As study after study recognises these same risks and protective factors, researchers are calling for clinicians and service systems to shift from traditional approaches to establish new intervention efforts to prevent risks and promote protective factors (Rutter 1987). Pilot programs which pursue this direction show promise. For example, school-based programs teaching social skills and problem-solving can at least temporarily improve the functional level of high risk children.
Also, programs in intensive probation, which essentially allow mentoring of juvenile offenders by probation workers with low case loads, have lower rates of recidivism. Further, in home support services, such as Family Preservation programs and in-home outreach child abuse prevention programs, capitalise on promoting goals which serve as protective factors against risk. Such pronounced positive effects outstrip many of the traditional treatment efforts of mental health and delinquency rehabilitation. Despite these successes, many human service delivery systems remain oblivious to targeting interventions directly to reduce risk by promoting protective factors.
It is not entirely certain that high risk children and families can improve functioning simply by forcing protective factors on them. After all, the resilient children of the studies (Chamberlain, 1995) can be assumed naturally resilient, enveloping protective factors without the assistance of human services agencies. While a naturally resilient child may have the social skills to engage a caring adult to serve as a mentor, another high risk child may be more likely to evade or reject caring adults who seek to mentor them.
Nonetheless, the experience of field workers with high risk individuals reveals that the children and families who do manage to improve their lot do so by the acquisition of psychosocial protective factors and concentrating on long term life changes. Occasionally, the turnaround is seen as a direct result of the determined intervention of service systems, but is probably more often a result of natural forces in the child life. To the extent that a service system can duplicate the growth of protective factors in the lives of high risk individuals, it can also expect to improve long range outcomes.
In order to take a true strengths-based approach to treatment, the ideal mental health system should go beyond disability and diagnosis-specific approaches, and actively assess and promote protective factors. In this way, the general psychosocial benefits of acquiring protective factors would augment traditional therapies. Any overview of traditional public sector mental health services makes it immediately clear that many interventions fall short of meeting the needs of high risk children.
For example, weekly clinic-based individual or family therapy, group therapies, and structured treatment programs are often under utilised in the absence of providing in-home supports or one-to-one mentor relationships, which could facilitate access to such services. The traditional behavioural modification approaches used so widely in special education and mental health programs most often fail to generalise to the child’s natural environment, and are therefore probably less important than building competence and confidence, or providing a child with an enduring relationship with a caring adult.
Family therapy should provide real logistical support to overwhelmed parents, foster positively in parent-child relationships, and assist in the development of household consistency. The many problems of high risk children and families frustrate traditional techniques of therapy and service delivery, but where resiliency theory is applied to deliver know protective factors, we can begin to see positive outcomes in the lives of children/families that are otherwise difficult to serve.
It should be noted that existing mental health programs are clearly helpful for lower risk children. For families who are able to regularly access services and have either motivation for involvement, or children who are easily engaged, traditional systems of care are at least effective, if not widely available. It is the persistent inability of traditional systems to adequately serve high risk children and families.
There is mounting evidence in a number of intervention/prevention programs that high risk children/families respond to strategies which provide or instill protective factors. Programs providing mentors/agencies for at-risk children (Sure Start, Juvenile mentoring, Communities in Schools and others), are achieving predictable success. It is not surprising that such programs have a positive effect on children, many of whom are from adverse home settings. Simple provision of attention and caring by an adult is likely to be of help. While much of the role of these mentors/agencies is perceptive, and emerges naturally in the relationship with the child, it would enhance the function of mentors/agencies to focus their interventions in the realm of known protective factors.