Valuing Families: Social Work Practice with Families from a Strengths Perspective

Article excerpt

Social work and social workers have long been concerned with families. Historically, most approaches to social work with families have focused on individual pathology and problem solving or have considered problems of a family member to be symptoms of family dysfunction. In contrast, other approaches to social work have focused on growth, function, and healing. This article describes both problem-focused and growth-focused approaches to practice and presents a strengths approach to practice that values families and builds resilience. Assumptions of the strengths approach are discussed and applied to work with families through a case example.

Keywords: constructivist; empowerment; resilience; social work history; strengths

Families are described as the primary "social service agency in meeting the social, educational, and health care needs" of members (Hartman, 1981, P. 10). Structure and membership vary across families and within families over time. Families encounter many challenges in maintaining themselves and fulfilling their child-rearing role. Many are troubled by poverty, homelessness, crime, and drugs. They face challenges that produce distress, including unemployment, illness, and changing demands of society. Although families face a seemingly endless supply of challenges, they also have resources, knowledge, skills, and competence to call on in times of distress. Rhetoric about "family values" is of no help to families who face real-life dilemmas, but valuing families through recognizing and building on their strengths can assist families in improving their lives. The strengths approach to social work practice is an approach that values families.

Contribution of This Study

The strengths approach has been described for a variety of populations and presenting issues (see Rapp, 1998; Saleebey, 1992, 1997c; Tice & Perkins, 1996). However, few authors have applied the strengths perspective to practice with families. A few exceptions include a description of a strengths assessment process with families guided by a family systems model (Ronnau & Poertner, 1993); an exploration of issues involved in a strengths approach to family therapy with lesbian and gay families (Laird, 1996); and program examples targeting particular populations of families such as Native American families (Ronnau & Shannon, 1990), remarried families (Duncan & Brown, 1992), and families with children with emotional disabilities (Poertner & Ronnau, 1992; Ronnau, 1995; Werrbach, 1996). Werrbach's study, for example, was an empirical attempt to "characterize the elements of family-strengths-based practice" (p. 225) with families with children with emotional disorders. However, the most recent version of the definiti ve work, The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice (Saleebey, 1997c), did not discuss applying the perspective in practice with families, although one section of the book offers several examples of such practice with individuals. In fact, there is no index entry in this work for "family." As working with families is critical in social work practice and families are more than a collection of individuals, further analysis of the use of the strengths perspective with families in general is needed. This article goes beyond the existing literature by providing a conceptual and integrative model for strengths-based practice with families in general, one that draws on the historical and philosophical roots of the profession as well as on relevant findings from interdisciplinary sources. In so doing, we have attempted, as Boyer (1990) suggested, to explore "the boundaries where fields converge" (p. 19)--to bring together disparate streams of knowledge--and through this conceptual integration, to illuminate an d clarify how the strengths approach can be applied to practice situations with real families.

In the strengths perspective the environment is prominent as both resource and target of intervention. …