The nine grantee communities involved in the Improving Child Welfare Outcomes Through Systems of Care initiative have identified four main challenges to building meaningful family-agency partnerships that transcend the case, peer, and system realms of family involvementâ€”agency readiness, training and professional development for families, recruitment and retention of family members to serve as resources to other parents, and funding issues. To address these challenges, the grantees have implemented several strategies to promote both short-term and long-term sustainability of family involvement.
1. Preparing Agencies to Partner With Families1
Challenges. Family members involved with child welfare agencies in systems of care grant communities reported that agency commitment to family involvement varied, depending on the caseworker. Some caseworkers provided positive reinforcement for the family and child, while others focused on their past failures. Therefore, the extent to which caseworkers implemented strengths-based practices could influence whether family members were involved in case planning and decision-making. Additionally, some family members perceived their ideas and opinions as valued by their caseworkers, while others believed they were respected only after they had proven to the agency they were capable of making good decisions for their family.
Family members were most satisfied with the agency when they perceived that their caseworker was committed to their case and the agency responded to their needs. Family members reported dissatisfaction with the agency when they received incorrect information about their case or available services, the agency had inconsistent performance standards for caseworkers, or standards for child-biological parent reunification were low.
Interviews conducted by the national evaluation team with families and agency partners revealed that large caseloads inhibited the use of family-centered practices and contributed to caseworkers being ill-prepared for family involvement. Some family members who were interviewed also felt new caseworkers did not receive adequate training to engage families prior to being assigned a caseload.
Even if family members were encouraged to become involved in case planning and decision-making, their involvement sometimes was limited by State mandates or agency policies. For example, some agency staff reported that a balance between family-driven decision-making and the responsibility of the agency to ensure child safety (which is legally mandated) was difficult to maintain. When agencies were inconsistent in maintaining this balance, families were uncertain how much their input was valued.
In addition, frontline staff reported substantial challenges to establishing partnerships with family members who were unable or unwilling to collaborate with agency staff in developing case plans due to personal issues such as drug abuse, anger with the agency for removing the child, or other reasons. Staff also discussed difficulties working effectively with parents who resided in separate households.
"Today, I not only work for but also am learning about a very complex child welfare system. I am now a part of the solution. I sit on various committees where my voice is of value, where there are administrators and directors that really want to know what it is that's going to help change the face of child welfare."
- Family Partner
Strategies. Demonstration initiative grantees are originating strategies to prepare parent partners and agency representatives for increased family involvement:
- Oregon is developing parent capacity to co-train, with agency personnel, agency staff, and other stakeholders, on engaging families in ways that promote safety, permanency, and child and family well-being.
- North Carolina conducted extensive training for child protection workers throughout the State on how to gain family input and engage families as partners during Child and Family Team meetings.
- New York contracted with a parent empowerment and advocacy organization that conducts training for prospective Child Protection Services workers pursuing social work degrees to prepare them to partner with families, before they are hired by child welfare agencies.
- In California, simply having family partners work daily as parent mentors within the child welfare office had unexpected positive effects. According to Cohen and Canan (2006, pp. 879-880), "agency staff have had to learn to modify their comments and behaviors in the workplace when Parent Partners are sitting in cubicles nearby. In addition, housing the Parent Partners in the workplace has led to an increased concern with and a sharing of the different perspectives of the difficult challenges involved in child welfare work."
"...The same challenges to implementing a strengths-based approach apply to implementing a family-centered approach: time constraints of CPS (child protective services) workers and tension between family-centered practice and child safety."
- Agency Supervisor
2. Training and Professional Development for Families
Challenges. Within child welfare driven systems of care, family partners can be peer mentors or navigators for families entering the system, co-trainers for child welfare worker orientations, or speakers at State or local legislative or committee meetings. However, as family involvement becomes an integral part of child welfare practice, a baseline knowledge of what parent partners need to fulfill a paraprofessional or system advocacy role is evolving as well (J. Knittel, personal communication, March 21, 2007).
