Run Away or Runaways: The “Invisible Homeless”

 

Each year more than 1 million people, between 14 and 24 years old, experience homelessness for a week or longer. Many of the reasons that teenagers find themselves homeless include:

  • adult substance abuse
  • adult mental illness
  • domestic violence
  • identifying as LGBTQ
  • etc,….

Some youth may find themselves exiting from or aging out of foster care or juvenile justice systems and hence, without necessary transition services, experience homelessness. It is fairly easy to recognize an adult on the streets as you go about your busy day, who may be experiencing homelessness, but youth are often difficult to spot. These youth find themselves on their own with no means of support-cut off- from any assurance of basic needs getting met from day to day.

Assistance is truly scarce out there. If you listen to formerly homeless youth, detail their experiences, maybe the things that we take for granted as everyone’s reality, would become more concrete. It begins to sink in that these ‘children’ are out in the world alone, literally. Male and female, teenagers, cannot be left to fend for themselves without adult supports and basic needs provided them.

We think about those students who attend school everyday, and they just don’t seem to be there, fully engaged. Grades may slip, behavior problems develop, they sleep in class, their clothes are visibly unclean. What do we do as educators charged with the comprehensive development of these children? They are largely in the age group, where attendance is mandatory. So, they try to show up.

Are we really paying attention? In this society, children, school aged and under the age of 18, are not expected to care for themselves without adult supervision, without a bed, a roof, lights, food, clean clothes, even hygienic products. Yet, we mindlessly stand before a classroom filled with students, whether they are black or brown or poor, and appear to ignore a child’s plight.

We chastise, discipline, belittle, or shake our heads at someone’s child, who at least finds his or her way to school in the first place. We watch grades deteriorate, and yet, that child can go ‘home’, wherever that may be for that day or night, and assign extra, ‘make-up’ assignments, to be completed in class or at home. But, do we ask ourselves where that child calls home, or if there is an actual home? Is it a subway car, an abandoned building, an alleyway, an alternative and equally unstable and unsafe environment?

Is it a friend’s house tonight, and an aunt’s house tomorrow? Can they actually concentrate on an assignment when they are food insecure, are in places so frightening that they actually are afraid to close their eyes to get a good night’s restful sleep? Are they parents or are they parenting their own siblings, or parenting a parent?

These youth usually only need housing for a short period of time. They need jobs, job training, education, to be taught life skills, to do budgets, and be shown how to cook and clean so they can earn a living wage to pay their bills.

All young people who have experienced homelessness have experienced trauma before and while they are homeless. A lot are sexually assaulted or are sex or labor trafficked while they are homeless. If a child runs away at around 15 or 16, and they have no source of money, for food, housing, clothes, what do we reasonably believe that they will do to survive? Become prey to underworld activities and engage in activities which make them vulnerable to the sex trafficking trades, if they survive.

Then, there’s always a life in and out of the judicial system, jails, detention centers, and then what do we suppose their life chances are for survival as adults will be? If they make it to become fully mature adults, that is. But until then, these youth comprise the “invisible homeless”, unless we find it in our hearts and politics to provide proactive supports for families, and their children, before it gets too late,…and the children disappear into the night on their own  on the streets of America. And we call ourselves the Land of the free, and the home of the brave!”

These youth are the quintessentially brave and they are brave without a home! Invisible to the adults who all, every one of us, say they care about ALL children! Is it us or is it them who need help? As we ponder that question, think about the millions of teenagers who are living on the streets in this country, and go by everyday unnoticed, unsupported and unprotected! These vulnerable youth ARE the most brave of us all! It is our move to say something, and do something to protect these young people, today and for the future, so we can be a part of their, our solution! The future is now.

FPE: The Joining Sessions

 

fam-schoolFamily Psycho-Education practices begin with the joining sessions which are the first opportunities that practitioners have to facilitate and build a rapport and a working alliance with families.FPE practitioners recognize families’ knowledge and expertise. and the idea of FPE is that families and practitioners join their expertise and strengths to support goal achievement. This collaborative approach forms the foundation for the model. To foster this collaborative relationship, practitioners:

  • demonstrate genuine concern for their families,
  • validate families’ experiences and realities,
  • avoid treating families as ‘patients’ in need of fixing, and
  • avoid playing the blame game with families for their real or perceived problems.

