Lessons from the Field: How Family Support Partners Changed Us All

When we started developing our wraparound and system of care effort in Southeast Kansas, we formed a loosely held advisory group of community leaders and family members to do the planning.  This group would decide how we wanted to organize and what services were needed.  Virginia was a parent who was taking some leadership in maintaining a parent support group at our mental health center on a voluntary basis.  Up to now, Virginia had lived a very hard life.  Both of her children had been in child welfare custody for brief periods of time, both had dropped out of school and her son had been involved with juvenile justice multiple times and was now in adult prison, with a long sentence.  Virginia could not afford routine health or dental care and was missing most of her teeth.  However, she had hope that wraparound and systems of care could offer better futures for other families and volunteered for most of the planning, assessment and organizational activities that led to our site being funded for a SAMHSA system of care grant.  She became the first family support partner in our county.  Virginia and the family support partners who worked across our region taught me the absolute necessity of the position for success in wraparound. Three short stories about Virginia proved this to me.

The first story is about Virginia’s first time going with a parent to one of our local schools.  I was sitting in my office when I received an emergency call from the superintendent of schools. Steam and profanity rose out of the phone.  “There is a Virginia here at the school trying to attend one of our IEP meetings and she says she works for you.  You know she is the parent to one of the worst students we have ever encountered.  She got into a lot of trouble and her kids were h*** on wheels.  You are more stupid than I thought hiring someone like her.”  I said I would be right over, and sat through that first IEP meeting with Virginia and the mom.  I explained the idea of a family support partner to the incredulous superintendent, and talked about all the positive things Virginia had done in the past few years.  He was not impressed, but agreed to let us continue.  Just over a year later, Virginia was receiving more referrals from the schools than any other program at the mental health center. The families she advocated for became involved in their kid’s school process in a positive manner and the kids showed a lot of improvement.  Virginia and I talked a lot about what it takes to be a successful advocate and we learned together that her experience and passion were important, but the skills she learned to be a good family support partner were just as important.  Her grit, determination, and passion were the essential elements that made Virginia real, and the training, new skills, and polish she received as a FSP made her effective.

The second story happened shortly after we moved to a bigger space to support our growing program.  We lived in an old railroad town that was in decline, and there was an empty grocery store downtown that could be had cheaply. The freezer space made excellent secure storage for our records, and the rest of the building was one big open space.  We put up a few concrete block walls (they were inexpensive), and I decided to put all of my wraparound staff in one big office, each with his/her own desk but no partitions (I thought this would encourage them to be a team).  We had three “quiet rooms” for meeting with parents or taking confidential calls.  We primarily served school age children, so most of our work was done from 11 a.m. until about 7 p.m.  Most of the staff showed up at 10 or so to get ready for the day and do paperwork.  The unfortunate part about the concrete walls was they did little to sound proof the rooms. My office was immediately next to the big wraparound office, so I could hear all of their conversations.  I remember the early days when there was a lot of talk about family dysfunction and shaming and blaming of families as the Wraparound Facilitators vented their frustration about families and how complex wraparound really is.  We did training to counter this, but the effect was slow.  But, an interesting thing began to happen during these discussions.  Someone would start blaming and Virginia would reframe the issue from the parent’s point of view.  There would be discussion of this and then the wraparound staff brainstormed alternative strategies for engaging these families. It started to work.  Within three months, I no longer heard any blaming and shaming.  Virginia helped to change our agency culture. Over time, as we hired more family support partners, I saw similar changes in our other mental health programs.

The third story happened one day when this woman came to my door and very timidly asked to see Virginia.  I showed her into the wraparound office, where Virginia was working alone.  The women sat with her head bowed and in a very quiet voice told Virginia that she had just come from the court building which was a block from the mental health center.  Her son had set a barn on fire over the weekend and because he was already on probation, he was going to be sentenced to the most secure juvenile facility for two years.  She said the probation officer told her if she could get him into wraparound that day, they would give that a chance.  Virginia said, “Honey, the worst days of my life were when I had to see my son’s probation officer.”  The women looked up: “Your son had a probation officer?” Virginia answered that it was worse than that, not only had he had a probation officer but now was in a maximum security adult prison.  She told the woman that she was doing her current job because she wanted to help other parents avoid what had happened to her.  She told the woman some general stories (without using names) of youth whose lives had been turned around. The woman was totally engaged with Virginia, but it was more than that.  I remember later monitoring a wraparound meeting for this family. The mom was upset about something the school was doing with her son and she began to shame and blame the school in the meeting.  Virginia asked for a short time out.  They walked outside and Virginia sympathized, but also talked to her about the impact of the negative approach she was using in the meeting and suggested some better ways to advocate for her son.  As a psychologist, I could have done that. But I don’t think the mother would have listened to me. Because of the engagement she had with Virginia, she came back into the meeting and tried a different and better approach. The school was able to respect and partner with her.

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