Wednesday, April 6, 2011

An Interview with Heidi Brinig

This year, the Museum celebrates the 20th anniversary of Families Together, its therapeutic visitation program for court-separated families. Heidi Brinig, the program's director, came to the Museum as a volunteer in April 1991, working to launch the renowned program. She spoke about her inspiration and the program’s evolution.

What’s your background?
I have a bachelor’s in early childhood education and a master’s degree in human development and family counseling. I previously worked as a community mental health therapist, for a teaching hospital in Pennsylvania. My work was focused around children in foster care and mentally challenged adults. I was also working on a certification in play therapy, how to use play in a very clinical setting.

What was your inspiration for Families Together?
As a therapist, we spent all this time with kids, teaching them better coping practices, but we weren’t teaching the parents anything. We returned kids to families who were unprepared. The system didn’t help me understand the needs of the family and how to support them – and why they came back into the foster system so quickly. I didn’t believe it was helping people – they needed a better way to heal.
How did the program start?
With work in play therapy and early childhood education, and as a hands-on learner myself, I was fascinated by children’s museums. I went to Boston Children’s Museum and it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. To see kids’ learning process and joy just does something for my soul.

In the spring of 1990, I researched cities with children’s museums across the country to see if I could develop an internship. Rhode Island was my third phone call, and I was invited to visit to talk about the idea further. The Museum had already been thinking about engaging the social service community more formally, so by late fall they said, okay, we’ll do it. They offered me an internship researching the needs of the social service community and how the Museum could be helpful.

Family and friends questioned how I could go to a place where I knew no one and I thought, what an adventure! I was so taken by the care and the love that people at the Museum had for children and their welfare.

What were the early challenges in starting the program?
Working with DCYF to identify what the program should look like, I had to do lot of research on something that didn’t exist – there was very little written on visitation at that time.

I had to engage the Museum community in a way that supported the families. The staff was on board but I wanted them to invest in the idea, to embrace these complicated people and challenged families.

I believe the line between where I stand in life and where these families stand is very thin. Any one of us could easily be in a situation where we need help. These families’ challenges touch so much of what the Museum as an institution wants to change. Everyone can come here and be the same. We fight for social justice.
What about today?
Ever since I started this project, it’s been a balancing act on so many levels. The needs of the family – and not victimizing them. Understanding my strengths and limitations. At every stage, being mindful of the needs and mission of the Museum, DCYF, the court and the various levels of the child welfare system. That was challenging as the program was designed and grew and still is every day.

It’s a constant challenge to raise money and do the best we can for these families. There’s a limited amount of money and funding is changing.

Society has a desire to protect children but also respects parents' rights and privacy. Our biggest challenge is respecting the right of parents and helping those that make decisions about their lives. To protect children physically and emotionally and to actually raise them are different challenges, and there are parents who try so hard but just can’t do it. It’s emotionally taxing for Families Together staff and caseworkers.

What are you proudest of?
I’m proud of Providence Children’s Museum for saying yes, of all the individuals who stand and stood by me in this institution and those connected with it – funders, board, staff, DCYF – who agreed to take this risk and continue to do it every day. Of their passion and commitment to do what’s right and be respectful of deserving families.

We’ve taken visitation beyond the Museum and have elevated it to an opportunity for teaching, guiding and assessment– and not just for the immediate family. I like to think we’ve set the pace for other visitation programs, that we’re a model for other child welfare systems and museums. We’ve tried to raise awareness about the value of visitation and over 20 years, I think we’ve succeeded.
Families Together staff, left to right: Front – Amber Massed, Cheryl Lepre, Jessica Lima;
Middle – Mary Luz Arias, Paula Toland, Heidi Brinig, Cat McCaffery;
Back – Shannon Doherty and Amanda Grandchamp

Learn more about Families Together in the spring issue of the Museum's newsletter.


Margaret Middleton said...

Families Together is such an amazing program. And Heidi's so modest- it wasn't until after I'd been involved with the museum for four years that I really understood just how unique and wide-reaching Families Together really is. I'm so glad to see Heidi getting recognition on the blog- she is a huge inspiration to me.

Nancy Worthen said...

Wow, 20 years. I remember when Heidi called to talk about her ideas. She wrote a letter, which I show to Janice and she got so excited. Heidi stayed at my house when she came to look for a place to live - and now the work of Families Together has continued for 20 years. Yeah, Children's Museum!

julianne said...

these people are truly amazing.

amy said...

I've always thought this program is brilliant. And Heidi is right about the thin line. I've often been at the museum and seen groups that, I suspect, are Families Together groups--a parent or two with a child and a couple of staff members--and there seems to be not much different between that parent and me--we're both at the museum to enjoy our time with our children.

It is a very good thing that the museum is a place where families in this system can visit with each other.