When Beth and her daughters started making brownies that Sunday afternoon, Brian expected the inevitable. The girls would bicker. Someone would cry. Beth would grow so frustrated, she’d lose her temper and give up.
But as he watched from the kitchen door, Brian realized the family dynamics had shifted. The three girls worked together measuring and stirring. Beth coached them and offered praise. Before long, they were sliding a pan of chocolate batter into the oven.
“Beth is a divorced mom with three children and I’m a divorced dad with four children,” he says. “We hadn’t been able to do activities together in the past because everything was always so volatile. That day, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. We’ve turned a corner here.’ It took work on our part, but it was exactly what this particular household needed.”
Brian and Beth credit a program called Building Families, which uses a well-researched method called the Teaching Family Model to help parents and children create healthier relationships. For them, it provided tools to navigate complicated household dynamics, which include caring for a child with mental illness.
Launched in South Carolina in 2013 through Thornwell Home for Children, the program provides intensive in-home training and follow-up services. A $194,000 grant from The Duke Endowment in 2015 allowed Building Families to expand from two S.C. counties to four.
“The program doesn’t just lay out what you need to work on,” Beth says. “It gives the steps of how to do that in a hands-on way that is literally building the family and pulling it together. I feel much more confident as a mom because I’ve had somebody in the trenches with me.”
Extending its Reach
Thornwell opened as a Presbyterian ministry for orphans in 1875 in the small town of Clinton, S.C. Last year, the residential program served 155 children who had been referred by psychiatrists or therapists, or placed there through the Department of Social Services to begin to heal from a painful past.
Through Building Families, Thornwell now offers services beyond its sprawling 390-acre campus.
“No one was doing this kind of in-home, intensive, early intervention program, and we felt we could really have an impact beyond our residential campus,” says the Rev. Elliot Smith, Thornwell’s president since 2011. “We had a chance to meet needs in the community and help more families become stronger.”
Building Families began in Greenville, Laurens and Richland counties; the Endowment grant supported expansion to Dorchester and Berkeley. It’s unique in that it works in collaboration with local Presbyterian churches, creating community and congregational engagement. Congregations contribute practical support, such as supplying craft materials or space for parenting classes. Building Families offers an opportunity for volunteering and outreach and, most importantly, a lifeline for parents and children.
The program helps families address conflicts, communication issues and behavioral problems at school and at home. Parents learn how to teach self-control, set boundaries, give effective consequences and praise effectively. Children learn how to follow instructions, accept “no” for an answer, show respect, and express feelings appropriately.
Family Specialists are trained in the Teaching Family Model, a well-researched approach that focuses on positive behaviors. Thornwell has been using the Teaching Family Model in its residential work for 13 years.
“We started looking at what Thornwell does best, and then considered the services that children and families need that we’re not able to provide though a residential program alone,” Smith says.
With Building Families, the Family Specialists provide two to four months of intensive in-home services through two to three visits each week. They also offer on-call support during especially stressful times, and one year of follow-up services.
Referrals come from pediatricians, therapists, schools and word-of-mouth, but participation is voluntary.
“It takes a lot of commitment from families to say, ‘Yes, we want to do this,’” says Sonya O’Neal, Thornwell’s vice president for programs and clinical services. “In the beginning, our attrition rate was fairly high. But now we’re doing a better job of helping parents make an informed decision about expectations and what they’re getting into.”
“It can be very intimidating to let somebody come into your house and really see what happens,” says one mom. “But the first time our Family Specialist came here, she gathered information about us, our kids, and our household dynamic. There was no judgment, and the program was tailored to our specific needs.”
The point is to develop a deep relationship with the family, O’Neal says. “As one of our parents told us, ‘You walk into our day no matter how that day is going.’ But when you practice your skills right where you live, you can make phenomenal progress.”
In 2015, the program served 50 families in South Carolina. There’s a waiting list in three of the four counties.
As Building Families works to expand, O’Neal points to positive outcomes. Leaders track progress as families work their way through the program, capturing data to measure success and learn from trends. Since 2015, of the 69 families that participated:
- 88 percent successfully completed all six phases.
- Slightly more than 94 percent of participating children demonstrated fewer behavioral issues.
- Of all parents completing the program, there was an average increase of nearly 12 percent in parenting skills and knowledge of child development and community support.
Thornwell leaders hope to expand Building Families further, reaching more parents and children in South Carolina. They have several churches wanting to learn more about the program.
To Beth and Brian, that’s good news.
“We didn’t have a list of things we wanted to work on – we just said ‘Help!’” Brian remembers. “Now our life as a family has never been better.”
Learn more about Building Families.
Tamika D. Williams
Associate Director, Child Care