Tough Love

PBS Premiere: July 6, 2015Check the broadcast schedule »

Lesson Plan: Child Welfare and the Assessment of "Good Parenting"

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In this lesson, students examine what "good parenting" is and who can make that call, with an emphasis on child welfare agencies that decide whether children can remain with their parents. Students determine whether systems, such as the foster care system and the system created under child welfare laws, support or hinder the wellbeing of struggling families with limited resources and examine whether aspects of those systems can be strengthened to serve parents and their children better in order to keep families together.

What makes a good parent? How do you prove you are responsible after you've been deemed unfit? Having lost custody of their children to Child Protective Services, two parents--one in New York City and one in Seattle--fight to win back the trust of the courts and reunite their families in Stephanie Wang-Breal's moving film Tough Love. Acknowledging their past parenting mistakes due to poverty, poor choices and addiction, both Hannah and Patrick contend with a complex bureaucracy to prove they deserve a second chance.

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By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Examine how child welfare agencies make determinations about "good parenting".
  • Compare and critique child welfare approaches to working with vulnerable families.
  • Formulate thoughts and ideas for supporting vulnerable parents and their children to maintain positive family structures.



Family/Consumer Sciences, Language Arts, Social Studies.


  • Internet access and equipment to show the class online video.


One to two 50-minute class periods.


Video clips provided with this lesson are from Tough Love.

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Clip 1: "Putting Life Back Together" (1:40)

This clip starts at 3:26 with a "Seattle, Washington" title card and a look inside a Family Treatment Court session. It ends at 5:06 with Judge Clark saying, "All that stuff needs to start to happen."

Clip 2: "Desperate Decision" (1:14)

This clip starts at 6:46 with Patrick saying, "Natalya's mother not in the picture." It ends at 8:00 with Patrick saying, "I had a relapse after four years of sobriety."

Clip 3: "The Knock on the Door" (2:03)

The clip starts at 10:06 with Hannah saying, "Three years ago, I had to call the police on my ex-boyfriend Sammy." It ends at 12:09 with Hannah saying, "I didn't know what it was like to be a mother."

Clip 4: "The 'System' Assesses" (5:10)

This clip starts at 14:05 with the court clerk announcing, "All right, let's go ahead and do the check-in hearing for Patrick Brown, FTC number 144." It ends at 19:15 with Patrick saying, "This is the love I get?"

Clip 5: "Who Makes The Call?" (2:08)

The clip starts at 25:48 with the court clerk saying, "Calling FTC number..." It ends at 27:56 with Patrick saying, "Every day gets better for me."

Clip 6: "The Standard?" (3:17)

The clip starts at 45:00 with Patrick saying, "In the evenings, three nights a week." It ends at 49:50 with Alena saying, "It doesn't exist in most parents' lives."

Clip 7: "The Obstinacy of Convolution" (4:00)

This clip begins at 51:41 with Ms. Braxton saying, "Hello, Ms. Siddique." It ends at 55:41 with Hannah saying, "But it's not like that now. I've got Philly and we take care of the kids together."


1. Divide students into small groups. Have students examine the image found here: Ask each group to do the following:

  • Take a minute to study the picture.
  • Make a list of what they see happening in the image and nothing more (no reflections, no judgments)

2. Ask each group to share its list. (Note that many students will likely indicate the "problems" they see. Prompt students to see what else they can share: What else do they notice? What are some features that they might want to add? Tell the class to be mindful of the observations they hear. The observations are going to focus on the "problems" perceived, which is the purpose of the image and the task. For example, students are likely to say the mother is drinking--but, of course, we don't know what she is drinking; there is a knife on the table that the kids could pick up; the baby is crying and the mother is not responding; the house is dirty. Assumptions will likely be made.)

3. Repeat some of the observations. What did students notice? (As noted earlier, most of what students have stated will likely be negative; they are likely to focus on "problems" based on what they perceived. Make sure to point out any positive observations students had, i.e., the child is wearing a diaper and is safe in a playpen. Have groups revisit the picture to note redeeming factors.)

