Table of Contents
The best outcomes in child welfare often occur when partnerships are formed with all members of the family. The relationship between staff and client is the foundation for all aspects of work done with our families. Empathy builds trust and helps establish rapport between the case worker and client. Recognizing the diversity and differences of each family and doing so with cultural sensitivity is key to family engagement.
Unfortunately, child protection work is often done to families with the professionals involved believing they know the truth of what families need to do change behaviors. It is important to recognize that families are constantly balancing tradeoffs within their lives. Families, in turn, often want the professionals to tell them what to do so the Children’s Division will no longer be involved. This often prevents workers from fully understanding the true safety concerns and prevents families from making lasting change that will decrease the risk for future child abuse and neglect.
With empathy in mind, workers should understand that contact with the Division could trigger anxiety or ambivalence in the family. Therefore, fostering family engagement begins with the very first contact a worker has with a family and continues throughout the Division’s involvement. It is important to listen carefully to what the family says and to let them know they have been understood. This does not mean we must always agree with the family. At all times staff should be very clear and as transparent as possible about the Division’s statutory role and responsibilities. Staff should be up-front and honest about any concerns and next steps.
The key to building partnerships with families is an attitude of respect towards families. Families should be seen as “people worth doing business with” rather than “people we do business to”. Rather than engaging with a problem the family has, practitioners should view and engage with the family as whole people, doing the best they can to meet their needs with what they have. This does not mean workers should keep kids in dangerous situations, return kids to risky situations without seeing safety demonstrated or believe everything every person in a family tells them. The following principles capture the spirit of what family engagement does mean:
Respect service participants as people worth doing business with.
Maintaining the position that the family is capable of change can create a sense of hope and possibility. Be as open-minded toward family members as possible, approaching them as potential partners in building safety. Consider that the family is made up of more than their worst behaviors or choices, and has strengths and qualities to be proud of as well.
Cooperate with the person, not the abuse.
Practitioners can build a relationship with family members without condoning the abuse in any way. Listen and respond to the service recipient’s story. Give the family choices and opportunities to give input. Learn what they want. The worker must be up front and honest, particularly in the investigation. Treat service recipients as individuals, who have many aspects to their identity which are worth learning about.
Recognize that collaboration is possible even when there is resistance.
Practitioners may have to exercise statutory power to prevent situations of continuing danger, but this should not prevent them from aspiring to build a cooperative partnership with parents. Recognize that our statutory responsibilities and collaboration can exist simultaneously. Remain open to reframing resistance by considering the tradeoffs a service recipient might be making to work with the Children’s Division, and meet expectations defined by others. Working with individuals to minimize tradeoffs can be an effective strategy to increase collaboration.
Recognize that all families have signs of safety.
All families have competencies and strengths. They keep their children safe, at least some, and usually most, of the time. Ensure that careful attention is given to these signs of safety. Even when the family’s strategies for safety do not align with the Division’s expectations, it is important to acknowledge and remain curious to better understand the family’s definition of safety and their strengths.
Maintain a focus on safety.
The focus of child protection work is always to increase safety. Maintain this orientation in thinking about the agency and the worker’s role as well as the specific details and activities of the casework.
Learn what the family wants.
Acknowledge the client’s concerns and desires. Understand the family’s balance of tradeoffs and work with them to minimize negative tradeoffs of desired changes. Use the service recipient’s goals as you help them create their plan for action and motivating family members to change. Whenever compatible, bring client goals together with agency goals.
Always search for detail.
Always elicit specific, detailed information, whether exploring negative or positive aspects of the future aspects. When we dig for detail around the future what we’re doing is strong safety planning. Solutions arise out of details, not generalizations.
Focus on creating small change.
Think about, discuss, and work toward small changes. Don’t become frustrated when big goals are not immediately achieved. Focus on small, attainable goals and acknowledge when they have been achieved. This approach builds a sense of hope within clients and supports them in making bigger changes.
Don’t confuse case details with judgments.
Reserve judgment until as much information as possible has been gathered. Don’t confuse these conclusions with the details of the case. Remember that others, particularly the family, will judge the details differently.
Avoid alienating service recipients with unnecessary coercion. Instead, offer choices about as many aspects of the casework as possible. This involves family members in the process and builds cooperation, which increases the likelihood that any changes made will last.
Treat the interview as a forum for change.
View the interview as the intervention, and therefore recognize the interaction between the worker and the service recipients to be the vehicle for change. Our questions are our sharpest tools to facilitate change.
Treat the practice principles as aspirations, not assumptions.
Continually aspire to live out these practice principles in your practice, but have the humility to recognize that even the most experienced worker will have to think and act carefully to implement them. Recognize that no one gets it right all the time in child protection work.
