An Insight into the Solution

Author: Karen Booth

This case history details a significant time in the life of the Smith-Curtis* family. This family did not come to counselling voluntarily, but were referred by the Department of Families after substantiated allegations of abuse and neglect of their two children. The counselling agency, (a non-government service provider), is experienced in working with involuntary clients who make up two thirds of the total agency caseload. The agency clearly articulates that its services are provided using a Solution Focused framework.

Background Context

The Smith-Curtis family consists of Lisa Smith, aged 23, and her partner Jason Curtis aged 25. They have been together for two years.

Lisa has a daughter from a previous relationship who was born when Lisa was 14 years old. This child, Trudy, now aged 9, lives in foster care and Lisa has not seen her for three years. Lisa writes to Trudy and sends her a present on her birthday and at Christmas, but has not received any correspondence from Trudy in the last eighteen months. Jason has never met Trudy.

Lisa also has a son from a different previous relationship, who was born when Lisa was 19. His name is Matthew and he is now 4 years old. Matthew lives with his mother Lisa and stepfather Jason. Lisa and Jason have a son, Dylan, who is 6 months old. Dylan is Jason’s only child.

Presenting Concerns

The substantiated allegations of abuse and neglect centre around the family’s inability to provide stable and suitable accommodation. They have a history of being homeless and highly mobile. There are also current concerns regarding enough food being provided for the children and the children’s health and physical care needs being met. Dylan has had to be treated by a doctor for severe nappy rash on three occasions in the last month.

There are many reports of both children looking and smelling unclean. Currently, the family resides in a caravan park. Matthew has been reported on several occasions to have ‘broken into’ other people’s caravans and been found ‘stealing’ food from their cupboards and fridges. Consequently, the family is very unpopular in the caravan park and has been threatened with eviction by the manager if things don’t improve. The family frequently has trouble paying the rent for the caravan.

The Department of Families has referred this family because they have a high level of concern about the well being of the children. They have been to see Lisa and Jason and told them they must stop treating the children this way, and start to meet the children’s needs, or the children will be removed and placed in foster care. Department staff are also concerned that both children’s development is delayed, and have told the family that they must take the children to be assessed by a Department-nominated Paediatrician.

Agency Intervention

When the worker first went to meet the Smith-Curtis family, the family was, understandably, very nervous and suspicious of the worker. Lisa and Jason were extremely anxious about their children being ‘taken away’. At times their language was hostile and defensive, while other times their language was pleading and emotional. The worker allowed the family to tell their story and to listen to them.

Lisa indicated that a lot of her fear was as a result of her experience with her first child Trudy, who she did not want to ‘give up’, but had been ‘made to’ by her parents. Lisa said her parents had subsequently disowned her anyway, and she had had to take care of herself. Lisa confided that she felt very guilty about Trudy and “could not bear it” if Matthew and Dylan were removed. Jason also confided in the worker that he had grown up in a boy’s home in another state and that he didn’t want “that kind of life” for his children.

Lisa and Jason questioned to what extent the worker could really help them, identifying that maybe they should “just move again”. This was a strategy they used to escape their problems and avoid ‘the welfare’. They explained that this was why they had moved so many times – people “kept interfering” and “saying terrible things” about them, but “no-one would help”.

Lisa identified that she herself had phoned the Department of Families out of desperation, because Jason was sick and missed two casual shifts at the factory and they had run out of baby food. Lisa had wanted some practical help but instead she said she had “ended up being investigated” and found to be a “bad mother”. At this, Lisa burst into tears.

From this conversation several things stood out to the worker. Firstly, both Lisa and Jason wanted to parent their children. In fact, they were so committed to keeping their children with them, that they had taken extreme steps, literally packing up and moving overnight to avoid the chance of the children being taken from them.

Secondly, both Lisa and Jason were experiencing a significant degree of anxiety and discomfort, making it more likely that they would be motivated to change. Thirdly, Jason had a job. Fourthly, Lisa had sought help on at least one occasion. Lastly, both Lisa and Jason had not had good models of parenting themselves, and were estranged from each of their extended family. This family was doing the best they could under the circumstances.

When Lisa became composed, the worker asked if it would be all right to ask them both a question, and that this question would sound a little strange. Lisa and Jason looked a bit confused by this but were curious enough to say a hesitant “yes”. Jason then piped up and said “you’re not going to ask us about our sex life are you?”

To which the worker replied, “No! It’s not that sort of question!” This really broke the tension and everyone laughed. The worker then resumed and posed the miracle question to Lisa and Jason. “Suppose when you go to sleep tonight a miracle happens and all your problems are solved. When you wake up in the morning, how will you know that the miracle has happened? What will be different?”

Lisa replied, “I would live in a fancy mansion, with red curtains and carpet on the floor. I would be a Princess and Jason would be my Prince. Our boys would each have their own room. They would have lots of toys. Trudy would live with us. Sometimes I would go out to work at Coles and be the lady at the cash register. I would always be nice and smile at everyone and say ‘have a lovely day’. We would eat meat, like steak, and have ice-cream for dessert.”

Jason looked at Lisa and was astonished (as was the worker!). He said, “I’ve never heard you talk like that ever. I never realised how much I mattered to you.”

After some silence, the worker asked Jason what his miracle would look like. He replied, “I would have a job that was full time- not casual. I would own a house and provide for my family. We would always have food. The ‘welfare’ would not know our name. We would have friends and at least one of them would have a pool. We would go on car trips as a family and have fun. We would be happy.”

Again the worker allowed for silence as both Lisa and Jason reflected on what had just been said.

From this conversation, several things stood out to the worker. Firstly, there was a lot of agreement between Jason and Lisa in their idea of a miracle – secure accommodation, living together as a family, and meeting the children’s needs. This family knew what they needed to do differently, and, this would address all of the Department of Families concerns. Secondly, there were many practical steps within each miracle that the worker felt confident to assist Lisa and Jason to achieve. Thirdly, this family had some hope that things could be different, because they could imagine living differently.

The worker then asked Lisa and Jason if it was O.K. to write down their miracles because the worker thought they contained some really important things. The worker pointed out the similarities and differences in their miracles. The worker asked how Lisa and Jason would feel about the three of them working together to start to make some of the miracle come true. Both agreed that they would love for it to be true.

Jason asked, “Do you have a million dollars? Are you really from Gold Lotto?!” The worker responded that unfortunately no, she didn’t have that kind of money, but that she did have some ideas about how to help them get closer to the miracle anyway. The worker then asked Lisa and Jason if they felt that they had done enough for our first meeting, and whether we could meet again tomorrow. Both agreed. The worker then asked them to think about if they could also find some ideas about how to get closer to their miracle.

The next two sessions were used to clarify and specify the points in the miracles that both Lisa and Jason felt were important and ‘do-able’. They both know they had to look after their children better and were determined to get ‘the welfare’ out of their lives.

Ultimately, their goals were:

  1. Get out of this caravan park and into a house. It will have 3 bedrooms and a fence. We will take a six-month lease.
  2. To learn to budget so that we always have food and nappies.
  3. To be the best family we can be.
  4. Jason – To get a full time job at the factory. 
  5. Lisa – To get a job at Coles on Thursday nights (Jason could look after the children)
  6. Overarching all of these goals was the goal “For our kids to live with us and grow up in this family.”

A meeting was then convened with the family, worker, and Department representatives to outline the goals that Lisa and Jason would be working towards. The Department confirmed that if Lisa and Jason could achieve these goals all the concerns would be addressed. This helped to give Lisa and Jason extra motivation to work hard on their goals.

In the next two sessions, Lisa and Jason were able to identify many things that they could do to bring them closer to the miracle coming true and reaching their goals. In the following weeks, they began to act on their ideas.

