THE BLOG
02/26/2016 03:54 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2017

Addressing Multi-Generational Dysfunction in Foster Care

Several years ago I read a story about a young man in Florida who killed his younger sibling. The young man in this story was described as a troubled child, who came from a harsh background. Specifically this young man had spent time in the foster care system, and was born to a teenage mother who had also spent time in foster care. I vividly remember the comments which accompanied the article, one in particular questioned: "The child was in foster care and the mother was too, how common is that"? The unfortunate answer to that question is very common. Numerous studies have shown that many parents involved in the foster care or child welfare system, had histories of placement as children. Studies have also shown that children involved in the child welfare system have a greater chance of having their own children placed in foster care. In many cases, the history of foster care placement seen in families extends to two or three generations.

As a researcher I typically rely on existing studies to support my theories and findings; however, multi-generational dysfunction within families is an issue I have first hand knowledge of. Having worked in foster care for the past 9 years, I've found a significant number (if not the majority) of families have a history of child welfare involvement. I also don't believe my professional experiences are particularly unique. It is well known that many parents involved in the foster care system are former foster children; however, while this information is usually documented, it is rarely considered when developing treatment plans or addressing the presenting problems that bring children into care. The result of failing to consider a parent's family history is the root cause of dysfunction is too often overlooked. This not only increases the possibility of recidivism (the children returning to foster care), it fails to end the cycle of dysfunction which makes the children we are charged with protecting more likely to have their own children placed in foster care. This is an oversight that can no longer be allowed to continue.

The issue of multi-generational dysfunction is addressed in Bowen's family systems theory. A brief explanation of Bowen's family systems theory is that relationships within the family-including multigenerational relationships-can result in parental problems being transferred from generation to generation. Bowen's family systems theory provides the perfect lens to understand why family history should be considered when working with parents in the foster care system. Many of the problem behaviors seen regularly in the foster care and child welfare systems (from parental substance abuse, mental illness, harsh parenting practices, and physical abuse) are either maladaptive strategies to deal with unaddressed abuse or dysfunctional parenting behaviors learned from abusive homes. Other parental stressors which contribute to abusive behavior like poverty, chronic unemployment, lack of education, and chronic homelessness can also be traced back to family history.

Considering family history illustrates a reality that some professionals in the child welfare field may not be entirely comfortable with, most cases do not exist in a vacuum. Although children enter foster care because of horrible cases of abuse and neglect, in too many cases the parent also experienced abuse and neglect. As a result when considering family histories of abuse, parents should also be seen as victims. This does not mean that issues of child safety or permanency should be dismissed, it means treatment plans should consider the abuse parents have suffered in order to be more effective at creating behavioral change. A family systems theory approach can be used as a framework to more effectively engage parents and address multi-generational dysfunction. This approach is important for not only parents, but children in foster care as well. Recognizing that the behaviors which bring children into foster care have origins beyond their parents is essential in creating more positive outcomes for families. Addressing problem behaviors and dysfunction on a multi-generational level may require a paradigm shift within the child welfare field, as such issues can rarely be addressed within a year or two. Yet this approach may be the best way to not only ensure that more parents are successfully reunified with their children, but that their grand-children don't also enter foster care.

Dr. Mark Echols has been working with children and families in both educational and social service settings for the last 15 years. He is a Fatherhood advocate and the creator of Black Dads: Changing the narrative on Fathers in the African American community on LinkedIn. You can connect with Dr. Mark Echols on LinkedIn.