Parenting is a team sport, according to Maureen Murray, a licensed clinical social worker and director of the Together Facing the Challenge (TFTC) program. After spending decades devoted to youth in foster care, her evidence-based program, now widely used throughout North Carolina and South Carolina, ensures that the teams of adults supporting foster youth are multi-dimensional, well-educated and supported for the long haul.
“We started this work because we wanted to improve the quality of care for foster children, and we recognized the need for a culture shift,” said Murray, an associate professor with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, where the program was developed. “This means more care for the caregivers” she added, noting that when it comes to children in foster care homes, “we believe the foster parent is the primary agent of change.”
The other agents of change in a supportive role, Murray explained, are the professional agencies who work alongside foster parents. TFTC’s innovative train-the-trainer model educates agencies in practical parenting and supervisory techniques that they then share with families in a variety of foster care settings. It also focuses on self-care.
“All kids in foster care have experienced trauma in having been removed from their families. And there are likely many other additional events that led up to that removal — some we may know about and others that we do not,” Murray said. “When you’re dealing with these kids, it’s hard work, and you really have to take care of yourself.”
Murray stressed that TFTC is designed to go the distance, staying with agencies and parents through the inevitable ups and downs of the foster care experience. “We know that training alone isn’t going to be enough. Unless agencies and families are provided with ongoing coaching on a consistent basis, you’re unlikely to see better outcomes.”
Murray’s work has provided promising results. One randomized study by the National Institute of Health evaluating TFTC’s enhanced coaching was conducted with 247 youth from 14 agencies. In the areas of symptoms, behaviors and strengths, youth in the program showed significant improvement compared to those in the control group. The California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare lists TFTC as supported by research evidence and highly relevant for child welfare.
“When we started our work years ago, few agencies used models,” Murray noted. “People meant well, and they were doing the best that they could, but often they were doing a little bit of a lot of different things,” she continued. “We know that agencies experience better outcomes when they have an infrastructure and really clear guidelines. Our program is rigorous, our agencies must become fully certified in TFTC, and they must also maintain fidelity” to the program model.
Murray’s program — developed in collaboration with colleagues Betsy Farmer and Barbara J. Burns and supported by The Duke Endowment — is now utilized by more than 50 agencies and about 3,000 families throughout North Carolina and South Carolina. Her approach has extended to roughly 100 additional programs elsewhere in the nation, proving that a unified, supported team working towards a singular goal is the most effective way to create lasting change.
“The Endowment supported us in continuing our research and encouraged us to build on successful outcomes with a more intentional focus on the coaching and consultation model,” she said. “They also helped us achieve large-scale dissemination in North and South Carolina.”
Murray adds that she is always looking to grow the program and has developed a companion curriculum called Closing the Circle, designed to serve youth and families as they move from foster care to their permanent homes. While this will address a different chapter of the foster journey, the foundation will adhere to TFTC’s relationship-based strengths.
“Tools and strategies are great but without therapeutic relationships, it doesn’t really matter,” Murray said. “We must make sure that families feel supported.”