RHODE ISLAND Keeping Families Together

By Brinig, Heidi | Policy & Practice of Public Human Services, September 2000 | Go to article overview

RHODE ISLAND Keeping Families Together


Brinig, Heidi, Policy & Practice of Public Human Services


It is clear from watching families interact at children's museums that, while they may well be learning about the physics of water or the history of the region, there is something else important and powerful taking place. As children and adults play together in a carefully designed environment, they talk, imagine, tell stories, and listen--these elements are the building blocks of healthy, strong relationships. Recognizing this, Providence Children's Museum (PCM) joined with the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) to offer an environment for learning and fun to families most in need of positive shared experiences. The result is PCM's Families Together program, now in its seventh year.

The Program

Families Together serves parents and children who have been separated by DCYF because of abuse or neglect. While the children have been removed from the home and are living in foster care or with a relative, the goal is for the family to be rehabilitated and the children returned to their parents. Families Together is one part of the family's comprehensive case plan.

Participants--children ages 1 to 11, their parents, and, in some cases, extended family members--make a series of visits to the museum where, under the guidance of the program's family therapists, they play and learn together. The families visit PCM for one hour biweekly for three to six months; some continue their visits for as long as a year. When referring clients to PCM's program, caseworkers must have confidence that the adults can be reasonably trusted not to harm the children, and that the family is likely to benefit from visiting in an open-ended environment and able to conduct themselves appropriately in a public place. The visits occur during PCM's regular public hours. Although they are welcome, caseworkers rarely accompany their clients to a museum visit.

The purpose of Families Together is to help families rebuild relationships and help parents strengthen parenting skills. When visiting at PCM, children can invite their parents to put on a costume or pretend to be a veterinarian. Without realizing it, the children are creating a teachable moment when negotiation, compromise, and conversation can occur. Parents also learn to play again as children engage them in their own play. This process encourages independent thinking and choice for both the parent and child. Imaginative play reinforces the bond that has been weakened.

The museum environment facilitates interactions that do not happen in an institutional or stressful home environment. From the program's inception, both PCM and DCYF staff have noticed how easily families become engaged in exhibit activities.

Families Together serves between 60 and 75 families (240 to 300 people) each year; since its inception more than 6,000 parents and children have participated in the program. Virtually all families are referred to the program by their DCYF caseworkers. Although the best interest of the child is always foremost in the minds of the Families Together staff, DCYF is actually PCM's client. Families Together staff offer advice and insights, but PCM does not have jurisdiction over the fate of the family or the children. …

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