Have you ever had a youth who bounced around from home to home to home, and finally this home seems to work? Or maybe the youth has moved from group home to residential, then back to a group home, and then back to residential again, and they seem to only “do well” when they are in a residential setting?
When I was working in child protection, I celebrated the placements that created stability for youth. I can still feel the sense of relief when the pattern of disruption seemed broken; that the youth was finally “stable.” Stability can be determined by a lot of factors like the youth’s placement, behavior, mental health, school attendance, and more. During consultations with our partners at Alia, I hear the same thing: child stability is a primary desired outcome of the work agencies do with youth. It is a simple concept, and yet I think we are missing something really important.
When working in jurisdictions across the country, we see agencies attempt to establish stability by focusing their efforts on extinguishing an undesirable behavior rather than on the structures surrounding the youth and strengthening the youth’s sense of self. Stability is instead measured by the absence of high frequency/high intensity behaviors. At first glance, it makes sense… Child welfare workers spend a disproportionate number of hours on a small number of what is often referred to as “high-acuity kids.” I get it, in hindsight, I admit to sometimes wanting the youth’s stability for my own peace of mind more than for theirs. But stabilizing the child’s foundation is not about controlling the youth’s behavior; if we’re honest, we must acknowledge that we can’t control a youth’s behavior without their cooperation… but we continue to try. We continue to take away visits and privileges, sweets, and extra rec time all as means of “controlling” their behavior.
I see now how this is mistaken and that controlling a youth’s behavior for a few weeks or months is not living up to my responsibility to support them in their development. We now understand a youths need to be connected to their identified family and the longer we maintain that disconnection, the harder it will be for them to recover from it.
Agencies across the country are still operating like this because they don’t know what else to do. But we do know… and it requires us to focus first on healing for youth and their families. Creating stability for a youth is about helping them understand what is happening to them in this moment and with their family, supporting them to maintain in-person connections with their family/kin, giving them words to explain and describe what they are feeling and experiencing, sitting with them in their pain and frustration, and normalizing their grief, fears, and anger. Healing relationships calms the nervous system, and that is what creates stability for youth.
What if the energy you currently spend trying to house and control your youth could be reallocated to building a relationship with them and their family through high-frequency service and individually designed programs emphasizing culturally responsive care and respect, to support the family to heal and restore? Wouldn’t that be the creation of true child stability?