Individualistic Services May Hurt, Not Help, Families

GS Thandi, MSW RSW

Imagine a family struggling – maybe there are one or more members of that family struggling with mental health, addiction, or significant stress related to finances, employment, expectations placed on the person by themselves or by others, etc. (For the sake of this example, let’s go with a ‘nuclear’ family of male and female married adults, with two children – though I realize that many families today don’t fit this mold). Whatever the issue is, it is highly likely that the issue impacts not just one member of the family, but ultimately everyone. For example, untreated depression in an adult can impact their relationship with their partner, and their parenting of their children. I would venture to say you do not have to imagine a family – you likely know one, or your family maybe in fact be struggling with one or more of these issues. This certainly does not make you abnormal – again most if not all families have such experiences.

So, using this example, of a family, let’s say that one day things escalate, as the husband and wife argue loudly, and the man pushes his spouse. Say neighbours hear the noise and police are called. The man is arrested and taken to jail for a night and charged with assault. Because there are children, the Ministry of Children and Families are called.

Now there is absolutely no excuse for the act of pushing, and in no way do I want to minimize it, but overall it’s the man’s first offense and is considered of a nature that did not cause significant harm, meaning most likely he will receive a court disposition that requires he attends counselling to learn how to better manage his anger and use of aggression.

Despite the incident, the husband and wife want to stay together and are committed to working on their issues. While the man is being held accountable for his actions, the family has also suffered, and yet little to no help is offered to the entire family. Instead, our ‘systems’ basically take this family and individualize them. By this I mean:

The man will go through the criminal justice system (court) and then placed on probation (corrections) and be directed by a judge to take counselling. However, the judge may not know that this man may not even get this counselling – as BC Corrections assesses the offenders and determines that only those rated ‘high’ and ‘medium’ risk to reoffend will receive their programs. Their focus is on ‘reducing recidivism’ – meaning counselling to improve that person’s overall emotional well-being isn’t their focus – rather they just want that person to not commit further crimes.

The woman will not receive any tangible services from BC Corrections. She instead will be directed to seek services from police and community-based victim services. While these organizations do great work, their focus is not in helping a woman work on her relationship.

The children will potentially receive services from the Ministry of Children and Families or through school-based counselling services. In the case of the latter, given high caseloads, the children may be deemed too low a priority to receive assistance. So those kids fall through the significant gaps.

So, a family in crisis will be expected to go all around town to get very individualized services – services that do not really focus on healing and strengthening families. And again, that is if they get services at all. If they are eligible, then they still likely will be sitting on wait lists. Thus, even if they receive counselling, it will take place at different times, meaning each of them is undergoing what could be a significant change at different times. I wonder sometimes if our systems are setting these families up to fail, and actually contributing to the stress they were already feeling.

Compare the above to a one-stop shop where services could be offered to every member of a family, at the same time, in the same location. In this scenario, given there may be different dynamics, maybe the husband would be seen by one person, the wife by another, and the kids by another. Maybe after a few sessions they could then be brought together and work on their issues as a family, and begin to heal as a family.

Given how much we spend on social and criminal justice issues, I would suggest the cost to doing such work would be less expensive, and considerably more beneficial (meaning even more cost saving in the long-run). It would of course require those organizations responsible – schools, criminal justice, corrections, MCFD, Health and non-profits – to all work collaboratively. Not any easy task to say the least, but one we should expect from those who are supposed to keep our communities healthy, safe and vibrant.

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