Q&A: Ryan Shanahan of VERA Institute on 'Ecomapping'

Ecomap displays government and community resources the participant and his or her family use, including informal and formal organizations

For homeless youth, many of whom are estranged from support networks, talking about the family and friends they might be able to turn to for help can feel abstract and daunting. Case workers at VERA Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and technical assistance organization that focuses on criminal justice, wanted to make the process more concrete. So they turned to paper and pencils to help young people draw a picture of the systems they are a part of and the formal and informal supports they have access to.

Called “ecomapping,” the visual representation process enables youth to think about their whole family as a system from which they can gain support. For example, if one person is getting job training, his or her new skills—or new job—might benefit others in the family. Ecomapping also lets youth visualize goals, such as being done with drug treatment, meeting all conditions for parole, or having more healthy recreational activities in their lives. Ecomap in hand, youth workers can start conversations with youth on ways to incorporate what they want and what they need to get there.

We talked with Ryan Shanahan, senior program associate at VERA’s Family Justice Program, about why ecomapping may be a good choice for organizations that work with homeless youth.

NCFY: Why does the VERA Institute use ecomapping?

Shanahan: VERA Institute of Justice case workers knew a family-focused, strengths-based approach could work, but lacked the tools to make it happen. Ecomapping helps clients realize they already might have a lot of support in their own families or social networks who can help them meet their goals and change their behavior. Also, people react well to the visual component of the tool. They feel more connected to the information. Ecomapping is a great way to build rapport with clients, before getting into talking about the patterns they want to break. Some agencies use it as a lead-in to creating a genogram—a map of immediate family members’ strengths and supports.

When young people are facing homelessness there is usually tension in the immediate family. The ecomap has less sensitive information than a genogram. As a non-biological approach, it is more generic and can feel less intrusive to clients.

NCFY: How long does ecomapping take?

Shanahan: Creating an in-depth ecomap can require about an hour with a young person. We see ecomapping as a relationship-building tool as much as an information-gathering tool. The process of sitting down with a family and building a map goes a long way in building that relationship.

NCFY: Can you tell me about youth or families who've been helped by ecomapping?

Shanahan: I was working with a young man who was feeling really overwhelmed. We very organically started drawing an ecomap, and he realized he was over-stretched, but he also wasn’t relying on his support network as much as he could to help relieve that stress. He took it back with him and thought about what he wanted to keep on there—what’s helping and what’s hindering. In our culture of “pull myself up by my bootstraps,” we often forget we have people we can rely on when we are in need of help.

NCFY: What are some challenges you've observed when social services agencies use ecomapping and how do you address them?

Shanahan: The tool itself is not hard to draw, that’s not the challenge. The challenge comes from training staff how to communicate it in a way that encourages clients to feel comfortable providing information about their families. Some strategies agencies use are Motivational Interviewing skills, and VERA Institute programs promote the use of “supportive inquiry,” a process of asking questions in a nonjudgmental way and building on people’s individual strengths as well as those of their support system.

VERA created a five-minute video illustrating the process of using ecomapping with a young woman under community supervision.

Read VERA’s tools and methods fact sheet for more details about ecomaps, genograms, Relational Inquiry, supportive inquiry, and other strategies.  

Learn more about Motivational Interviewing in NCFY's "Comparison of Three Evidence-Based Practices to Reduce Substance Use." We've also written about other evidence-based practices for involving families of young people in, "Bright Idea: Professionals Take a Back Seat in Family Group Decision Making" and, "Bright Idea: Functional Family Therapy Helps Young People and Their Kin to Cope and Change."

Image courtesy of the VERA Institute.

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