A Star is Born: Birth of FAF Software
By Alex Morales [recollections by Alex Morales, former CEO of Children’s Bureau (1988- 2018) also based on interview with Sandy Sladen, June 2019.]
We all know if we turned out great, it was often our parents, family and our community that played a vital supporting role in our becoming shining stars. Today, FAF Software (previously known as Family Assessment Form) has evolved into a powerful software tool used in the United States and Canada by public and non-profit organizations to measure and improve family functioning. It is built on the wisdom from practitioners who do the work. FAF supports practitioners, organizations, researchers, and ultimately vulnerable families and their children, to be their best. So, who were the parents, family and environment that helped to realize FAF?
This is a story about visionaries, disruptive questions, innovation and a deep commitment to be a force for good. It is a story that takes place in the national environment as pioneering efforts emerged across the country in the early 1980s to build a new model of practice: home-based intensive services for families at risk of having their children placed in foster care. FAF was born from the synergy that takes place when visionary leaders partner with wise researchers who value and harness the voice of the practitioner and dedicate themselves to improving practice. FAF is a story that wouldn’t have happened without Judy Nelson (Executive Director of Children’s Bureau of Southern California), Jacquelyn McCroskey (professor/researcher at University of Sothern California School of Social Work) and Sandy Sladen (practitioner and supervisor/manager at Children’s Bureau of Southern California). FAF depended on contributions from practitioners at Children’s Bureau who were willing to learn, build and embrace the power of practice-based research tools to support their work to better help families. Back then, it was a risky cultural step for practitioners to embrace the use of research tools because of fear their professional skills were being replaced by an academic tool. Staff realized their skills were not being replaced, but that their work was in fact being supported by the FAF that was built by them.
In the early 1980s, Children’s Bureau was one of a few pioneering organizations working in the emerging field of home-based services across the country. While home-based services are common practice today thanks to the pioneers, back then, it was a bold move to provide services in a family’s real-life home setting. Disruptive questions came forward from the environmental context of developing this new field of practice. These unflinching disruptive questions drove the development of FAF: 1.) How do we know these home-based services are working (these were the early seeds of today’s outcome-driven practice), and how would we improve them to be more effective? 2.) How can a worker know where to begin? What should the worker do to help a family who is immersed in chaos, crisis, minefields of emotional triggers for worker and family alike, and complexity beyond belief? 3.) How can the worker know if they are truly helping and being effective? The innovative answer to the disruptive questions: Measure family functioning, implement a family service plan based on the strengths and concerns identified, and periodically measure and refine the service plan. (Note, measuring family functioning supports the service planning by workers. It helps organizations measure and increase impact. It goes well beyond the first step of risk assessment.)
So, what had to be done to realize FAF? There were no tools at the time that measured family functioning. Line staff social workers at Children’s Bureau were asked what and how they assess families, and what they needed to know to help a family. The agency’s case records were scanned. Workers spoke with other organizations across the country to learn from their experience of how they are measuring outcomes and helping families. A literature review was performed. From all this came a lengthy list of items that made up the first FAF draft. Based on research studies, these items used mathematical factor analysis to group them together. Voila! What emerged was a holistic ecological prism that revealed the complexity of the family divided into multiple domains of light; domains such as parent-child interaction, interactions between caregivers, financial support, environment in and out of the home, etc. Details to support the rating process were refined by researchers and practitioners so workers could be more standardized in how they rated families. Case planning, including goal setting, identification of services needed, and resources all flowed from the ecological assessment results that yielded the areas of concern and the strengths of the family.
In the late 1980s, FAF was used as one of the primary tools in measuring the impact of a home-based service delivery demonstration project, and FAF was also used as the key practice tool for the service planning. Three Los Angeles based organizations and the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services worked together in this demonstration project which used FAF. The FAF tool was refined to improve its cultural responsiveness based on input from the other organizations so that it would more strongly work in the different ethnic and socio-economic communities served in the demonstration project. This demonstration project was designed to test the home-based service delivery approach and improve the innovative FAF tool. FAF would measure the change in the family’s functioning over time so that social workers and organizations could better understand impact and workers could further help the family they were serving.
Since those early years, FAF has continued to achieve evolutionary milestones. In the early 1990s, workers began to recognize the power of FAF, not only in measuring problems in family functioning, but for its properties of a strengths-based measuring tool, as well. FAF could identify where families had strengths as well as the areas of concern. The use of FAF has also evolved to have the family partner with the practitioner in designing their own plan to help their family. In the early 1990s, FAF was used in a paper format and nationally distributed by the Child Welfare League of America. In the late 1990s, it began to evolve into the modern web-based tool it is today. Through the years, FAF has continued to be developed and adapted to work in various cultural settings across the U.S. and Canada. For instance, in different parts of the U.S., the presence of guns and the use of fences in yards mean different things. FAF and its users have learned how to bridge these cultural differences.
In more current times, FAF has been cross walked to reflect the presence of protective factors in families. FAF has also been incorporated to serve families in many different settings including but not limited to child welfare, homelessness, mental health and probation. FAF has also been enhanced to identify how to help families who are pregnant or who have young children.
Importantly and uniquely, FAF has matured to become a gold standard for how to help social workers help families versus just a data case management tool or just an evaluation tool or just an organizational improvement tool. FAF can do it all or any part of it! Organizations, funders and researchers use it to demonstrate and improve impact.
Today FAF is proud to help thousands upon thousands of our vulnerable families and children by assisting our dedicated staff and the public and private organizations that serve and invest in them so that they can provide state-of-the-art practice and support to those whom we care about.