Thursday, April 16, 2009

When Things Aren’t Going Well

Yesterday I did a day-long training on the Restorative Approach. One of the participants asked this question:

What do you do when a certain kid just isn’t getting better, he does the restorative tasks without sincerity, he doesn’t seem to care how his actions affect others, and staff are losing their patience and becoming more punitive?

This is a very good question, and it has two parts:
What do we do to help the child?
What do we do to help the staff?

Regarding the child, this is the time to step back and reconsider our treatment. What has happened to this child? How do we understand his current functioning? What problem are his actions solving for him? What skills would he need to have in order to not need to do these things any more?

For example, Tyrell continuously attacks others, both staff and peers. He will apologize perfunctorily afterwards, but does not actually seem to care about having hurt someone. Tyrell was abused severely by his bio father, and then removed to live with his grand mother. Due to both health and mental health problems she was not able to care for him and he mostly fended for himself. He was removed by DCF at age 8 due to missing school and appearing neglected and uncared for, as well as not receiving medical care. Since then he has been in 7 foster homes and has had several short bits of treatment in hospitals. Most recently before this placement Tyrell was in a shelter.

So we know that Tyrell has no reason to trust adults, he has to take care of himself, he can’t afford to be small or weak or he will die, and the only weapon he has for survival is aggression. He undoubtedly blames himself for everything he has experienced. In order to decrease the aggression, Tyrell will have to feel safe. He will have to develop other ways of achieving mastery and control. He will need skills to manage his emotions, and need to begin to feel that he is worth something. And it would be good if he could gradually learn that some adults can be trusted and will actually help.

This will take a long time.

So let’s stop asking Tyrell to apologize to make amends. Instead, let’s think of what could actually help him feel stronger and more competent, and use the restorative tasks as opportunities to build skills. As it happens, Tyrell is an excellent artist and loves to draw comics. So, how about having him create a comic about a boy who fights others? Then we can show it to everyone, including the agency President, and make a lot of fuss about how good it is. Maybe he could draw a poster about anger. What does anger look like? Maybe he could create an "anger monster". Maybe gradually he could draw the boy in the comic conquering the anger monster. There is one staff, Robert, who is also an artist and likes comics and narrative fiction. Maybe he could be assigned to work with Tyrell on the comic project, and share some of his favorite comics with Tyrell, gradually building a relationship.

However, Tyrell’s behavior will take a long while to change, and it will be frustrating for staff when they are doing this excellent work and Tyrell is still hitting.

Which brings us to the second part of the question: How do we help the staff?

Often what these children need from us more than anything else is perseverance. We need stamina to stay with these children for the long, slow, uneven process of change. So how can we increase staff stamina?

Here are some ideas:

  • Review the child’s history, understanding the meaning of his actions, and having a plan.
  • Create a specific way of noting and sharing any progress anyone experiences with the child (we had a notebook "signs of hope with Stephen" regarding one child, and staff wrote down things like "Stephen said hello to me today.")
  • Create plans to avoid having too much responsibility falling on one person- assigning different staff to alternate primary responsibility for this child each night, for example, or giving him two primary workers rather than the customary one.
  • Talk about and acknowledge the frustration.
  • Celebrate any good work a staff does with this child, no matter the out come.
  • Have a sense of humor, make jokes about what is going on
  • Do other things to have fun and connection with each other, such as pot luck lunches or sports teams.
  • Remind ourselves that children who come back to visit have taught us that we never know when we are making an impact, and that children we thought were not at all involved remember everyone who worked with them and exactly what they said and did.

Do you have any other ideas about increasing staff stamina? Click comments and share them with us.

These kids have been wounded. They have learned to protect themselves in order to survive. We have to make plans that work in small steps and create tiny building blocks for the skills they need. And we need to take care of our selves and each other, because most of all the children someone to stick with them.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Restorative Approach and Boundaries

People some times assume that because the Restorative Approach emphasizes relationships and speaking from the heart, we are throwing out the idea of boundaries. Quite the opposite is true! For relationships to be safe and healing, the boundaries must be clear, reliable and trustworthy. This is even true of personal relationships, and it is all the more true of professional relationships.

