sectors can help inform next steps in policy, practice, and research. In order to better prevent and ultimately end homelessness among school-aged youth populations, we need coordinated services and family-focused interventions in 21st Century Community Schools. Next, we discuss the service coordination process and which professional is best suited to be a key provider of these services in school settings. For now, any suggestions? Do comment!