Family Preservation in Missouri

Article excerpt

WORDS AND PICTURES GIVE A REAL-LIFE VIEW OF FAMILY PRESERVATION SERVICES.

It's 3:00 A.M. in a small, rural town in southwest Missouri. Vanessa Johnston, a family preservation services (FPS) worker, is combing the streets looking for Heidi, one of her clients. Earlier that night, Vanessa learned that Heidi, a 19-year-old single mother, had been accosted by "Stacey," a "friend." Stacey had heard a rumor that Heidi was involved with Stacey's boyfriend, so she had set out to even the score: she surprised Heidi in the dark stairwell leading to her apartment and beat her up.

Heidi has a habit of running when things get rough. Finding no trace of her client, and knowing Heidi's penchant for hitching rides with truckers, Vanessa heads for the local truck stop. She has to talk with only a few drivers to find out that Heidi, with her infant son in tow, has hitched a ride to Oklahoma City.

Vanessa goes back to her office and waits. She knows the rumor about Heidi and Stacey's boyfriend is unfounded, and she wonders how Heidi has been affected by Stacey's assault. She knows that Heidi has felt that Stacey was her only friend, the one person she could trust.

After several hours, the telephone rings: it's Heidi, asking for help to get back home. Vanessa arranges for the bus ride back to Missouri, goes home, and gets ready for work.

Welcome to the world of an FPS worker. The work is harried, and time is a precious commodity. The job is frustrating: one step forward can be followed by two steps backward. And it is emotionally draining--six weeks of being on 24-hour call can take its toll. But it is encouraging: to see a family learn from its mistakes is what this job is all about. Frustrated and eager for a change, many social workers, case-workers, and others are willing to accept the challenge and take on the daunting job description that comes with FPS.

Designed after the Homebuilder's model, family preservation services are designed to protect children who are at immediate risk of out-of-home placement, by providing immediate, intensive, comprehensive, 24-hour, in-home services to these children and their families. FPS is guided by these premises.

* Children have a right to their families.

* The family is the fundamental resource for nurturing children.

* Parents should be supported in their efforts to care for their children.

* Families are diverse and have a right to be respected for the special cultural, racial, ethnic, and religious traditions that make them distinct.

* Children can be reared well in different kinds of families, and one family form should not be discriminated against in favor of another.

Operating statewide since October 1992, FPS is working for a large number of Missouri families. The state measures success by the number of children who remain safely in their homes rather than being removed and placed in foster care. From October 1991 to September 1992--roughly the year before FPS was operating statewide--the program reported serving 656 families.(1) According to the Department of Social Services, Division of Family Services (DFS), which administers the program, 128 of those families ended up having children placed outside the home.

Since it began operating statewide, the program has succeeded in diverting about one-third of the children who otherwise would have entered foster care. Statewide preliminary data show that in the six months to a year following completion of FPS, 81.93 percent of FPS families are intact. A year or more following FPS, 77.89 percent of FPS families are intact.(2)

Vanessa started with the program in November 1991 and had worked with only eight other families before Heidi and her baby. Vanessa identifies the benefits of a program like FPS, which is designed to deal with long-term issues by meeting immediate needs: "We know families will still cycle |in and out of various services~ after they've gone through the program, but we hope that what they learned through FPS will help them to pull themselves up and not sink so low the next time. …