Building on Family Strengths to Solve the Puzzle of Child Protection Work

Building on Family Strengths to Solve the Puzzle of Child Protection Work

by Jay Lappin, MSW, LCSW and Lauren McCarthy
Explore the systemic nature of child protection casework with troubled families and learn a useful clinical exercise that therapists, counselors, and social workers can use to connect with family strengths.


Get Endless Inspiration and
Insight from Master Therapists,
Members-Only Content & More


Information is a difference that makes a difference.
                                               — Gregory Bateson

In nature, it is said that whenever there is a poisonous plant, there can be another nearby which contains its antidote. When it comes to helping families, the same is true that for every problem identified, the resources for resolution can be present somewhere in the family’s ecology.]
for every problem identified, the resources for resolution can be present somewhere in the family’s ecology

Unfortunately, especially for underserved families, competition among divergent treatment philosophies, practices, and limited resources create an unintended conspiracy within the mental health and social service delivery systems — perhaps a benevolent one, but one which nonetheless curtails the identification of systemic homeopaths. The unfortunate consequence of this inability to use potential “antitoxins” naturally present within the client’s ecosystem is inefficiency for the service delivery system, stressed-out workers, high turnover, burnout, and a spiral of reduced possibility in which hope’s grasp is tentative at best, and non-existent at worst.

Mental health and social service clinicians working within the childcare system must search for strengths and solutions that are present, though perhaps hidden, in clients’ ecosystems. The approach is based on systems thinking and the idea gleaned from the practice of Structural Family Therapy (SFT) that change in any system, whether it be a family system or a social services agency, is best affected by the lived experience of doing.

Crossword puzzles as a paradigm stresses thinking and doing as an “out of the box” means to a problem-solving end. This practice mines the strength-based belief of creating a “virtuous circle” — one which recognizes clinicians’ and supervisors’ capacities and creativity, like those of the families they serve.

In resource-poor environments, when the goal of training is the enhanced ability to search for strength, this is not simply a training “add-on.” Rather, it is a foundational principle that requires the same persistence and consistency that Minuchin and other family therapists demonstrated was present in the natural environment in which clients and their families are embedded. The naturally occurring strengths in clients’ ecosystems can be uncovered by robust “doing,” which is an optimistic and energetic search for resources and resilience within both the family and the larger ecosystem of change.
the naturally occurring strengths in clients’ ecosystems can be uncovered by robust doing which is an optimistic and energetic search for resources and resilience within both the family and the larger ecosystem of change

Collaborative Case Planning

Like the proverbial butterfly catcher with net in hand, human service organizations have long been involved in a quest to capture the elusive chrysalis of change. What distinguishes efforts at reform and the ability to succeed is an ecological, “whole systems” approach. Children, families, problems, and possibilities are viewed in toto — economics, social, political, educational, gender, vocational, racial, location, class, and psychological elements are all in play. It acknowledges the margins and builds accountability.

The human and fiscal expense of doing otherwise speaks to the futility of programs that do not account for the organic and sometimes chaotic environment that families attempt to survive and thrive in.
As the 19th century Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth Carl Bernard Von Moltke reminded us, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” In this instance, the enemy of high-quality service delivery is the tendency to replicate the existing system rather than undergo the reformation needed to absorb the family’s own healing powers.

the enemy of high-quality service delivery is the tendency to replicate the existing system
Another systemically inspired practice that infuses underserved families with greater choice, and ultimately health, is collaborative case planning. This time-honored intervention gets all the major players to the table — including the family — and in the process, becomes a kind of exercise in agency topography that borrows from the tradition of Hartman and her colleagues, who pioneered ecomapping of family systems for adoptive placements.

