Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Pathways to Family Empowerment: Effects of Family-Centered Delivery of Early Intervention Services

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Pathways to Family Empowerment: Effects of Family-Centered Delivery of Early Intervention Services

Article excerpt

Part H of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1991) was intended to restructure the system that delivers and coordinates services for families caring for infants and toddlers with disabilities (Swan & Morgan, 1993; Winton, 1993). It attempted to improve the early childhood service system through training professionals to implement family-centered standards of practice. One of the more innovative aspects of Part H involved transforming a process driven by professionals to one driven by family choices.

Historically, service providers operate from a position of strength when interacting with families. This imbalance is created by their control over services, their access to information, and their expertise (Lipsky, 1980). Part H sought to alter this dynamic by mandating that service providers work with families as partners to develop a coherent service plan responsive to family concerns. It also required that each family be provided a service coordinator to advocate at their request. Thus, the law provided mechanisms for families to challenge disagreeable service delivery arrangements and to assert their own needs and priorities.

The joint production of a service plan and access to an advocate are intended to help families develop skills to better cope with the complexities of human service bureaucracy. In some states, including Michigan, the Part H program included training for families in advocacy skills related to service system issues and for service providers in working with parents as partners.

In short, this piece of legislation intended to empower families through the process of service planning and coordination. A key measure of program success centers on whether implementation of Part H influenced the level of empowerment among participants. This article explores the relationship between Part H implementation, family-centered service delivery, and the empowerment of families.


The Concept of Empowerment

Empowerment is a term increasingly used in both popular and elite discourse. It has entered the lexicon of private and public management as well as that of social work and education (Conger & Kanungo, 1988; Rappaport, 1986). Although the term is employed in various ways, it often refers to a constellation of processes and activities that involve people in determining their own futures and, possibly, the future of their communities. People may perceive varying degrees of empowerment depending on the scope of the environment they are attempting to affect.

At the personal level, empowerment occurs when individuals are confident they have the information and problem-solving skills necessary to deal with challenging situations (Balcazar, Seekins, Fawcett, & Hopkins, 1990; Gutierrez Ortega, 1991). These skills may carry over to dealing with professionals and the service system, though specialized knowledge may be required. The further development of empowerment through community participation makes larger societal change possible (Kieffer, 1984). Social movements emerge from the education and empowerment of people who collectively attempt to change institutions whose values differ from their own (Berger & Neuhaus, 1977).

Conversely, empowerment may feed individualistic tendencies, reducing impetus for involvement with community issues (Riger, 1993). Individuals may choose to "go it alone" in pursuing change. Still, relationships between heightened empowerment and feelings of attachment to community have been demonstrated (Chavis & Wandersman, 1990). When expressed at the community level, empowerment bears similarity to what is denoted by the term efficacy. The distinction is that empowerment refers generically to all manner of social processes as opposed to explicitly political ones.

Empowerment is often connected to strategies or actions that enable individuals to exercise greater control over their own lives (Rappaport, 1981). …

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