To help foster a more informal environment and working alliance, practitioners begin by socializing, both at the beginning and at the end of each session. This helps to reduce anxiety and allows you to get to know your families as people, as diverse as they may be. If you don’t get to know your families, capacity-building cannot begin or result in maximized collaborative learning, joining, or helping relationships. It is also important that practitioners be open and honest about themselves and who they are as people.

From the first joining session, it is your role to guide, without monopolizing or dominating the conversation, but they must be structured in order to complete this process. There is always an agenda, however informally presented. Following a prescribed and structured meeting lets families know what to expect and what will be accomplished during your time together.

 

Developing a strong alliance and a rapport with families is a long process. If your first contact with families or parents is during a critical episode you may have a special opportunity to build that strong alliance. Respond quickly to  immediate needs as you demonstrate your sincere willingness to help, especially in concrete ways. Establish yourself as a resource and a source of support.

If assistance is sought, offer it quickly. Prompt attention reassures families that you have committed to partnering with them. Do not hesitate to think outside the box and step in and take on non-traditional roles. Act as an advocate, refer services, help obtain entitlements and benefits and help them navigate the system’s bureaucracy.

If this is not your first encounter with families, and any expressed concerns or problems have not arisen, as may have prior, review and revisit those strategies that work to enable forward movement for families and their children. Be solution-focused. Reflection works to help families identify the variables which may or may not be effective. Look, specifically for the positives, and build upon them. Talk them through, and invite imagery to illustrate that which works for them.

Emphasize changes that are identified if any. If so, these changes, apparent or barely noticeable, constitute ‘prodromal signs and symptoms’. For example, if a child were having difficulty in school surrounding behavior and impulse control, whether sporadic or for the first time, there are usually prodromal symptoms. These symptoms make up idiosyncratic behaviors specific to that child, and will precede episodes. Poor sleep, restlessness, irritability, poor eating are those symptoms which give indication of a particular behavior. Your job would be to help families address these behaviors, recognize them early and learn to manage or help their family member manage the impulses that lead to problems.

The joining process allows the exploration of such concerns and helps families to form a working relationship with practitioners and establish that trust required to invest in psychoeducation sessions. Disclosure from families emerges more freely within an atmosphere that is relatively informal, respectful and definitely confidential. What happens in groups or with individual family meetings, stays right there on that floor, in that room. Confidentiality must be maintained at all times!

Parents need to know that they are respected, valued, and that their experiences are validated, whether commonly shared or unique to a family. In order to facilitate an alliance between families, in multi-group sessions, it is important that they socialize, identify common interests, share common experiences, concerns, and recognize shared goals. This is possibly the most important part of the process of utilizing psychoeducation practices and family engagement in education, child welfare, juvenile justice or behavioral health systems.

Some practitioners skip or shorten this phase to more rapidly begin to introduce your program’s agenda. However, shortening this step will usually backfire and families who don’t complete joining sessions are more likely to disengage prematurely. The tasks for Joining Session #1 look like this:

  • Socialize
  • Review a present or past ‘episode’, concern or problem
  • Identify precipitating events
  • Explore prodromal signs and symptoms
  • Review family experiences and validate their experiences as normal human responses
  • Identify family strengths and coping strategies that have been successful
  • Identify coping strategies that have not been helpful
  • Socialize

The purpose of joining is to develop a rapport and cultivate partnerships with families. You may conduct joining sessions with families, either individually or in groups depending on family preference. Meetings usually last for about an hour. Build and convey hope,  establish yourself as a trustworthy, supportive, and valued resource for the empowerment of families, and communities. All of this goes without saying that your services must be framed by culturally responsive practices. Along with trust, these are your building blocks for engaged and invested families. Families need you to support their capacity to advocate for themselves and their family members’ total wellness. Joining is connecting!

Let’s Create a Culture of Family-Centered Practices in School Settings

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For professional educators, serving children in schools means serving the family as well, and we must adopt practices which will move school systems, procedures, perspectives, protocols and program policies, towards being family-centered in the framework of teaching and learning. The elements of family-centered practices all work towards empowering families with the knowledge and skills to make the best decisions  for their children and the family as a unit. When parents are empowered, they feel in control; a palpable sense of agency.They also become more invested when they feel they are respected as experts and collaborators in the educational planning process.