By using the wide-angle lens of mapping families in all their contexts, resources and potential pressure points can emerge for their potential effect on the child and family. From the agency perspective, efficiency and collaboration are increased with an ecomap; everyone can see who is doing what and when and how it is being done. As a form of “observational therapy,” an ecomap can have the same heliotropic potential. However, as business has learned, outcomes can be improved, but not always for the reasons one might think.

the promise of systemic work and its healing potential as envisioned by therapists who worked in the family trenches is not always realized in the battles to transform larger systems
Unfortunately, the promise of systemic work and its healing potential as envisioned by therapists who worked in the family trenches is not always realized in the battles to transform larger systems. For clinicians in the human services, or for those who train them, the pitch of a systemic perspective too often mirrors the president throwing out the first ball of baseball season — well intended, lots of hoopla, but doesn’t reach the plate. Without a clear picture of where they fit in the larger service-delivery system or a sense that they can make a difference, workers can feel overwhelmed, disempowered, and disheartened.

The financial cost to the system in turnover and lost productivity can be measured. The loss of wisdom, the discontinuity of care, and the loss of hope, however, are beyond calculation. In that regard, the experiences of child welfare clinicians mirror the isolation that can permeate the system within which they work and the families that they treat.

It is for this reason that systems of care were re-designed to “wrap” services around families and to minimize the dilution of family processes that occur as a by-product of traditional service delivery. In a sense, “wrapping” can enrich underserved families with a wider net of resources in the way families of higher classes can choose their providers and supports more selectively.

Capitalizing on Strengths

In tracing the strands of effective, systemically inspired service delivery, there is one constant thread: strengths. Thank goodness! But just as it was found that a rising economic tide does not raise all boats, so too can the tidal waters of strength not elevate the all-too-often porous vessels of bureaucracy.

What is amazing is how far a little strength can go, even in conditions that are wanting. There are, after all, some quite beautiful plants that flourish in the shade. Sadly, however, in the wrong bureaucratic hands, even strengths-based practice can invite the agency equivalent of Frankenstein picking flowers with the little girl — it’s a nice idea, but eventually the monster kills it.

how, then, to help clinicians to see that it’s the difference that makes a difference
How, then, to help clinicians to see that “It’s the difference that makes a difference”? Is there a way to aerate the sometimes root-bound tangle of the childcare bureaucracy so that its ability to heal can be given the room to breathe and prosper? How to give clinicians — especially those just out of school — the understanding and confidence to “trust the process” of searching for strengths, both within disrupted families and the systems designed to serve them? Moreover, are there ways to create a culture of caring and learning transfer so that clinicians see themselves as “action agents” within the larger bureaucratic tangle?

Part of the answer lies in family therapy’s history and co-development with cybernetics — the study of how systems developed the concepts of circularity, non-linearity, recursion, the process of self-correction, and the ways family and organizational systems maintain stability/homeostasis while balancing that with change and transformation. Gregory Bateson and his colleagues at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in California, along with other early adapters, were the pioneers in this new way of thinking that set the stage for family therapy as we know it today.

Using a notion central to Structural Family Therapy (SFT) about strength and extending it to conceptualizing strength as a verb can be unintentionally overlooked when children and families in dire need get lost within the morass of bureaucracy. The SFT concept of healing is more about thinking of strength as a verb. It’s not so much a matter of finding strengths within the family’s ecosystem as it is strengthening the resources that are hiding in the weeds, so to speak. In that regard, it is more of a leap of faith — that whatever challenges a case presents, health can prevail.

Businesses and non-profits share a challenge: getting their message through environmental “clutter,” or the glut of choices that compete for our attention. How, then, can human service organizations solve the multiple staff training dilemmas they face?

The skills and belief set needed are interwoven and important: ensure the safety of the child and family, reduce decision clutter, increase the active search for strengths, attend to and nurture family connections, expand the problem-solving lens to include extended family, community and idiosyncratic, home-grown resources, and get paperwork in on time. One path on the way toward answering this organizational koan is this: increase experiential capital by linking the worker and their day-to-day decisions with the larger mission of the organization.

Thinking Outside the Therapeutic Box

Bridging the gap between what we know and what we do, however, is no small feat. In Why Didn’t You Say that in the First Place: How to Be Understood at Work, Richard Heyman unravels this knotty problem with a question and a refreshing answer: “Why is it that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words?’ The picture is not talking about something — it is the thing the talk is about.”
bridging the gap between what we know and what we do, however, is no small feat

From this perspective, to truly “get” the uber-goal of searching for strength and translating that into action, workers must experience the “felt sense” of search and discovery —finding something where apparently nothing exists. This experience is analogous to an “enactment” in SFT, in which the family is guided by the therapist in an interactive experience between members that is designed to offer them new opportunities to use underutilized strengths.

Many consider enactments to be the heart of Structural Family Therapy. The value of enactments is two-fold. First, as a “real-time” assessment tool, and second, for their change-producing potential, both of which scaffold nicely for training in human services.

spontaneous enactments are readily available ways of interacting that might be thought of as familial tells
Enactments between family members during therapy can principally occur in two ways, either spontaneously or through the therapist’s direction, and they are used in two ways, to assess family patterns and to promote change. Spontaneous enactments are readily available ways of interacting that might be thought of as familial “tells” (like the poker player whose nervous smile foretells the bluff), showing habits of relating in which relational organization is embedded. While some might consider these patterns to be so deep as to be unconscious, another way to think of them is as learned ways to relate and survive in the world.

The persistence of patterns can transcend the pull of context. Habituated behaviors tend to reveal themselves in multiple settings— a therapist’s office, a restaurant, school, work, or home. The persistence of these patterns can be linked to the tendency to reduce anxiety through prediction and habit. As the pioneer family therapist, Virginia Satir notably said, “Most people would prefer the misery of certainty over the misery of uncertainty.”

Like an artist who steps back from the picture they are painting, clinicians have the capacity to use themselves differentially, moving in and out of the family system to gain perspective. Minuchin described this as “use of self,” in which the therapist positions themself with the family from “proximate, median or distant” perspectives.

Harry Aponte has written about how therapists can make use of their own personalities, family of origin, and life experiences to guide clients during enactments in the “then and there” of limiting patterns so that they experience themselves and one another with increased possibility and hope.

Like a music student first learning scales as a prelude to improvisation, experiential training can evolve into a more responsive, “whole systems, both-and” approach in which requirements and innovation can co-occur. For example, when supervisors at one county office of a state child welfare agency were asked about their staff’s training needs, their response was, “To be able to think on their own/to think outside of the box.”

Their request comes from the experience of guiding their workers through the complicated bureaucratic and interpersonal seas of child protection. As Mumma wrote in his insightful piece about his agency training in systems work, “Taking these concepts (ways of thinking) and making them work in a particular agency setting is the real work of training.” The analogy of crossword puzzles can make that work a bit easier.

Finding Best Clinical Practices

Just thinking about all the aspects of a case — its who’s, what’s, and how’s — can be a bit overwhelming. Cases in the investigative and early treatment stages, particularly for newer clinicians and social workers, may seem all forest and trees, abounding with unanswered questions.
cases in the investigative and early treatment stages, particularly for newer clinicians and social workers, may seem all forest and trees, abounding with unanswered questions
Over the years, agencies have found genograms, ecomaps, and structural maps to create a set of “blueprints” that graphically represent families and agencies in a way that quickly sorts out relationships and priorities. These tools have been essential in widening the practice/thinking lens to include others who may have clues to potential resources.

The rise in “manualized” treatment and the emphasis on evidence-based treatments has helped to sort through these difficult choices and prescribe “best practices.” While this is a necessary step in the right direction — much like learning scales is in music — it can be insufficient to encompass the unpredictable nature of cases. There needs to be a “both-and” approach that brackets safety, consistency, and growth with improvisation. Thinking in terms of crosswords can do just that.

In its own way, a blank crossword puzzle graphically resembles a complex clinical and, in this case, social services-related case — lots of questions, some inter-related, some not, and just to make it interesting, a few black boxes. As President Clinton said in the crosswords-based movie, Wordplay:

Sometimes you have to go at a problem the way I go at a complicated crossword puzzle. You start where you know the answer and you build on it and eventually you unravel the whole puzzle. And so, I rarely work a puzzle with any difficulty, one across and one down all the way to the end in a totally logical fashion. A lot of difficult, complex problems are like that. You must find some aspect of it you understand and build on it until you can unravel the mystery you are trying to understand and then you build on it and eventually you unravel the whole puzzle.

When one acts as if the answers are there, though perhaps hidden, the puzzle’s resolution moves from the shakier, contingent ground of “if” it will be resolved, to the more possibilistic ground of “how.”

