The new federal legislation, the Family First Prevention Services Act (“FFPSA”) talks about prevention, but it’s important to understand that the prevent referenced in the act is notwhat I call “original prevention.” In other words, the act is about preventing lengthy time in congregate care (group foster homes) or foster care. The goal is to keep families together; if kids can’t stay with parents, the second best is relative placement, then foster care homes, then congregate care. But any of these choices means that the abuse or neglect has already happened.
I’ve written elsewhereabout one of the main causes of social isolation that leads to substance use disorders (“SUDs”), both original use and relapse. But choice plays another big role in all of this. I’m not talking about the “choice” to, as some people callously say, “stick a needle in your arm.” I’m talking about choice regarding getting sober and maintaining that sobriety (and other decisions that affect the outcome of a case).
In the book, Influencers,the authors note that, “A reigning but inaccurate assumption in counseling…is that confrontation motivates change. He then asks, “What if the counselor merely helped patients figure out what theywanted rather than what their fed-up friends wanted?” In other words, the best way to help individuals align their behavior with their deepest motives was to stop trying to control their thoughts and behaviors.
I have a case right now where I represent a young child. I tell mom what I want to see in terms of behavioral changes in order for me to recommend returning her son to her. And then she turns around and does the exact opposite of what I have asked her to do. Now, you would think that with such high stakes (i.e., return of her child), she would comply with what she’s being asked to do by people who have influence over that final outcome. But she doesn’t. It’s almost like she’s sending the message, “You will not tell me what to do. I am in control here.”
She’s not necessarily in control of the final decision, but she is right that she’s in control of what shedoes. It may or may not lead to the outcome she wants, but she gets to decide. When I represent parents, I tell them that I can’t “make” them do anything. I go on to tell them that that’s true of DHS, and even the court. However, even though we can’t make them do certain things, the court can certainly make it painful for them if they don’t. For example, if they refuse a drug screen, no one is going to show up at their door, wrestle them to the ground, and draw blood or other bodily fluids. But typically, a refused test is legally deemed positive for substance use, which will negatively impact visits (they will still get visits, but they will likely be limited and fully supervised). This, plus the limited visits (and the likelihood that they are not “engaging in services,” such as substance abuse treatment) will, if it goes on long enough, probably prevent them from getting their kids back.
In other words, although the court can order them to do a drug test, it can’t force them to do it. But it can make the result of that choice, i.e., termination of parental rights, very painful. But it’s still a choice for the parent.
Tal Ben-Shahar, noted positive psychology scholar and author of Choose the Life You Want, also makes an interesting, and related point by saying that we often feel trapped, or that we have no choice. The first choice we need to make is the choice to choose. To recognize that we always have a choice (though some may be more or less viable than others) helps restore a sense of control over our lives. And when we look at our choices in the context of values and desired outcomes, it becomes easier to make the right choice.
For our parents, that looks like this: If Mom’s value is to be a good parent, and her goal is to be reunified with her children, then it’s easy to choose to take the drug screen (rather than refuse it). Even if she tests positive (which is why a lot of parents choose not to take it), it’s the same legalresult as refusing to take the test. And the sooner she “admits” the usage, the sooner she can get treatment and be on the road to sobriety and reunification. And this is important, too, because there are statutory deadlines regarding when the court is required to make permanency decisions (and they’re shorter for very young children). The sooner a parent gets sober, the more time s/he has to build that historyof sobriety, which is important to the court.
Granted, that choice to take the drug test and engage in the subsequent treatment is simple, but not easy. But as an attorney, I have learned that when a parent tells me he is (or is not) going to do something, I don’t argue with him. I simply say, “Ok. But let me share with you what will happen if you (don’t do that drug screen, go to therapy, etc.), so that you can make an informed decision.” And then I explain it to them, and they can decide. He may still choose to refuse the test (which makes both his job and mine a lot harder), but it’s his choice.
But here’s the other place I see it.
I have cases where the “kids” are older teens. Even if they were adopted when they were young, and even where there was significant neglect, these kids feel a strong pull to their biological parents. They will do whatever it takes to reconnect with that parent, and in this day of social media, it’s not hard. Their adoptive parents, and even some of the DHS professionals and attorneys, understandably try to prevent that contact. They don’t want the kids hurt again. But the more they try to prevent that contact, the more damage it does to their own relationship with the kids.
In one case, I have a child who really wants to see her mom. She has a significant “blind spot” with regard to mom’s behavior and continues to make excuses for her. Mom continues to drink, and generally make bad choices, and at one point, the adoptive parents asked if they should get a no contact order. But I told them that even if we “prohibited” her from seeing Mom, she would do it anyway. And because she’s been told notto, she will do it in secret; she will lie about it, and she will do it in a way that may not be safe. So instead of prohibiting it, I suggested we controland manage it, via her therapist. In other words, we don’t resistthe child’s decision, so it doesn’t damage our relationship with her.
One of two things happens when we “allow” the visit under controlled circumstances: either mom will get her act together and be in a position to have a (relatively) healthy relationship with her daughter, or she would continue down the self-destructive path until even her daughter would have to acknowledge those problems. Because we didn’t try to prevent her from seeing her mom, we are not at the point where the daughter recognizes that her mom is not making good decisions, and has, herself, decided she doesn’t want to see her until she is sober and has a better handle on her decisions. But that would never have happened if we had tried to force that separation.
The bond between a parent and child is powerful, even when it’s not healthy. But allowing parents andkids to have more options and more control over those decisions typically ends with more satisfaction with—or at least acceptance of—the outcomes.
The nice thing is that although this can often require more time and energy, it does not usually require more money. The additional benefit is that it requires parents to be accountable for their own decisions and outcomes because they have made the choice. No one forced them to do anything. And the flip side is that they also get credit for good outcomes based upon the good choices they made.