4. Have students reflect on why they focused on the negative. Discussion prompts include:

  • What drives this perspective?
  • What do these observations say about parenting skills and responsibilities?
  • What do they say about the definition of "good parenting"?
  • What do you think "good parenting" looks like?
  • Who should decide what "good parenting" is? What situations might call for this type of judgment?
  • Who knows what child welfare services are and do? Share what you know about this program.
  • In your view, is it a helpful or harmful program? Discuss.

5. Tell students they will explore these concepts more closely as they watch several clips from a film called Tough Love. Show: Clip 1: "Putting Life Back Together" (Length: 1:40 min.); Clip 2: "Desperate Decision" (Length: 1:14 min.); and Clip 3: "The Knock on the Door" (Length: 2:03 min.).

As students watch the clips, have them takes notes on the following:

  • What did the featured parents do that resulted in their children being in foster care?
  • How are the two parents' parenting skills viewed by those outside of their immediate families (relatives, child welfare systems)?
  • What is the response of the people outside of the immediate families to the parents' situations and actions?
  • Are there any preventative measures that might have helped the families in the film avoid getting involved with the child welfare system?

6. NOTE: It is possible that some students have experienced or are experiencing neglect or other types of abuse. Please be sensitive to students' reactions and needs during this discussion. Please encourage students to remain respectful during the discussion. Support individual students who find this topic difficult to discuss.

Share with students the common description of neglect (the following is the federal definition; each state has one, as well):

Federal legislation provides guidance to States by identifying a minimum set of acts or behaviors that define child abuse and neglect. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) (42 U.S.C.A. § 5106g), as amended by the CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010, defines child abuse and neglect as, at minimum:

  • "Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation"; or
  • "An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm."

Have the class discuss whether the situations outlined in the film fall under this definition of neglect and why or why not. (This goes back to the "good parenting" image and the positive aspects students have located in it. For example, the father knows he needs to get his life together and cannot have his daughter stay with her substance-abusing mother, so he sends his daughter to foster care as an interim step. The mother seeks housing to accommodate the entire family.)

7. Tell the class that it will explore aspects of the child welfare system. Show Clip 4: "The 'System' Assesses" (Length: 5:10 min.); Clip 5: "Who Makes the Call?" (Length: 2:08 min.); Clip 6: "The Standard?" (Length: 3:17 min.); and Clip 7: "The Obstinacy of Convolution" (Length: 4:00 min.). Ask students, as they view the clips, to reflect on the challenging role of child welfare services:

  • What challenges do child welfare professionals (including Family Treatment Court judges and parent advocates) face?
  • What aspect of their work is especially difficult?
  • Why might child welfare professionals choose not to have children return to their parents? What complicates such a decision?

8. Once students have viewed the films, draw a spider map ( on chart paper or a Smart Board or chalkboard. In the middle of the map, write CHILD WELFARE SERVICES. Have students name aspects of the system that support and hinder vulnerable families seeking to secure their children's well being and sustain family bonds. Examples might include not providing parents with resources and guidance they need; ignoring what is going well/strengths; red tape/bureaucracy; and providing advocacy.

9. For each of the categories provided, ask students to compare the two systems presented and to explore which of the two is more likely to propel parenting success, with an eye toward the elements that allow for that. Have students reflect on whether the standards to which the system holds parents are fair.

10. Have students work in groups and assign alternating groups to examine either the New York or Washington child welfare system, as presented in the film, so that half of the class examines one system, and the other half examines the other. Then ask the groups determine whether the system they examined should be reformed or remain as is. If they vote for reform, they should explain why and offer suggestions for improvements/changes. If they decide that the system assigned to their group is effective as is, they must give evidence. Encourage students to think beyond what they see in the film and consider preventative services, post re-unification services and so on. Students can present their perspectives in an informal debate.

HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT: Have students map out their child welfare ideas/strategies to share and discuss with the class.


1. The Importance of Advocacy

Vulnerable families often find it hard to cope and without the resources and support that would benefit them, they find themselves caught up in child welfare systems with limited services and many bureaucratic constraints. Families with advocates can often find ways to negotiate hurdles and secure the assistance they need. Tough Love has some examples of that type of advocacy.