Crossword Puzzles as Metaphor in Child Protection Work

Do you think I know what I am doing?

That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself?

As much as a pen knows what it is writing,

Or the ball can guess where it’s going next.


When a case opens in child protection, the most compelling, sometimes unanswerable question is “Who will keep this child safe?”
when a case opens in child protection, the most compelling, sometimes unanswerable question is Who will keep this child safe
If an injury has occurred in the home, the prima facie answer may seem obvious: “no one.” In this instance, unless resources are surfaced, the child will need to be placed outside of the home, “in the system.”

Starting the exploration of strengths from a crossword paradigm assumes that like the printed puzzle, all the answers may not be initially apparent, but once safety is established, one can begin to answer the eternal risk-safety dilemma: Can the person(s) who caused or permitted harm now be responsible for safety? If one only looks at the alleged abuser, then the likelihood is that the answer to the question will be “no.” If more contextual factors are also considered, so, too, are possibilities.

The work becomes both retrospective and prospective, invoking Einstein’s dictum, “You can never solve a problem on the level at which it was created.” The “who” and “when” questions are now also answered by “how.”

The “how” to find and fill those potential strength-based empty boxes begins with questions like “Who else watches the kids when you go out?” or, “When you are having a rough day, who do you talk to?” or, “Who are some of the people you count on?” These ground-level questions are more than a set of techniques, they are the personal implementation of a larger policy that has the capacity to both be safe and value the child’s primary connection.

Enacting Possibility to Help Families in Crisis

Like the Zoysia grass, the grass/weed whose initial plugs merge over time into a uniform carpet, training from a Crosswords perspective can grow the seeds of organizational interpersonal attachment. One way to underscore the marriage of mission and method is to give training participants a felt sense of difference.

The enactment of possibility begins when participants fill out a blank crossword on their own. After five minutes of working alone in silence, the trainer helps the participants process their “silent” experience at multiple levels: What did you notice? Did you fill in the boxes you knew first, or did you have a system? What did it feel like? Did any of you get stuck? How did you get out of that — what did you do? Typically, people report a range of answering strategies — some very methodical, “I do every ‘across' first, then I start with the ‘downs,’” others more radiant, “I just see which ones I know and then go from there.”

I was worried other people would see how much I didn’t know. I kind of enjoyed it
Next, the trainer asks the participants what it felt like to do the puzzle. What did they notice about their mental/emotional and physical states? “It was quiet.” “I kind of got into it.” “It was frustrating.” “I felt tense.” “I was worried other people would see how much I didn’t know.” “I kind of enjoyed it.” “It’s like Solitaire or Wordle, I just got lost in it.” All their answers provide abundant raw material to talk about their work, their stresses, successes, and the strategies they use to problem solve. And it sets the stage for helping them think “out of the box” by using the other boxes.

To widen the lens, the trainer may provide another enactment. This time, they can ask participants to form small groups of six or fewer, telling them that they have another five minutes to work on their puzzles, but this time, together. People begin to talk, share their answers, laugh, and fill in the blanks as they see how quickly they can solve the new crossword together as a team.

When the time is up, the group is asked to process their experience and compare it with doing the puzzle alone. Inevitably, they notice the energy level, productivity, speed of producing answers, and their own internal experience of connecting while connecting the dots. In future puzzling cases, this brainstorming model can supply added, shared resource clues to support and, most importantly, help the clinician in their search for resources within the family and larger system.

Materials Needed: Copies of a Crossword Puzzle

Total Amount of time: 10–20 minutes

Lessons Learned: Start with strengths within and around the family, fill in the answers you know to discover the answers you don’t.

One does not need to know all the answers to get all the answers.

A “wrong” answer is eventually corrected by the context of right answers.

Just like a case, one does not know all the answers when starting — answers emerge over time often from unexpected sources.

Persistence pays off — but so does taking a break and getting help.