Adapted from Turnell, A., & Edwards, S. (1999). Signs of Safety, A Solution and Safety Oriented Approach to Child Protection Casework (pp. 30-32). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
The first impression is very important and can set the tone for the remainder of the relationship.
- Plan ahead of time; go in with an engagement strategy in mind.
- Take a couple of deep breaths before knocking on the door; make sure you are mentally and emotionally ready. Recognize any pre-judgments you may have and leave them behind.
- Clearly introduce yourself in a friendly voice. Present with an open, relaxed posture. Offer a compliment by making an observation about their home, children etc.
- Act as a guest in the home: Ask permission before taking any action such as coming into the home, sitting down or entering a room. Explain what and why you are doing things. This can enhance a feeling of safety and trust.
- Have as few people with you as possible. If for training purposes, ask permission to have the person/trainee participate.
- Check in with the caregiver to find out how they are feeling, what is going on at the present time and if this is a good time. Validate how they are feeling. If need be, you can reschedule the interview for another time, after ensuring safety.
- Recognize the family as the expert about the biological family and the household.
- Avoid the use of acronyms. If you use, tell them what it means.
- Don’t get frustrated if the caregiver asks the same questions repeatedly. Remember that stress/anxiety can interfere with memory formation. Answer patiently, have them repeat back you.
- Give the family options and choices. Provide the outcome or expectation and then engage the family in identifying the solution. Be transparent, tell them what Children’s Division policy and requirements are and then engage the family in developing their individualized plan.
- Use a questioning approach. Allow the family to tell the story without judgment. Use clarifying questions/statements like “How did it feel” or “Tell me more”.
- Engage in active listening, be open, and accepting.
- When providing written material, ask if you can go over it together.
- Explain what the next steps are, and what the family can expect in the near future. Identify who is involved and their roles including who the family wants involved. Provide critical information such as appointments in writing.
- Before leaving, provide a summary to the visit and the next steps. Try to reduce anxiety and answer any remaining questions. Make sure they know how to contact you and your supervisor.
All too often practitioners focus too much on whether families admit the allegations of abuse or neglect occurred. When families do not admit to the abuse or neglect, they are often seen as resistant and unable to make changes to keep their child(ren) safe. Focusing on admission of abuse or neglect hinders family engagement and partnership and may likely prevent progress. There is a common misperception that positive change can only occur when someone first admits and takes responsibility for their actions. The term ‘denied’ implies that we know the absolute truth of what occurred and does not take into consideration others explanations or perspectives.
While Children’s Division’s investigations must make a determination of whether abuse or neglect occurred, the focus of the Children’s Division’s intervention should be on creating future safety so that nothing like what was alleged could ever happen again.
The Resolutions Approach, a part of the Signs of Safety community developed by Susie Essex and colleagues, offers the following principals to guide practitioners in their thinking of denied child abuse.
- ‘Denial’ as an interactional process: How we interact with families plays an important role in being able to move past ‘denial’ disputes. Practitioners should be sensitive to everyone’s perspectives. Just as there are reasons victims never disclose abuse or neglect, alleged perpetrators have reasons they never admit to their involvement in the incident. Not only may they face criminal charges and the loss of freedom, they may lose their social connectedness to friends and family, they may face financial hardships if they lose their employment or there is a disruption in their housing situation. Understanding the tradeoffs families may make will help practitioners be more sensitive to their ‘denial’.
- ‘Denial’ as a continuum of behaviors: Generally, families do not admit all or deny all. They may acknowledge the incident in part, or they may go back and forth in whether they deny or admit to the abuse or neglect. They may not say whether they believe the abuse or neglect, but may still take actions to protect the child(ren). Practitioners should pay close attention to families’ statements and behaviors instead of assuming it is all or nothing.
- Never believe without doubt: Practitioners should recognize they never have all the answers and quite likely will never know the complete truth. Being able to do so, allows us to be open to others’ perspectives. We can create safety even when we do not know for certain the facts of the abuse or neglect.
- Viewing the likely non-abusing parent and other people around the family as protective resources: All too often we expect the non-abusing parent and other family members to believe the abuse or neglect, and if they do not to our satisfaction we are quick to assume they played a role in allowing it to happen or will not protect the child(ren) in the future. Many times, the non-abusing parent and other family member have taken steps, however small, to protect the child(ren). Practitioners should help strengthen the likely safer parent and help them build a safety network.
- Organizing practice around future safety rather than past denial: Safety planning can be done without acknowledgement of the abuse or neglect. One way to do that is by framing the need for safety planning as a way to get the Children’s Division out of the family’s life may be effective in engaging them in the process. Practitioners should keep the alleged abuse as the primary concern, not whether families admit or deny it.
There are three key strategies when working with cases of ‘denied’ abuse or neglect:
- Strengthen the likely safer parent;
- Build a safety network around the child(ren); and,
- Make public the concerns/allegations to as many people in and around the family as possible.