Jason decided to approach his boss and ask for a full time job at the factory. After two weeks, Jason was offered a permanent part time position on Mondays and Fridays. Jason indicated that he was willing to continue to work additional casual shifts on the other weekdays until further permanent days arose. This change in the predictability of Jason’s employment meant that for the first time in a long time the family could start to use a budget, and had some faith in being able to succeed.

After a further six weeks, the family had saved $250 towards a bond on a rental property. They had to use the private rental market as housing commission waiting lists were very long and supported accommodation was not available in their area. The agency was able to loan the family a further $270 to secure a 3 bedroom property, with a fence, renting for $130 a week. Moving into a rental property was an extremely significant event for the family and was a catalyst for a great deal of change.

Lisa and Jason decided to go to financial counselling and the worker referred them to a specialist agency for this. This work was seen as long term, as both Jason and Lisa had subsequently revealed they had high levels of past debts still outstanding.

Lisa told the worker that she wished she had some friends who also had children. Lisa said that their neighbours had children who were teenagers and they were too old for her children to play with. The worker suggested Lisa might like to take Matthew and Dylan to the local playgroup. Lisa was keen to go but felt very nervous and wondered if anyone would talk to her or play with her children. The worker offered to accompany Lisa for the first few times she went, and Lisa accepted this offer.

The worker also went grocery shopping with Lisa on several occasions and helped prepare the evening meal, as Lisa had confided that she ‘didn’t really know how to cook and shop’, and often the family got takeaway or pre-prepared meals like frozen pizza. Lisa discovered that she enjoyed cooking, once she had had some practice, and the worker helped her find simple and nutritious recipes to cook. Lisa was surprised (and very happy!) to find that she had had enough money to buy a tub of ice-cream on two occasions.

Lisa took both children to the scheduled assessment at the Paediatrician. She was very worried about what he might say and if he had the power to say they were ‘bad parents’ and everything they had done ‘would count for nothing.’ Lisa and Jason seriously thought about ‘taking off’ however they decided not to because “we need to leave that bad life behind us.” The children were found to be in the lowest normal percentile group for their weight and age. Matthew’s fine motor skills were below average.

In all other areas the children were seen to be within a normal developmental range. The paediatrician commented on the positive responsiveness of both children to their mother. This assessment confirmed that a lot was going right in the way that Lisa and Jason were parenting their children. They needed to continue to do more of what was working well and maintain the changes made in the areas of concern.

Lisa decided that she would put her goal of working on Thursday nights on hold until Dylan was at least 12 months old. She also said she wanted to “enjoy their new life.”

Towards the end of the intervention, some 12 weeks later, Lisa and Jason asked the worker to refer them to “someone else who can help if we need it”. The worker referred them to their local community centre, which Lisa felt particularly comfortable about, as this was where she attended playgroup.

Postscript

18 months later, the Smith-Curtis family have had no further involvement with the Department of Families in regard to Matthew and Dylan. They have moved once, and are currently on a twelve-month lease. Jason has three and a half days a week of full time work with a different factory. Lisa is four months pregnant with the couples’ second child. Lisa has a half-day contact visit with Trudy once a month, which she negotiated with the Department of Families.

This intervention demonstrates how the Solution Focussed approach can be applied in very difficult situations such as when there are child protection concerns in a family. The miracle question allowed Lisa and Jason to think outside of a problem saturated framework and formulate their own goals for the future.

The worker at all times listened to the family, and had faith in their ability to solve their own problems with their own solutions. The worker recognised that the family was the expert in their own situation. The worker helped to bring hope into the family and noted what they were doing well and the exceptions to the problems they were already living.

(All names and identifying information has been altered)

Karen Booth holds a Bachelor of Social Work (Honours) from the University of Queensland and has worked in the area of child and family welfare for 12 years with a focus on child protection. Karen currently works in private practice, operating kbSolutions, a company that provides professional supervision to human service workers. Karen operates from a framework which is strengths-based and solution focussed. Some key theoretical influences include systems theory, socio-cultural theory, attachment theory and structural theory.