Before showing Clip 7: "The Obstinacy of Convolution" (Length: 4:00 min.), ask students to look out for the types of advocates presented in the segment and think about how these individuals support struggling parents. After you have viewed the clip, ask them to give specific examples of how these advocates assist (with focus on who is the "best" person to advocate for vulnerable families).

Have students consider how these types of advocacy services might be expanded or strengthened in order to help parents rather than punishing them for circumstances that challenge their parenting skills. Websites to propel thinking:

2. Is Foster Care the Answer?

While foster care has its merits--and is often an important recourse for children who are abused or neglected--the trauma of removing children from their home and dividing families has a tremendous impact on vulnerable families. And when families are already struggling--and the standard for abuse and neglect is not clearly met--foster care can exacerbate already tenuous circumstances.

Have students briefly discuss the rationale for foster care, and where it is successful and not so successful. Ask them whether there are other ways to support vulnerable children and their families (absent clear evidence of abuse and neglect) without fully disrupting their cores. Is that possible? Have them explore several programs that work to keep families together: What other programs are in place that can support vulnerable parents? Some ideas appear below; students should research other options, perhaps starting in their hometown.

3. The "Cost" of Foster Care

The socioeconomic costs of foster care are enormous, from the government financial expense to the toll on children and families. Assign students to examine a range of foster care data to discuss how foster care might be restructured to reduce its negative impact and make it truly beneficial, helpful and successful for vulnerable families. The class may be divided into groups to consider specific categories, such as economic costs, impact on children, children who age out, number of children in care who could benefit from alternative services and so on.

4. Free-Range Parenting

Recently, there has been debate around "free-range parenting," a style of parenting that in the eyes of some gives children freedom to explore and grow up with fewer constraints, but in the eyes of others can be viewed as neglect and poor parenting. Have students explore this trend and make the call about whether the free-range parenting style harms or supports children. Articles to start students thinking include the following:

RESOURCES (please also refer to varied links in each of the extension tasks)

Frontline: "America's Child Welfare Policy"

Frontline: "Child Welfare System FAQ"

Frontline: "The Taking of Logan Marr"

The Seattle Times: "Former Judge Works to Make This a Better Place for Kids"

Stanford Social Innovation Review: "Government Innovation in Child Welfare"


Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

SL.9-10.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9-10 topics, texts and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

SL.11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics, texts and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

SL.9-10.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source.

SL.11-12.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.

RI.9-10.7 Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person's life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.

RI.11-12.3 Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas or events interact and develop over the course of the text.

RI.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Content Knowledge: ( a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning).

Family Life, Standard 1: Understand the family as the basic unit of society.

Family Life, Standard 2: Understand the impact of the family on the well-being of individuals and society.

Resources Management, Standard 4: Understand how knowledge and skills related to consumer and resources management affect the well-being of individuals, families and society.

Living Environments, Standard 6: Understand how knowledge and skills related to living environments affect the well-being of individuals, families and society.

Child Development, Standard 10: Understands how knowledge and skills related to child development affect the well-being of individuals, families and society.

Behavioral Studies, Level IV (Grades 9-12), Standard 3: Understands that conflicts are especially difficult to resolve in situations in which there are few choices and little room for compromise.

Behavioral Studies, Level IV (Grades 9-12), Standard 8: Understands how various institutions (e.g., social, religious, political) develop and change over time (i.e., what is taught in school and school policies toward student behavior have changed over the years in response to family and community pressures), and how they further both continuity and change in societies.

Behavioral Studies, Level IV (Grades 9-12), Standard 10: Understands that the decisions of one generation both provide and limit the range of possibilities open to the next generation.

Michele Israel owns Educational Writing & Consulting (, where she works with large and small educational, nonprofit and media organizations to bolster products and programs. Her rich career spans more than 25 years of successful experience developing educational materials and resources, designing and facilitating training, generating communication materials and grant proposals and assisting in organizational and program development. Her long list of clients includes Tiffany & Co., Frost Valley YMCA, Teaching Tolerance, Public Broadcasting Service, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, WETA Public Television, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly and the New York City Harm Reduction Coalition.