Children and youth in the child welfare system want a life free of pain and full of love. If possible, most want to live with their parents. We in the system cannot discount or minimize the power of love between children and their birth parents. While parents may have had inadequate parenting capacity, most have loved their children and have conveyed this love to their children in some way. Acknowledging these basic facts—and the resulting grief children experience at the loss of their parents—is the basis for helping children prepare for permanency.
A Series of Losses Results in Grief
The losses children experience don’t begin at the point of referral for abuse, neglect, or dependency. Many children are in care because their parents struggle to cope with their own traumatic backgrounds and are challenged by substance abuse and domestic violence. These challenges compromise parents’ ability to meet their children’s needs, which contributes to the first loss for their children—the lost opportunity for normal child development. When early nurturing needs are inconsistently met, infants may experience feelings of abandonment and rejection, and these feelings will show up again each time the child or youth have experiences reminiscent of their early challenges.
Over time, children and youth in troubled families may experience other losses if their parents have difficulty building and sustaining healthy relationships. Many parents also have deeply embedded grief and loss of their own, with generational losses in family systems where parents’ needs were not met and now they have the inability to parent safely. Children and youth then lose solid relationships and normal childhood experiences.
The ultimate experience of loss occurs when children and youth enter foster care. Although foster care often ensures a safe environment, children frequently experience the move into care as a loss from their permanent family.
With all of these losses come significant grief. The child welfare system must support children’s and youth’s work to grieve their losses. And we must ensure that professionals and parents understand how grief and loss affect children and youth and may lead to challenging behaviors. We must approach the behaviors caused by grief as normal, not as a pathological diagnosis.
As child welfare professionals, foster parents, and adoptive parents, our first role is to respond as the comforter to children’s grief, establishing a feeling of safety. When we start where the children are, we listen to their perceptions and experiences of life events and can begin to help them heal. All of our interactions with children and youth in the system must be guided by the understanding that we must address grief as we work toward permanency.
Without efforts to address their grief, children often experience divided loyalties between the many adults and parenting figures in their lives. When we acknowledge that they are loved by their parents, but that those parents may have poor parenting abilities, we make it easier for children to accept the possibility of being parented by others. We must start where the children are—missing their families—and give them opportunities to grieve these losses so that they engage in tasks for integrating all family relationships into their lives. Permanency can then be achieved through reunification or adoption or guardianship.
As professionals and families, we cannot “fix” children and youth. But we can help them do their own grief work effectively. When encouraged to tell their stories, children and youth, in time, will integrate biological, foster, and adoptive families into their lives.
So how do we support grief work for children and youth and their families? It is not talk therapy and is not initially a cognitive process. In fact, a simple inquiry into their feelings may leave teens feeling interrogated. Youth are often reluctant or unable to share with professional strangers who ask probing questions but aren’t able to provide relief from the pain and hurt they are experiencing. When we try to get them to talk about abuse or their parents’ shortcomings, young people often become defensive in an effort to protect the parents whose loss they are grieving.
Foster and adoptive parents can provide an environment that supports children in grieving their losses by helping them understand what has happened to them and get ready for permanency. Every moment counts for the child who is grieving. They are often missing their birth families and are fearful of the unknown before them. They need adults to acknowledge that they are in pain. By affirming children’s losses, adults support children as they address and resolve their grief. Through this process, adults also create the foundation of establishing healthy relationships through permanency.
The 3-5-7 Model©
The 3-5-7 Model is designed to help professionals and parents work with children and youth to address these issues of grief and loss. It is an evidenced-informed, guided practice approach that supports the work of children and parents in grieving their losses and rebuilding their relationships in an effort to achieve well-being, safety, and permanency. The model incorporates theoretical underpinnings from child development, attachment, separation and loss, trauma, family systems, and relationship development.
The 3-5-7 Model has several beliefs at its core:
- Human beings grow, heal, and develop a sense of self in relationships.
- Relationships are a continual process that give rise to both hurt and wholeness.
- Healing is a relational process honoring the whole person—life story, life experiences, traumas, strength, and resiliency.
- Children, youth, and families have the ability to resolve their needs if provided the support and time to do so.
I initially developed the 3-5-7 Model to prepare children and youth in the foster care system for adoption. Now it is being used to help all types of families build a committed relationship with their children, whether through reunification, extended family parenting, guardianship, or adoption. The model can be used at various times, from intake to permanent placement and beyond, and can be woven into family search and engagement and family group decision-making activities.