A Family Crossword Comes Together

The first time I (LPM) met Kyla and her mother, Teresa, was across a cold table in an institutional room. Kyla had been in the residential treatment facility for almost ten months following a series of escalating behavioral incidents in her previous foster home. I thought back to my meeting with the family’s caseworker, who told me that Teresa and her partner Linda’s relationship was volatile and created an unsafe environment in the home. Kyla’s father, according to the caseworker, was out of the picture.

during my first several months working with the family, I felt as if very little progress had been made
During my first several months working with the family, I felt as if very little progress had been made. Each week, I’d pick Teresa up and drive her to the residential facility for family sessions. Dutifully, I went to family court, holding space for an equally enraged and devastated Teresa on the way home each time reunification was pushed back. I consistently showed up for the family, and despite good rapport with both mother and daughter, Kyla’s behavior remained a challenge and our family sessions felt focused on the crisis of the week, as opposed to addressing underlying family dynamics and struggles.

One day, Teresa unannouncedly brought her partner Linda to session. From that point, treatment changed almost immediately, as both Kyla and Teresa seemed more engaged and open during family therapy, and we began to focus less on minor incidents and more on boundaries and communication within the family system.

Still, somehow, it felt like a piece of the family puzzle was missing. I could sense that Teresa and Linda were holding something back, particularly when we discussed their co-parenting practices. This final piece fell into place one day when I went to pick up Teresa and Linda and Robert, Kyla’s father, eagerly and unexpectedly hopped into the van. It quickly became clear that Robert had been actively involved with the family all along.

I finally could see the full picture of the family structure and their dynamic. Teresa, Linda, and Robert were in a polyamorous relationship. Robert had been understandably hesitant to engage with the child welfare system out of concern that the polyamorous relationship would be condemned, and reunification denied.

The case that had “simply” been presented to me as an unreliable mother with a violent partner unable to meet the emotional needs of her unstable daughter was actually one where a child had three caring adults who wanted to support her. With all the pieces in place and the entire family finally engaged in treatment, meaningful therapeutic work ensued, Kyla’s behavior improved, and she came home.


“The solution to pollution is dilution.”

Using crossword puzzles as a conceptual framework and training method opens workers and the organization to both the learned and the lived experience of complexity, strength, possibility, and the importance of connective relationships when working in child protection. We know that systems can mirror the systems that they treat. For instance, In Child Welfare, the insidious nature of poverty is such that it can quietly, but inexorably, leach into the soil of good intentions in such a way that the attachments between worker and family, workers and other agencies, worker and supervisor, and workers themselves, can suffer the pollution of despair.

This is not to say that using crossword puzzles will wall off the effects of these potential systemic toxins. It is to say, however, that healthy, connected relationships can be grown and nurtured and, over time, create “the difference that makes a difference.”


The author would like to thank my friends and colleagues who helped me fill in the blanks, both across as well as up and down. A special thanks go to Lauren McCarthy (LM) for providing the case of Kyla.

© 2023
Jay Lappin, MSW, LCSW is a New Jersey licensed marriage and family counselor and social worker, as well as NASW Clinical Diplomat. He is board member emeritus of the Minuchin Center for the Family, adjunct faculty for the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education and clinical supervisor for Drexel University’s Master of Family Therapy Program. For fourteen years, Jay studied, then taught and supervised at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic. For fifteen years, he was the principle trainer and consultant for Delaware’s Department of Services to Youth, Children & Their Families “Family Focus” program — a “whole systems” initiative involving all three operating divisions and their personnel including a pioneer program in family reunification. He has also served on the boards and held offices for the New Jersey American Association of Marriage & Family Therapy and the American Family Therapy Academy. He has written on Structural Family Therapy from a cross cultural perspective, implementing larger systems change and conducting family sessions. He has been a contributing editor for the Psychotherapy Networker and interviewed Salvador Minuchin for Jay has conducted workshops, lectures and supervised throughout the United States, Germany and Taiwan. Closer to home, in New Jersey, he’s been in private practice for forty years.

Lauren Pryce McCarthy, PhD, LCSW is the Berger Fellow at the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect. Prior to her doctoral education she worked as an intensive in-home family therapist for youth at risk of out-of-home placement in Philadelphia. She is certified in Eco-systemic Structural Family Therapy and trained in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Lauren's research is focused on increasing mental health care access equity for youth to reduce the need for residential treatment.