Spokane psychotherapists Bert Powell, Glen Cooper and Kent Hoffman pioneered the “Circle of Security” – a program that helps parents bond with their babies.
If parents don’t bond, a child’s future can be filled with insecurity and sorrow.
The men applied attachment-theory to real-life situations in such a successful way that they do trainings throughout the world.
On March 16, they will officially release a DVD of their work in a four-day workshop in Spokane for mental health professionals and parent educators.
One recent Monday, the three therapists looked back on a unique partnership that began 30 years ago. Just like marriages and families, business partnerships require attachment, hard work and commitment.
“When we step on each other’s toes, we know we’ll hang in there until we can fix it,” Cooper said.
Hoffman and Cooper first met in 1976 in Los Angeles when both worked for the Catholic Worker, a movement that tackles poverty by recognizing the dignity of every human being.
Cooper moved to Spokane a year later; Hoffman came here in 1981. Cooper met Powell because Cooper and his wife, Christine, were doing foster-parent training through Spokane Mental Health, where Powell was working as a therapist. Hoffman met Powell through Cooper.
In 1984, the men bought and remodeled a former chapel on the Marycliff campus, once home to an all-girls high school. They saw clients in their individual psychotherapy practices, and collaborated on training and professional development.
They were all interested in how parents bond with children. They worked with children and parents from Spokane’s Head Start programs, learning by watching moms and their babies that seemingly simple things – eye contact, hugs, reassurance – form deep attachments.
They observed how a child’s acting-out behavior was often a symptom of deeper concerns.
“Behavior is like a smoke alarm,” Cooper explains. “If the alarm goes off and you grab the fire extinguisher and hose off the alarm, the kitchen is still going to burn down.
“We were trying to find a way to find the needs behind the behavior and address the needs. When you do, the problematic behavior disappears.”
They partnered with attachment researcher Robert Marvin from the University of Virginia, and in 1998 received a grant to develop a protocol for their attachment practices.
“That’s when the formal Circle of Security started,” Cooper says. “There were volumes and volumes of research available, and nobody was putting it to use. We started translating the research into a language we could use with families.”
“The first two years of our original grant in 1998 and 1999 were really quite hellish,” Hoffman remembers.
The men worked 70 hours a week – days, nights, weekends.
“We had to design the protocol,” Hoffman says. “We created the circle. We then carried out the protocol. We leaned on each other to look at cases and make sure we were on the right track.”
They came to understand each other’s differing work styles. Hoffman is a get-it-done-in-advance guy, Powell says, while his style is more “do it on Thursday night if it’s due Friday.”
They worked through two Christmas vacations to finish the protocol but now realize “we could have spread it out more,” Powell says. “We all got caught up in this wave of anxiety.”
The protocol was finished. The trainings began. They presented the Circle of Security at a national Head Start conference in Washington, D.C., in 2000.
“And then it just mushroomed,” Hoffman says.
Since that time, the men have averaged about 10 Circle of Security Trainings a year, done both separately and together.
The trainings, which range from two to 10 days, have taken place throughout the United States as well as in Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand and Norway.
Meanwhile, all three have maintained their private practices, and Hoffman and Powell also teach classes at Gonzaga University.
They still look back in astonishment at those 70-hour weeks.
“We couldn’t have survived if any one of us had done it alone,” Hoffman says. “Or if just two of us had tried to do it. There was something about it being three.”
In 2004, they presented their work to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, hoping to get more funding.
“They were enthusiastic,” Powell remembers. “But they said, ‘You guys don’t know how to go to scale.’ ”
By scale, the foundation people meant a program that would reach greater numbers of parents.
The psychotherapists did all their training through personal presentations, and in those trainings, they showed stock video of parents who were bonding with their children – and parents who were not.
After one workshop, a woman in her 80s approached them.
“Her eyes were teary,” Powell remembers. “She said, ‘I now understand why my 50-year-old sons don’t call me.’ ”
The partners realized a DVD of their work would bring the Circle of Security to parent educators throughout the world, thereby reaching thousands of parents. Scale, in other words.
But it meant more work. They were in their 50s by now. They could have rested on their success, but they committed to producing the DVD, a three-year process.
They took lessons in lighting, video, sound and editing.
“We could pay each other nothing an hour, and it was affordable that way,” Cooper says.
They received grants and in-kind help from Thrive By Five Washington, The Boeing Co., Colorado’s Project Bloom, North by Northwest Productions and Community-Minded Enterprises.
Initially, the release of the DVD will mean more work and travel, because they’ll present the training that accompanies it. But their long-term goal is to train trainers, which will increase the distribution of the Circle of Security program.
As their partnership begins its DVD chapter, the three psychotherapists offer this advice for others who wish to collaborate on creative projects: Go for it.
“You can spend your life waiting for something – permission or funding,” Powell points out. “We got here by diving in.”