An innovative approach to healing the minds and spirits of children and families is bringing success for United Church of Christ-related Orion Family Services, based in Madison Wis.  Its Parent Skill Builder program, begun in 2007, is a therapeutic parenting program provided in the home that helps parents strengthen and improve their parenting, which helps their children thrive.

“The key is the parents must be willing and ready to have the services focus on them, rather than their children,” to make changes, says Stacey Parke, clinical director at Orion. It’s termed “ready parents,” she adds, because it’s focused on “parents recognizing and wanting to do things differently. In the PSB program, the parents are the ‘change agents’ in the family system.”

Orion receives referrals for PSB when a family situation has escalated past traditional social service interventions. It is a last opportunity to avoid having to remove a child from a home, or to possibly help restore a child to a home. In 2016 alone, Orion served 183 families, with 45 being referred to the PSB program.

After an initial written and observational assessment of the family, the results are reviewed with the parent(s), and a tailored plan –– complete with workbook and homework –– is developed, with goals and multiple action steps for each goal. Parents in the PSB program meet with therapists twice a week –– once for a skill-building educational session and once for an enactment session that gives them the opportunity to practice the skills they learned in the earlier session.

For success, “the parents must feel they are an important part of the process,” says Parke, and it starts with action steps in which they can experience success, and then build upon it. “It’s a collaborative, caring approach.”

PSB is based on the Functional Family Therapy model created by James Alexander, Ph.D., in the 1970s, and utilizes Alexander’s philosophy of “unrelenting positive regard” for families.

“The genesis of the Parent Skill Building program was a call from a county that was working with three families” on the edge of having their children permanently removed from their homes, says Parke. “They asked us, ‘Can you help us assess the situation?’ in order to exhaust all avenues before filing the paperwork to terminate parental rights.”

Orion stepped in to assist, providing consultation, assessment and treatment, and the parent skill builder program was born. Soon after, another Wisconsin county allowed Orion to run a pilot program, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison stepped in and offered to help Orion evaluate its outcomes.

Data Provides New Evaluative Method

The data collection and analysis, which today continues via a team comprised of an Orion clinician and a consultant, is perhaps the most unique part of the PSB program.

“Small nonprofits like ours have been slow to embrace data collection because of lack of resources [funding and staff], and the complexity evaluation in certain circumstances,” says Parke. For example, she says, how do you measure a behavior outcome that can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the situation?

“We are proud to be able to capture data and use it to tweak the program in order to get better at what we do and, ultimately, provide better care to those we serve,” says Parke. “It’s an honor to work with someone in their home. You get connected –– as a stranger –– and can be a powerful witness to their struggles and their successes.”

As an example, Parke says initial data showed that the program served mothers better than fathers, partially due to a smaller number of dads in the program. Orion used that data to retool the program and develop techniques to give fathers more assistance.

UCC Local Churches Are Essential Partners

Although the main hub of Orion is in Madison, its 50 employees sometimes use satellite offices. One office is at First Congregational UCC in Janesville, Wis., which houses a community services outreach. St. John’s UCC in Monroe, Wis., also has opened its doors to Orion, giving them a space where Orion therapists can work with clients.

“We’ll have a need for a space –– short-term or long-term –– and we’ll call up a UCC church for help,” says Parke. “We’ve never been turned down. We know we can count on our area UCC churches.”

Many area churches keep Orion staff and clients in their prayers. Others send gifts of quilts or other items for the families. The quilts can be functional –– a family whose heat has been turned off, for example –– or they may help define a therapy space: a sacred space in the home.

Parke, who joined a UCC church after learning about the denomination on the job, calls Orion’s status as a CHHSM-member ministry and its connection to local UCC churches a gift.

“We recognize the amazing gift of the church’s support in our work as, well, ministers really, of the church,” she says. “We — all of the staff and I — feel a real sense of call to do this work, and we understand the privilege of being able to work with families in this way.”

“We work with families struggling with multiple, complex needs. We really are the hands of the church in ministry.”