Because abuse is in its essence a violation of boundaries, it is especially important that we pay attention to boundaries when working with abused clients. Our children have experienced major boundary violations, such as sexual abuse. They have also experienced many other chronic, less obvious boundary problems. Many of our children have had to handle responsibilities far beyond was is reasonable for their age, such as an eight year old being responsible for her two year old sister. They have been way too involved in adult issues, such as being worried about the rent or finding food. They have been exposed to adult sexuality and to relationship worries. They have had to parent their parents- care for a sick mother, listen to parental problems, help ease a parent’s depression.

Often times within these inappropriate adult responsibilities our children have found great satisfaction. Janeese is proud that she of kept her two year old sister safe. Louis feels good about having been the man of the house while his mother was sick. Darlene felt special when her mother confided her problems with her latest boyfriend.

Also, being aware of adult issues and taking on adult responsibility is a survival strategy. The adults that these children have known were not capable of protecting them. If the kids didn’t do it, no one would. So when Jackie asks her therapist fourteen times if she has called her DCF worker to approve a visit yet, and also places a call to the worker herself, it is because she has no experience that adults will do what they promise to do, and she has much more experience that if she wants something done she has to do it herself.

So we come along and say- it’s okay, we will take care of everything, you can relax and be a kid now- our children’s answer is "yeah, right." They don’t believe us- and they don’t want to give up the sense of competence and strength that they have developed.

Our children pull for boundary violations. They are eager to become staff’s best friend. They try to engage with staff sexually. They continually test, asking with their behavior: who are you to me? Can I trust you? Are you really who you say you are?

It is up to us, as adults, to maintain the boundaries. We are professionals, and our relationships with the children must be primarily to meet their needs, not to meet ours.

We ask staff to speak from the heart. Yet there is a big difference between saying:
"You ran away last night and I was worried about you. I was wondering if you were safe."
And saying:
"You ran away last night and I was worried about you, and I haven’t been sleeping anyway because of my financial problems and the fact that my grandmother is sick and I can’t believe you added to my stress."

Some boundaries are clear cut:
Do not have sex with the kids. Or with their families.

But within our field there are a lot of gray areas, and a lot of disagreement between treaters. Many boundary issues arise out of good intentions- someone wants to do something extra for a child, someone feels compassion for a family.

Here are some examples of the many issues that can arise:

Margaret is a teacher and one of her students, Rachel, is having an especially hard time as her mother has disappeared and no one knows where she is. Margaret plans to come in and take Rachel to lunch this Saturday to help her through this.

Danny’s mother felt that his team mate, Seth, was particularly kind and sensitive to her during a recent episode when Danny ran away and was missing over night. She brings Seth a $30 gift certificate to a local restaurant as a thank you.

Doug recently bought his son some new expensive sneakers, and his son wore them once and didn’t like them. It is too late to return them, but he knows that Jarell is just the same shoe size as his son so he brings the sneakers in for Jarell.

Sarah is a therapist and is seeing Anita’s family. They can’t concentrate on their issues with Anita because they tell her they do not have any food in the house and do not know where to get any for that night. Sarah wonders if she should just give them $20.

Many other dilemmas arise. The issue of staff/child touch is a particularly sensitive one, and different agencies have different policies around this. Another area fraught with complications is when a staff or a child leaves the agency.

Amidst this morass of complexity, how is a staff member to know what to do? The answer is simple: talk about it. First, know and consult your agency’s boundary policy. Yet no policy can cover all the decisions we are faced with. So if you are considering doing anything out side your job description, before you say anything to the child or family, discuss it with your supervisor and/or your team. What would be the effect of this action on the child? On the group? On other staff? Are you making any implicit unrealistic promises about your role to the child? How will you feel if you do this extra thing and then the next day the child is mean to you? There are many sides that must be considered. Supervisors and team members must be alert to boundary issues on their team, and challenge decisions that seem problematic, even at the risk of seeming like the Scrooge of the team.

No matter what treatment system we are using, boundaries are crucial in creating healing relationships. Supervision and team discussions are our most powerful tools to sort through the complexity and do what is right for the children. The children cannot grow and change unless they feel completely safe in the strong, clear relationships we offer them.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

My Book- The Restorative Approach

I have published a book of writing about the Restorative Approach, the theory behind it, how to implement it, common concerns and problems, and examples of the Restorative Approach in action. You can purchase it from just search for The Restorative Approach. Or, email me, and I can sell you a copy for $40. I would love your feed back and comments.