Document Type

Finding a Fit: Family Realities and Service Responses Series (2003, 2007)

Publication Date



Faculty of Social Work


Our purpose in interviewing parents with a child placed in residential mental health treatment was threefold: (1) to understand the functioning of children requiring residential mental health treatment before, during, and after treatment; (2) to characterize parents’ perceptions of their families’ involvement with residential treatment; and, (3) to address the popular notion that children requiring residential treatment come from highly dysfunctional and potentially harmful families by describing prevalent family functioning patterns.

|This report is based on information obtained by interviewing 29 primary caregivers who had a child placed in residential care at one of two Ontario children’s mental health agencies. Parents were visited in their homes by an interviewer to engage in one-on-one dialogue to explore dimensions of their everyday lives and reflect on their service experiences. Interviews consisted of a series of open ended questions and were approximately 1 ½ to 2 hours in length. Because of the labour intensive nature of qualitative investigations, there are limitations to the number of cases that can practically be included in a study; however, what is lost in generalizability is compensated for by a richer sense of the struggles facing these families.

Parents’ Perceptions of Residential Services
Parents were generally pleased with their child’s placement in a residential treatment center. Parents feel respected, valued, and understood by service providers. They experience staff as competent, compassionate, and helpful. Residential services offered respite for families and containment for focal children. Many parents reported gains made for themselves and their children. Yet only 17% of parents felt that sufficient gains had been made to warrant the discharge of their child from the center. Parents tended not to blame the residential center for the lack of progress. The also seemed unable to articulate what the residential center could have done differently. Yet these parents, extremely hopeful when they first had their child placed in residence, had to come to terms with the realization that service outcomes had not matched their hopes. These stories highlight both the complexity and the tenacious nature of these children’s mental health difficulties. They also provide a challenge to service providers. What do we do when good is not good enough?

Changes in Child Functioning Before, During and After Residential Care
These stories provide dramatic testimony that most of the older cohort children in this study leaving residential care had very serious ongoing problems in daily living. Problems which in many cases rivaled or exceeded the challenges faced prior to entering residential care. About one-third of these children had left home and many had unstable living arrangements or were “on the streets”. With the exception of living on their own and involvement in delinquent activities, and notwithstanding moderately more evidence of “successful” or partially “successful” adaptations, the after care daily living portraits of younger cohort residential care graduates were not notably more encouraging. About half of these younger children did not return to their original homes 6 after residential care. Serious areas of concern shared by both groups of children include continuing major adaptation problems at school and continued high levels of pressure on the parents and siblings of many of these children.

Parent and Family Functioning
Caring for the focal child permeates every facet of daily life for these families including work, health, and relationships. Parents experience prolonged elevated levels of daily stress trying to juggle work schedules, appointments with professionals, household activities, and the needs of family members with caring for the focal child. Family climate is markedly tense and frequently involves conflict, particularly with the focal child. Relationships among other family members suffer as well, with parents reporting increased marital strain and little time to devote to siblings of the focal child. Caring for the focal child is taxing on parents’ own physical and mental health. Most families (70%) reported experiencing substantial relief, at least for a short period of time, from tensions within the home when the focal child entered residential care.

Child Functioning Over Three Selected Developmental Periods
One of the interpretative challenges inherent in these stories is understanding the connection between the behaviour of these children, which is strikingly similar, and evidence suggestive of these children having a variety of problems, life histories and family environments. It can be argued that these children arrive at a similar point from many different trajectories. Who are the children represented in this sample? How are we to understand their difficulties? When it comes to understanding the behaviour of the focal children, both its presentation and its genesis, these stories raise as many questions as they answer. These stories challenge the notion of a single or root cause of extreme unmanageable behaviour. Instead they offer a complex and unsettling portrayal of these children, their familial and social environments, life histories, their strengths and challenges. These stories caution against the use of blanket or catch-all interpretations to help us understand the problematic behaviour of these children.

Despite the positive view of residential treatment held by parents long after treatment ends, the data suggest relatively poor outcome patterns for children leaving residential care. Serious areas of concern shared by both groups of children include continuing major adaptation problems at school and continued high levels of pressure on the parents and siblings of many of these children. The clearest area of benefit from these residential placements, at least in the short run, is for family members other than the focal child. This is an important consideration, given the incredible pressures families manage when the focal child is at home, and the extreme disruptions in family life described in these stories. An obvious question emanating from these stories is what can be expected for these children - in school, employment and relationships - over the years ahead. There is almost no support in our study for helping strategies predicated on “curing” or changing the focal child through short-term or medium-term interventions so that he or she can prosper in everyday life. Variations in living arrangements, enhancing school and employment opportunities, and continuing support to these children and their families with the challenges of daily living merit serious attention.

Siege_and_response_chart_supplement.pdf (75 kB)
Siege and Response: Chart Supplement