Warning signs, safety measures, plan of action, and supports. These are all vital components of crisis response and safety planning in the field of mental health. Safety planning can be considered a helpful resource to assess safety needs for each family member and develop awareness of individual needs by loved ones when participating in discussion. It can also serve as an empowerment tool to allow advocacy and engagement in positive coping skills when the family is experiencing conflict. Due to family systems becoming more diverse to meet the needs of support and connection, the term family can be defined in non-traditional ways. Not only does it capture the nuclear or biological family, it may also comprise of blended families, extended family, step-parents, foster siblings, or “chosen family.” Chosen family can include but is not limited to, close friends, mentors, and godparents.
Bringing individuals together in their roles in the family system, it has become increasingly important to include all members in safety planning when addressing mental health and safety in order to unify the family and achieve meaningful results. In serving at-risk youth and families in the Denver Metro Area, safety planning has proven to be invaluable in exploring awareness of triggers for disruption and conflict, safety needs; thus engaging the family in exploration to foster empowerment and change. Safety planning allows the whole family to explore their needs rather than isolating one individual as the “identified problem.”
The benefits of safety planning can be demonstrated for one family of seven suffering from neglect, domestic violence, and substance use that lead to Department of Human Services involvement due to ongoing safety concerns. The family system consisted of mom Jenna* (36), boyfriend David (27), daughters Fiona (16), Margot (14), Patricia (6), and sons Julian (9) and Bobbie (2). Jenna and her family were referred to in-home family therapy due to safety concerns with Jenna’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting in substance use, domestic violence with her boyfriend David, and neglectful parenting that was negatively impacting each child.
It was the hope of the Department of Human Services to support the family in reuniting and repairing their relationship now that Jenna was sober from substances and ready to actively parent in the household.
Observing and engaging the family in rapport building, it was quickly apparent which role each member played in the family system. Jenna was able to identify her challenges in parenting her children in that they were each struggling with her absence in different ways. Fiona identified her anger that lead to running away from home and engaging in fights at school. Margot reported being a strong student and keeping to herself in her room when not parenting her younger siblings in Jenna’s absence. Patricia was observed to be childlike with attention-seeking behaviors younger than her biological age, whereas her older brother Julian escaped into video games to remain unseen. The youngest, Bobbie, was observed to struggle with meeting developmental milestones and resorted to screaming and hitting himself and others when emotionally dysregulated.
Through engaging Jenna, David, and the kids in a safety planning therapeutic activity, they were able to begin to recognize each of their individual differences regarding warning signs, as well as the coping skills needed to support connection and emotion regulation. Jenna began to learn more about her children and their needs through identifying warning signs such as isolation, anger, and behavioral changes signifying distress for each child at their developmental level.
Jenna also identified her own triggers and reactions to her children as they related to her trauma and urge to escape.
When Jenna couldn’t escape her PTSD symptoms through work or substances, she was able to recognize the increased risk of conflict and aggression leading to fights with her boyfriend David. The safety planning served as a tool of discovery for family members and empowered each of them to advocate for their needs through healthy communication. For Jenna and her family, the safety plan served as a means of taking action to support the family in times of conflict and crisis.
Through this process, the children felt heard, Jenna identified goals for ongoing individual therapy work to maintain sobriety, and David and Jenna were able to identify new ways of communicating as a couple in order to bring the entire family closer together. Safety planning can be introduced and implemented early in the therapeutic process to explore family patterns, coping skill needs, and foster trust and safety while empowering families to remain together, connected and aware. A safety plan template is available for professional use along with a suicide risk assessment called the Community Assessment and Coordination of Safety (CACS) at www.cacs-co.com.
*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality