J. McCroskey


This paper describes competing ideas about family preservation, defined both as a defined program of social services and a philosophical approach to helping troubled families. A straightforward definition has become almost impossible because the phrase has taken on so many different meanings, provoking controversy about its "real" meaning and value. Indeed, "family preservation" has become the proverbial elephant whose splendors and horrors are described with great certainty by those impressed by only one of its aspects. While skirmishes between "child savers" and "family preservers" have been part of the child welfare field since its beginning at the turn of the last century, recent debates over family preservation have been especially heated, generating more confusion and animosity than might be expected from the ranks of the small and usually mild-mannered social work profession. The debate is so heated that the director of one of the nation's largest child welfare agencies said recently that he is afraid to "even use the two words on the same page." <1>

While the debate about the value of family preservation is unresolved, experimentation with different approaches to service delivery over the last two decades has helped to lay the groundwork for a resurgence of interest in family and community-centered reforms. Better understanding of the family preservation "debates" may be helpful if these reforms are to be successful over the long term. The paper discusses the competing ideas, values, and perceptions that have led observers to their different understandings of family preservation. It briefly chronicles the history of child welfare and examines key theories that have helped lay the groundwork for the resurgence of interest in family-centered services. It concludes with observations about how the competing values at stake in family preservation may affect the next generation of reforms.