The Learning Zone
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Winning, losing, or process in work with families?

Brian Gannon


The two boys, Keith and Richard, 16 and 15, have been in Gateways for a few weeks. They are about 18 months apart in age but look very similar, almost as though they might be twins. In the program they stick together like leeches, and we learned that they have been that way for most of their childhoods. They have been middle-of-the-road achievers at school and have seldom been in any trouble – until, that is, our town introduced a curfew for teens a year ago. It’s not a very fierce curfew, but when the police find under-eighteens wandering about at night, they check that the kids are OK and take them home to their parents. It was through the curfew that we got to know them. Firstly, they had been picked up three times (a sort of 'threshold for intervention' number) and on the last two occasions the police had felt that the parents were abusing alcohol – not with any violent or aggressive behaviour, but because of slurred speech, unsteadiniess on their feet, and their generally ineffectual reaction when the boys were brought back. "We told them not to go out" was about as good as it got.

The court decided on a provisional "at-risk" status, less severe than a breach of the peace or a minor misdemeanor, but enough for referral to a residential assessment program.

At this stage things became a little more involved. The twins (sorry, Keith and Richard, whom we were at pains to individualise) came across as over-dependent on each other, very "backward at coming forward", and some staff thought perhaps depressed, though I thought that their regular school attendance, their personal grooming and ready compliance with the program's modest expectations argued against this. The parents, on the other hand, also two similar people, (they were George and Ginnie though first names were awkward at this stage) behaved entirely differently. They were angered by the removal which "came out of the blue" (fair enough) and blamed, in turn, the police, the boys, and each other. At our first family meeting at Gateways all these feelings were expressed loudly but soberly, with the boys remaining quite silent. At the second meeting the parents had been drinking, rather more than they usually did, and they became abusive and all but assaultive. Our program was now added to the list of "blamees" if there is such a word, and individual staff members drew this fire respectively in their own right, Amy and me included, for we worked together with Keith and Richard.

Tuesday evening at 5.30 was the time we had scheduled our first home visit with the family. Amy and I were to go alone to this meeting, whereas the Social Worker had "chaired" the previous meetings. Keith and Richard had gone on ahead and we were to meet them there.

We knocked at the door and it was opened immediately. We were ushered in by Ginny, the boys’ mother. The two boys were leaning awkwardly against the wall, a woman whom we had not met before was standing next to Ginny – and George, the father, was conspicuously absent. Before we could open our mouths, Ginny informed us: "This is Jane, my neighbour and best friend. I want her here as a witness. Anything you need to say, you can say in front of her."

*   *   *

"Hello Jane. Is that your house next door with he peach tree in the front?" Amy was instantly out of the starting blocks while I was still groping around in my head for theoretical stuff like splitting, collusion and hijacking ... At Jane’s nod Amy went on: "I bet you have to chase the local kids away with sticks when the fruit ripens!"

"You’re right!" agreed Jane, "but the little beggars get at most of it while it’s still green – and that teaches them a lesson!"

Amy laughed, and the others in the room relaxed visibly. Amy dug into her carry-bag and produced a packet of cookies. "I’ve brought along something for us to eat ..."

Ginny pointed to the boys: "Boil some water, will you, you two ... who would like tea or coffee?"

"You know me: black tea," said Jane. Amy and I opted for coffee and the boys went through to the kitchen.

"It’s nice to meet a friend of the family," said Amy, turning to Jane. "We’ve only met George and Ginny and the boys a few weeks back. How long have you known the family?"

"They moved in next door three years ago, now" replied Jane, "and we’ve been friends ever since."

"Good friends," added Ginny. "Jane’s alone now that her own kids have ‘left the nest’, and she’s helped us a lot with Keith and Richard ..."

"Who are very fast at making tea and coffee," joked Amy as the boys returned with cups. "Who will open the cookies for us?"

*   *   *

I was sitting there with both feet in my mouth. Where the hell is George who was supposed to meet us here? What was all that talk about a witness and ‘anything we need to say’? ‘... will be taken down and used in evidence’ I thought she was going to say. I had arrived armed with all sorts of defences and arguments to parry the attacks of the parents – and where was Amy going with all this Pollyanna stuff, anyway? God, what would our report of the meeting look like?! "We had tea and cookies with the client family, wasn’t that nice? – and half the two expected parents weren’t even present!" And it didn’t get better.

"You have a great TV!" observed Amy. "I’d love one of these large screen things. How on earth do you get to decide which programs to watch?"

Keith spoke up. "We, me and Richard that is, we like pop music videos and The Simpsons and movies ..."

Richard took over: "... And Mom — yech! — likes country and western," he used a sing-song voice, "and Dad watches the news all the time."

"It’s the same anywhere, isn’t it?" said Amy. "When I was older and went to college, I at last had my own little TV. And you probably find it’s the same at Gateways," she added. "Put any two people in front of a TV and they each want something different."

And so on. Everybody participated, expressed opinions, told stories, laughed and ate the last crumb in the cookie packet.

Eventually Amy stood up. "It’s been really good to come and visit," she said. We all stood up. The boys collected their coats preparing to come back to Gateways with us.

"I’m pleased we met," offered Jane. Ginny smiled and shook our hands.

"Do tell George we’re sorry we missed him," said Amy. "Maybe next time."

We were shown out.

I heard myself coming to the party at last: "You have our phone numbers. Do call either of us whenever you want to."

OK, Good-bye, etc., etc.

*   *   *

"So what good was all that?" I asked when the two of us were alone back at Gateways.

"Ask yourself," she replied. "Was that a pleasant evening, or what?"

"OK, it was pleasant. Do have another cookie!" I mimicked. "But what did we get done? You never asked where George was. Surely he is central to the whole process?"

"Yes, process," she said pointedly. "Process! The whole thing is process, and after much process we may eventually ‘get something done’ as you put it. But from a process point of view, did we build something or have a bust-up? As far as George is concerned, do you think, whatever his reason for being away, that we have increased the likelihood of his coming next time or staying away next time?"

"Well, it’s true that we avoided all blame and criticism about his being absent ... and I’m beginning to see what you mean," I conceded. "We could have gone in there in an adversarial or defensive position, and come away feeling self-justified but with nothing more. We certainly drew the sting out of that ‘witness’ thing at the beginning. I must admit that threw me, and I felt myself getting hostile and angry right at the start!"

Amy let me off the hook. "It threw me too. My gut reaction was to ask ‘What do you mean by your witness?!’ But it was your first visit and I had the advantage of several previous attempts. I started out exactly as you did ... eager to strike a blow for justice and righteousness! But those things (a) may turn out to be very different from what we think at the beginning; and (b) it takes time!"

I smiled my thanks.

"And," said Amy. "I have always admired the honesty of Mr Minuchin when he wrote that ‘the first rule of therapeutic strategy is to leave the family willing to come again to the next session.’ That always works for me."

"Got it," I said. "Me too! Viva la process!"