Marty Beyer, Ph.D.

    Designing individualized services that successfully support a girl's move away from negative behaviors requires an accurate picture of the girl's strengths and needs and unique services that will effectively meet those needs and build on her strengths.  It is essential to reach agreement with the girl about these needs—to listen to her and support her in taking charge of her own change process as well as including her family in the process

    Effective inclusion of the girl and family in service planning requires dedication by everyone from different agencies and the community involved with them. Once agreement is reached on strengths and needs, the Girl Family Team Meeting designs a combination of services and supports to build on strengths and meet each need, ensuring that the girl's family, agencies and service providers understand their role in meeting the agreed-on needs.

    Careful assessment of the unique factors behind each girl’s behavior is an essential part of this process: where the girl is developmentally, recovery from trauma, and compensating for disabilities and what specifically will foster her developmental progress. These findings must be presented simply, without mental health or special education jargon or a reliance on diagnostic terminology. Instead of concentrating on pathology, the assessment must identify strengths that can be built on to ensure that services are designed to enhance competencies. This developmental assessment begins with involving the girl in self-assessment, including using a journal designed for this process.

    Finding strengths may not be easy because troubled girls often appear to have had little success at anything. Many have failed in school for years. They may have a habit of running away, associating with negative peers and self-harming behaviors. They may have a history of victimization, multiple moves in placement and/or conflict with their mothers or other family members, making them hopeless about the future. Nevertheless, every girl and family have unique strengths. Girls feel better when these strengths are appreciated.  Services based on strengths are more effective than those driven by deficits.  When planning starts with a problem--such as running away or a family's inconsistent limit-setting--usually the wrong service is provided. Girls will defend against feeling even worse about themselves when their "bad behavior" is the focus of "treatment." It is no surprise that parents are defensive around treatment providers because the family is usually seen as the girl's primary problem.

    The strengths/needs-based approach avoids the mistake made in traditional service plans that jump from the girl's deficits directly to program assignment; conclusions such as "She needs counseling" or "She needs shelter placement" are services, not needs.  The Girl Family Team Meeting first goes through the process of identifying the girl's strengths and needs, and then services are tailored by asking, ”What would it take to meet this need and build on this strength?” For example, if the girl needs to feel proud of herself, a service must be designed to ensure she becomes good at something. If the girl needs to see others as not hostile and react less aggressively, a service must be designed to coach her to think differently. If the girl needs to make peace with loss and hurt, a service must be designed to help her develop strong positive relationships and not blame herself for the past.

    Girl Family Team Meetings are different from other family meetings because of the emphasis on the girl taking charge of her change process. The meeting is girl-centered while also engaging the family: the focus is on the girl’s needs that must be met to change her negative behaviors. The family’s needs are recognized when services and supports are being designed to meet the girl’s needs. This requires a meeting facilitator skilled in drawing the girl out during the meeting and helping the family and professionals support the girl in articulating her needs while also raising their concerns. This can be difficult for family and professionals who focus on a girl’s risky behaviors. It takes time to listen to a girl to learn what she gets out of a behavior such as running away—which can serve many different purposes for girls—before we can help her find less dangerous ways to meet these needs. Punishing the runaway behavior or attempting to stop it by secure placement is unlikely to help her see why she persists in doing something potentially harmful. We cannot blame girls when they continue to meet their needs through negative behavior if they are not actively supported into satisfying alternatives.

     Girl Family Team Meetings can be useful at various times during a girl’s system involvement, from entry to exit. These meetings are intended to be modified to fit the unique characteristics of each girl and family, so only a few aspects of convening the meetings are prescribed.



• Encourage the girl to appreciate her strengths and decide to make life changes

• Actively involve the girl’s family and others in tailoring supports that fit her unique needs

• Ensure that adults who know the girl contribute their views in a way that is not deficit-focused, can be understood and is incorporated into planning with the girl and family

• Design effective services and family and community supports with the girl in the least restrictive setting, keeping the girl and community safe

• Unify a team that continues with a girl in which each team member understands their special role in meeting the girl’s needs and building on her strengths and the strengths of her family


Example of a Girl Family Team Meeting

    Brianna is a 14-year old girl who had been truant and repeatedly ran away from home during the past year. She was placed in foster care in elementary school after her mother and her mother’s boyfriend were incarcerated following a drug bust. She returned home a year later, but was removed again after she and her mother was injured following repeated domestic violence. They were reunited two years ago and life in their crowded apartment with her mother, stepfather and twin half-brothers has not been easy. Brianna reads well but has felt ostracized in school because she has changed schools so many times. Brianna, her mother and stepfather, their pastor, her probation officer and the director of a counseling program participated in the Girl Family Team meeting. Brianna was pleased to hear everyone talk about her strengths and she felt listened to as she spoke up about what she wanted to be different in her life:


A good talker
Likes to read
Loves animals, especially cats
Likes playing with her brothers and younger cousins



To spend time just with her Mom like they used to
Once a week Brianna and her Mom will do something special together
Counseling with her mother so Brianna does not feel rejected and both of them feel they are communicating and can trust each other

To feel smart
Brianna will join a book club through the youth group at her church
Brianna will help the pastor by writing about the youth group’s activities in the church bulletin
Her probation officer will help Brianna fill out an application for a charter school after they visit to see if she likes it
Her one-to-one coach will help Brianna fit in and get good grades, especially in the first weeks of school

To learn how to say she doesn’t like something and why in order to work out a compromise instead of having to leave
Her one-to-one coach will help Brianna learn to be assertive without being disrespectful
Her mother and stepfather agree to let Brianna get a cat to help her soothe herself when she is upset and Brianna agrees to feed the cat and clean the cat box everyday


    In this strengths/needs-based service planning process, the question often gets raised, "How do we know these are the "right" needs behind the girl's negative behavior?"  The team’s understanding of a girl's needs will be refined over time, leading to improvements in the services. What is most important is not getting stuck on the girl’s behaviors or diagnosis and not disguising services as needs. If someone said, “Brianna needs to stop running away” or “Brianna needs a mentor,” we would ask what the need behind leaving home is  or what need the mentor would meet. When we reach genuine agreement with the girl and family, the needs statements should be written in their words. As a result, plans from Girl Family Team Meetings will all be different and not use the same words to describe needs.

After agreement is reached about a girl’s unique strengths and needs, the meeting participants are encouraged to creatively answer the question, “What would it take to build on these strengths and meet these needs?” They are guided not to be limited by the slots available in a particular program or the lack of availability of a service. Providers are encouraged to invent innovative ways to work with a girl and family. The goal is to get as specific as possible about who will do what to build on strengths and meet needs, with a combination of family supports and public and private services. Having the prospective service/support provider at the meeting offers an opportunity for the girl and family to shape home-based interventions that are not too intrusive but are intensive enough to be effective. For example, Brianna’s pastor played a vital role in designing realistic community supports with her that she was excited about.  The director of the counseling program offered to provide one-to-one coaching, which they had not done before, because she saw it would fit the Brianna’s need for guidance more effectively than their standard services. She had a staff member who had been an effective mentor as a volunteer in another organization—at the meeting the director imagined how this staff person could coach Brianna under the clinical supervision of a counselor working with Brianna and her mother (and how the agency could be reimbursed for this service). This plan contains all participants’ agreement on what each will do to meet Brianna’s needs. While setting up payment for the services and making final arrangements for a support or service may happen outside the meeting, it is crucial that meeting participants design a combination of services and supports that can be implemented immediately.

    It may be difficult to get the girl’s teacher or special education coordinator or therapist in the community to come to a Girl Family Team Meeting. It is essential to explain to them why their participation is so important and possibly to schedule the meeting in their office to make sure they attend. Girls who have been failing in school or truant should not be expected to return to school without significant changes in the school program and supports being arranged at school.

     Involving a girl in the process of clarifying needs and appreciating strengths can be a powerful beginning of change. Unless a girl agrees with adults about her needs, little will change in her life. Getting her agreement about her needs places responsibility on her. The message is, “You are not being sent to a program to have something done to you. You have agreed on what you need. The services you have helped to plan will help you get those needs met.”