In recent years, the child welfare system has begun to pay a lot of attention to family engagement approaches. But we don’t pay as much attention to, or offer sufficient training on, the underlying issues of grief and loss that family members are often dealing with—losses such as loss of control, loss of dignity, loss of security, loss of identity, and loss of belongingness in a family. These issues of grief and loss can have a substantial impact on the family engagement process. Using the 3-5-7 Model in the context of family work helps children, youth, and parents recognize and grieve losses, so that the trust, security, and openness needed for successful family engagement will be more readily achieved.
The 3-5-7 Model can be used by anyone who interacts with children, youth, and their families in support of their grief work. With training and coaching, caregivers are able to respond in the moment to behaviors as responses to loss, affirming the importance of the child’s feelings and the caregiver’s availability to support them as they express their feelings. The model ensures caregivers understand their role as comforters of grief. Professionals using the model engage children and youth in activities that support their grief work.
The Model’s Core Components
The model is based on three tasks, five conceptual questions, and seven skills. Professionals and caregivers use the seven skills and a series of concrete activities to help children answer the five questions and thus accomplish the three tasks.
The model’s three tasks determine where each individual child or youth is and what she needs to do to reconcile and grieve losses and move toward rebuilding relationships. The tasks help children and youth:
- Understand the events of their lives and reconcile the losses they have experienced (clarification)
- Rebuild relationships in their lives and understand they can be members of more than one family (integration)
- Visualize belonging to a permanent family (actualization)
Through a series of specific activities and techniques including lifebooks, life maps, life/loss lines, and collages, professionals using the model help children and youth explore the answers to five conceptual questions that address specific issues (noted in parentheses below):
- What happened to me? (exploring issues of loss)
- Who am I? (identity)
- Where am I going? (attachment)
- How will I get there? (relationships)
- When will I know I belong? (claiming and safety)
The model identifies seven skills or interpersonal abilities that guide the efforts of professionals and caregivers to support the work of children, youth, and their families. These are:
- Recognizing that behaviors indicate the pain of losses
- Affirming and responding to these behaviors from a grief perspective
- Remaining present to the expressions of grief and responding in the moment
- Creating opportunities for the perception of safety within the relationship
- Recognizing that grief work and relationship building can be done only by those who have experienced the losses
While working through these tasks and questions (see box at right for an example of the model in practice), children and youth may experience anxiety, regression, physiological symptoms, denial of feelings or events, confused attachments to rejecting or unreliable parents, rebellious behaviors, delayed expression of feelings, self-blame for being in placement, and conflicting loyalties to all parent figures in their lives. Using the model and its various activities and techniques, professionals and parents can help children and youth respond to these reactions and move toward resolution of the painful events and relationships of their lives.
Using the Model
The 3-5-7 Model is currently being used or introduced in about 25 places in the U.S. and Canada. Mississippi, Arizona, Delaware, North Carolina, Alaska, and many California communities have integrated the model into their family finding efforts. A federal project using the model to help teens address pregnancy, parenting, and pregnancy prevention is completing its third year in Clark County (Las Vegas), Nevada. Overall, the programs identify positive outcomes in helping children and youth engage in grief work and understand their life events.
Those interested in implementing the model can receive training, coaching, implementation strategies, and evaluation and outcome studies. Other tools available to support implementation include a readiness continuum, readiness inventory, skills development guide, pre- and post-tests for children and youth, a resource parent curriculum, and a group development program. The 3-5-7 Model© Workbook: Supporting the Work of Children, Youth and Families Toward Permanency provides ideas and activities for professionals helping children and youth become ready for permanency. The book, The 3-5-7 Model©: A Practice Approach to Permanency, provides information on how programs have implemented activities, such as lifebook work, safety nets, and life maps.
Training programs are a minimum of three days, depending on agency size and needs. Coaching and consultation help agencies ensure fidelity to the model and support for practicing the model.
As we are challenged by the difficult task of successfully achieving permanency for children and all of their families, we need to be vigilant about children’s pain. Children just want adults to make the pain go away. As professionals and caregivers, we must prevent additional losses (by reducing moves and honoring birth family members) and accept our role of addressing ongoing grief and providing comforting relationships.