The evidence basis for parenting interventions for families involved in child welfare systems is generally thin. Most of these have not been thoroughly examined specifically with maltreating parents, and many have no empirical foundation. The purpose of this pilot study was to adapt The Circle of Security, an emerging evidence-based parenting intervention founded upon attachment theory, to parents currently involved with a child welfare agency, resulting from substantiated maltreatment. We hypothesized that post-test assessments would reveal improvements in parents' insightfulness into their children's relational perceptions, improvements in children's attachment security, lower parenting stress, and reduced behavior problems.
Eight mothers participated in this first pilot study, each of whom was randomly referred for parenting services by a local child welfare agency. Demographic characteristics of mothers included: 7 Caucasian, 1 Hispanic; mean age 25; 50% less than high school education; 50% substance abuse history; 6 of 8 yearly family incomes below $15K; rural residence. Children were 6 boys, 2 girls; mean age 48 months. Reasons for referral to child welfare included: Inadequate supervision/protection (4); substance abuse/dependence (3); domestic violence (3); and physical abuse (2). Five of the 8 children had been in foster/kin placements at some point.
The Circle of Security is a 26 week intervention that relies primarily on reviews of videotaped parent-child interactions in group sessions. Parents are taught to recognize their children's alternating needs for exploration and attachment (conceptualized as a continuous relational circle), to identify where on this “circle” they struggle the most, and to adapt new behavior to address these problems.
Using a pre-post design, parents and children were assessed with the Insightfulness Assessment (IA), an interview measure of parents' empathic awareness of their children's needs for them, the Preschool Strange Situation Procedure (SSP), an observational measure of attachment, the Parenting Stress Index (PSI), and the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL).
Results are presented as 8 case studies. Mothers' and children's categorical ratings on the IA and/or SSP improved for 4 of 8 (one of the remaining 4 mothers was rated with high insightfulness and her child as securely attached at both observations). Three dyads saw no significant changes for mothers or children, all of whom were classified as insecure-disorganized. No dyads changed from relatively more secure to less secure. Externalizing behavior was reduced for 6 of 8 children (one of the 2 children with no externalizing change was in the clinical range at both observations and was among the 3 dyads with no attachment-related change); 2 of those making positive changes were in the clinical range at time 1 and in normal range at time 2. Similar profiles were obtained on the Parental Distress subscale of the Parenting Stress Index.
Conclusions and Implications
Results of this study are encouraging in that half of participants showed some improvements in relationship qualities and/or children's attachment security. The Circle of Security warrants further study as an intervention for high-risk parents, as it appears to address important aspects of parental competence and children's emotional security.