Professionals must recognize that when they develop a relationship with a child, they are also developing a relationship with the child’s family. The more collaborative the relationship is with families, the more invested and engaged the child becomes in the classroom and learning and achievement potential is optimized. Collaboration is the key, and successful relationships require hard work. When the life of a child is at stake, there is no room for failure-it is not an option.

An essential component of family-centered practice is collaboration in decision-making. As a model of partnership, family-centered practice has as its underlying philosophy the belief that
families are pivotal in the lives of children and should be empowered to engage in decision making
for them.
It actually has its origins in Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, in that it recognizes that children exist within a wider context of family,
community and society where at every level the ecological system is interconnected. In this ecological system, the child, the family and the
environment are inseparable and what affects one member of the system impacts on the other members.  Each member of the system, and their relationships, are in turn influenced by the broader social, political and educational policies. It is this broader system (mesosystem) that shapes the perceptions, expectations and equality of the relationships that exist between the nested systems.

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Since we recognize the interconnectedness of these systems-family, child, school, community- it is logical that we likewise assume a multi-generational approach to teaching and learning at school. What empowers one system, empowers and impacts all others. “If you know better, you do better!” Today, we know better and more about the interplay between learning at home and learning at school. When all are aligned, we maximize successful learning outcomes, we enhance life quality for families, strengthen communities, and position our society and its citizens to thrive in a global economy-the global village.

What remains baffling, however, is why it seems to be such reluctance to ‘share’ power and expand the instructional audience to include families, adult caregivers, and diversity. There is an incredible difference between giving away power and sharing power.

Family-centered practices do not mean that the experts in education are relinquishing their expertise to the parents, whose expertise is in their child, culture and unique strengths they possess. Instead, we are asking that professional educators, whose knowledge, experience and expertise lies in their chosen specializations, share their knowledge and benefits from their expertise with families-a collaboration.

Family-centered practices is a partnership, an alliance between systems of care, where knowledge is shared, goals are mutually identified, designed and collaboratively implemented. When parents and families understand your purpose, recognize common interests, and are given the tools and skills to support and fully align with them, children fare better, relationships become more meaningful,
and come to life in the classroom, the home and the community at large-inseparably.

The pathway to this end is through authenticity, trust, respect and reciprocal communication.With a focus on strengths and solutions- finding, we must adopt a genuine appreciation for diversity, culture, language, family structure, etc… Unless and until we can honestly say that we understand the impact of our own culture and cultural experiences, as it influences our cultural lens, we are challenged to engage in family-centered practices with cultural competence.

Cultural competence is also at the core of family-centered practices, when working with children and their families. To respectfully teach and engage a child in learning is to respect and engage that child’s family and with that child’s culture. Demonstrating respect for the culture is to recognize the differences, acknowledge the similarities, and communicate, in conversation or classroom instruction, responsively. This brings us to ‘mirrors and windows’. Children require, not maybe, but definitely, require in their best interests, a healthy balance of both mirrors and windows in the classroom, within a curriculum framed by a broad and inclusive lens.

Eurocentricity and windows-focused curricula and instruction defy the ‘whole child-whole family’ philosophy, and is harmful to the comprehensive growth and development of children. It also negates our responsibility to empower every child and his or her family, as well. If diversity is represented in a school community, especially, and the instruction does not address, affirm or highlight that diversity, we are ‘mis-educating’ the child, disempowering the family and  performing a great disservice to that community.

Family-centered practices place children and families at the fore and central consideration at the core of curriculum, policy, practice, and procedural design and protocol…if indeed we endeavor to act in the best interest of children, and to help them realize their potential for school, career, and life success.

“So goes the family; So goes the nation.”... interconnectedness!

How To Utilize Family Psycho-Education(FPE) in School Settings

As a former coordinator of a family support services program, employing Family Psycho-Education services as a key practice protocol was essential for supporting and empowering families and caregivers of children with Serious Emotional Disturbances. My work setting was a blend of clinical and community based support services to engage, empower and enhance the total wellness of the family, as a cohesive unit.

In short, the practitioners’ aim is to disseminate information about mental illnesses and help families to enhance their problem-solving and coping skills including their capacity to advocate for their children and themselves. In the process of providing FPE services, families build social supports and networks serving to solidify community connections and increase support program involvement.

What is Family Psycho-Education?

FPE is an approach for partnering with families to treat serious mental illnesses. Practitioners develop a working alliance with families as their central role. Psycho-education as a term can be misleading to some. FPE includes many elements, but it is not to be mistaken for family therapy. In therapeutic settings, the focus is on the family itself as object of treatment. In FPE, the illness is the object, not the family. In education settings, the objective is student achievement and the comprehensive development of children in learning environments, at home and in the community.  many developmental aspects which intersect or influence learning are varied, and include a wide range of topics to introduce to families.

It is practical to offer useful and relevant information pertaining to family and child wellness. Families of children with learning diagnoses and IEPs benefit from helpful information and engaging in honest discussions pertaining to their children, family life and managing their child’s diagnoses and the symptomology at home. In school settings, in a multi-family format, FPE is helpful for families as it lets them know that they are not alone. It empowers them to participate fully in all things learning and family related. Research shows that outcomes improve if families receive information and support. That support also includes facilitating access to resources and other concrete services

A number of FPE program models have been developed over the years. They may differ in format-whether it is a single or multi-family format, duration of ‘treatment’, family participation and location. Nonetheless, there are critical ingredients of effective FPE, and they include:

  • Education about mental illnesses/learning disabilities
  • Information resources, especially during crises
  • Skills training and ongoing guidance about managing mental illnesses
  • Problem solving, and
  • Social and emotional support

There are 3 specific phases of FPE in which services are provided.

  • Joining sessions
  • An educational workshop and
  • Ongoing FPE sessions

The joining sessions are introductory. Practitioners meet with families to learn about their experiences, strengths and resources and their goals for treatment/participation. It is important to show respect, build trust and offer concrete help. Families have a focus on the long-term, but they really want immediate help and related concerns addressed. That is concrete. The alliance formed between practitioner and family/consumer is the foundation of FPE, and joining sessions are the first phase.

The second phase is educational workshop and they tend to be full day sessions. Workshops are based on a standardized curriculum to meet the distinct educational needs of family members. However, throughout the program, practitioners respond to individual needs of families by providing information and resources. It is important to keep families engaged and thus it is necessary to tailor education to meet their needs, with appropriate relevance.

After completing the joining sessions and 1-day workshop, practitioners ask families to continue attending ongoing sessions. Multifamily group formats are most effective in learning and school settings, as families benefit by connecting with others who have similar experiences and similar concerns. Once again, parents and families learn that they are not alone, as they cultivate mutually beneficial peer support networks. Often times, families without peer networks, will become and feel socially isolated.

Ongoing sessions should focus on current issues that families and parents face and are effectively addressed using a problem-solving or solution-focused approach. Carl Rogers believed that many personal problems can be solved by individuals themselves within the parameters of a working relationship built upon unconditional acceptance, wherein the helping person communicates authentic positive regard, is non-judgmental and employs effective listening or attending skills.

For practitioners to be solution-focused in any setting, these elements must be present, with an underlying belief in the capacity of families to be instrumental and active in working towards their solutions. The interaction between practitioner and family must be built upon cultural responsiveness, within a strengths-based approach, which demands that families are not to be perceived in deficit mode. Rather, focus is on what they can do and what they do already and what they want to address and believe will help to meet their needs. All outside of their capacity is built upon via the information and resources offered to them.

FPE is not a short-term intervention, for it is recommended as beneficial in achieving outcome success when they last for 9 months or more-perfect amount of time in school settings. For family practitioners who work with families and parents in school settings, engaging parents should be designed as family centered programs and a year-long intervention program. Every academic year, approximately 9 months, practitioners and liaisons can plan and implement sessions in a multi-family format in which information is provided, meaningful alliances are developed and parents engage in activities which support and promote their parenting, advocacy and leadership skills.

Family Psycho-Education applies in school settings and once mutually identified goals are set, sessions may be planned and implemented. As stated earlier, it is important to identify specific concerns, needs and challenges families face and address them within a format deemed appropriate. Sometimes the nature of family concerns are best addressed in individual family format. With common concerns, a multi-family format is best. The rules of confidentiality and trust applies, and this highlights the importance of initial joining sessions. Knowing your families is critical to program success and positive outcomes, and the overarching goal is to empower, educate, encourage and engage families towards  total wellness and maximize capacity to support their children’s well being and their own self-sufficiency.