Q&A: Priscilla Martens, National Family Preservation Network

In 2000, less than a decade after its founding, the National Family Preservation Network was facing an abrupt demise.

The organization came into existence as research began to support Intensive Family Preservation Services (IFPS), commonly known as Homebuilders, the model developed out of Tacoma, Wash., in 1974.

It was fueled by startup grants from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. But as startup grants wound down, the organization struggled to replace the philanthropic support. Enter Priscilla Martens, a former social worker who took over NFPN leadership in 2000 and moved the headquarters to her hometown of Buhl, Idaho.

Martens is the organization’s sole full-time staffer, and she keeps the small shop humming with an annual budget of about $140,000.

This year, NFPN turns 25 and plans to release a new training on substance abuse issues in the fall. Youth Services Insider sat down with Martens to reflect on the past, present and future of family preservation.

The Chronicle of Social Change: You took over as head of NFPN when it wasn’t clear if the organization had a future. What was that like, and where do you guys stand now?

Priscilla Martens: Well, the best time to start working for an organization is when its going under. If it’s saved you get the credit for it.

Priscilla Martens speaking at a celebration in 2014 of the 40th anniversary of Intensive Family Preservation Services. Photo: National Family Preservation Network.

It was a really tough time for the organization. The Clark and Casey funds were ending, both had provided startup funds. So those were winding down, and the transition hadn’t been made to find new sources.

It was also a tough time for family preservation. There was a lot of criticism of family preservation, some studies that were not favorable. So it was a kind of slow process to get the wheel moving again.

Part of what had to happen was reestablishing relationships that we could partner with.

The main thing we did was work with Dr. Ray Kirk at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill on further development of the assessment tools. He’d done the family assessment scale in North Carolina. We worked with him on a subsequent version.

That allowed NFPN a way to sustain ourselves, by bringing in money through the sales of assessment tools and training packages. And that’s still the case today, we’ve been self-sufficient since 2006, so over 10 years. That doesn’t mean we don’t get grants and sponsors. But we’re able to stay in business based on assessment tools, training and technical assistance.” 

CSC: Did those negative studies in the 1990s ever give you pause about the model or family preservation in general?

PM: I personally have always believed that family preservation works. Family is the basic unit of society forever. If you believe that, you have to believe that family preservation works.

I do think those studies gave us criticism, and it’s always good to look and say, what can we do better?

One thing happened with criticism was, is the research on this really solid? One thing we found is, there was not model fidelity [to IFPS/Homebuilders]. That has been a huge issue. When states saw it was good thing, they increased caseloads but with the same money. What went out the window was safety.”

CSC: Since NFPN was built the number of statewide IFPS/Homebuilders programs has gone from six to 14; way more, but still a lot of states without it. What do you see as the obstacles to further proliferating?

PM: A core group of states have implemented statewide. There are about a dozen that consistently had it. Some started, stopped.

When [the research questioning IFPS] caused backlash, that was when states had to make the determination on whether to continue. In the past couple years, three states have started with IFPS. Hawaii, Nebraska; Tennessee restarted, Washington, D.C.

There have been startups and expansions. North Carolina and Missouri both greatly expanded their IFPS programs. So it’s coming back around again. I think we will continue to see more expansion of programs.

One of the things that happens: I think states look most favorably on IFPS when they are in crisis. With the opioid crisis, states are looking at, ‘What can we do? We can’t get out of this by putting kids in foster care.’

IFPS is not a magic bullet. But it is designed specifically to keep kids out of foster care.

That’s always been one of attractions of IFPS.

CSC: You’ll also have a lot, hopefully, of kids coming back home from foster care after a parent gets treated.

PM: Right before I came, we also started supporting reunification. So we encourage the use of IFPS for reunification, and that has been successful.

Reunification is tougher than preserving a family. Once you get that break in a family, the hole starts to close up. It’s tough to get child back and reintegrated into the family.

CSC: You’re about to release a video training on substance abuse, right?

PM: I’m hoping we’ll do it in September or October; those are good months, the first part of state fiscal years so they’re looking for new programs and training. 

CSC: NFPN’s first video training 20 years ago was also on substance abuse. What’s the difference between then and now as far as families are concerned?

PM: I think the opioid crisis is more severe than the crack epidemic. Part of the response to crack was a high number of prisoners, people going to jail for long periods of time.

Now it’s more of a public health response. And the other thing: 20 years ago there wasn’t this number of overdoses and fatalities.

CSC: It seems like the toughest decision in child protection is when a parent’s drug habits necessitate removal or not.

PM: When we’re talking about substance abuse … We’re talking about impact on the child. That’s the focus of what we do. If substance abuse is having a negative impact on a child, that’s what we address. Like, if the parents are going to smoke weed with friends, is there a plan for the child to be with grandma during that time? Whatever it takes so children’s safety is assured.

It’s an important discussion. Joseph Doyle looked at caseworker judgment. These kids remained with parents. Others, for the same type of problems, went to foster care. And years down road, kids left with parents did better than those removed.

That’s right at place where we operate. What NFPN says is, because we can’t completely predict which family will change and which won’t, let’s give as many as possible a chance to stay together.

We’re not family preservation at all costs. I think there needs to be more emphasis on real-time risk. More attention needs to be on who has eyes on the family and who is there frequently enough, helping during crisis to assure safety. An IFPS worker is in the best position, because they’re in the home frequently.

CSC: What’s NFPN’s take on the Family First Prevention Services Act? Do you see that as an opportunity for IFPS/Homebuilders?

PM: NFPN supports it. We support anything that expands services to families, particularly in-home services, so the original act, the first one that allocated funding to IFPS. It’s no secret the system is heavily skewed towards the back end.

CSC: It seems like IFPS is one of the most likely models to benefit from the front-end reforms in Family First.

PM: I felt IFPS would be covered in that. And also reunification. It’s time-limited, but so is reunification right now in Promoting Safe and Stable Families [PSSF]. I suppose that regulations have to be issued to determine that.

States have used PSSF to fund IFPS. So it would be natural to look at that [under Family First].

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.