In general, as families make the transition from system clients to partners and leaders in system change, they need to gain an understanding of the child welfare system from the agency's perspective, become familiar with child welfare policy and legal mandates, refine public speaking skills, learn to facilitate meetings, conduct trainings, understand boundary setting for mentor relationships, and be advocates for change. Training and leadership development help family partners acquire the skills necessary for system change and establish a foundation for sustained involvement and success.
"It used to be that the caseworker would pretty much present the case, and now the caseworker does brief introductions...and leaves it up to the family to tell the board what the problems are so that they can access the appropriate services."
- Agency Supervisor
Strategies. Grantee sites have implemented several strategies to deliver training and professional development for family and parent partners:
- New York contracted with an independent parent empowerment and advocacy organization to deliver parent-led leadership training and a development program.
- California developed a comprehensive professional development program as a part of its Parent Partner program, which incorporates opportunities for cross-training with agency professionals.
- Oregon uses the shared leadership model developed by Parents AnonymousÂ® to build leadership capacity among family partners in pilot counties.
- Colorado's Systems of Care project created an extensive training program for parent partners that includes intensive self-assessment, child welfare orientation, and leadership development training. In addition, parent partners are encouraged to attend monthly training for child welfare caseworkers.
3. Recruitment and Retention of Family Partners
Challenges. Demonstration sites reported difficulty identifying families to serve as parent mentors and offer support to other families, particularly when compensation for their time was limited. Specifically, some issues that affected recruitment and retention of family partners included:
- Families often did not want to continue interaction with the agency following case closure, particularly if they needed time to reconcile their own relationship and experience with the child welfare agency.
- Families relocated to other cities or counties and were not accessible to the child welfare agency when their cases closed.
- Some child welfare agency staff were not aware of family supports and family partner recruitment.
- Activities and events occurred at times that conflicted with family responsibilities, such as meetings during work hours.
- At times, child welfare workers did not know how to integrate the family partner into their work with families.
Strategies. Grantees in the demonstration initiative have developed a number of options for identifying, recruiting, and retaining family partners in their local systems of care:
- Kansas created a marketing strategy to inform child welfare workers about its parent partner program, with a special focus on requesting that workers identify families to participate on the Family Advisory Council.
- North Dakota varied the times and locations of activities, training, and events for family partners to make attendance more practical for families in remote areas.
- Pennsylvania created an extensive network of support among faith-based community partners and family partners in one pilot county to cultivate resources and provide ample opportunities for families to attend meetings and activities in their community.
- New York produced a training and development program for family, community, and agency partners to build trust and increase their capacity to work together.
- California works with child welfare workers to identify potential parent partners, gain support for the parent partner role, and assess parent readiness to return to the system in this new leadership position.
- Colorado's comprehensive parent partner recruitment and retention strategy includes attending agency unit meetings to discuss the program and potential parent partner referrals, providing parent partner program overviews and introductions at all agency staff meetings, and having parent partners market the program throughout the child welfare agency and the court systems.
Challenges. In many grant communities, the child welfare agency is unable to compensate family partners for the time they spend attending meetings, speaking at legislative hearings, or acting as peer mentors. Several sites have found ways to reimburse families for child care or transportation costs. However, adequate compensation for family partners (e.g., hiring them as full-time or part-time staff) remains a challenge for most sites. Many public child welfare agencies have policies that prohibit hiring individuals who have been convicted of a felony. Therefore, any parent with such a criminal record cannot be hired by the public child welfare agency. In addition, if a parent partner receives public assistance, those funds could be affected if the parent signs onto the State or county payroll. Under these circumstances, family partners often are expected to volunteer while agency partners are compensated. Sites with longstanding family engagement and family-agency collaboration, however, have devised temporary ways to compensate families involved in the systems of care demonstration initiative.
Strategies. A number of sites are implementing strategies to tap sustainable funding streams that support family involvement:
- Colorado reimbursed parent partners with gift cards from a major national retailer at the rate of $10 per hour.
- Kansas created a partial reimbursement policy within the State child welfare agency to cover some expenses incurred by families on the project.
- California hired full-time parent partners as independent contractors located at the county offices, and provided an hourly rate to offset expenses for part-time parent partners. The hourly rate was set at a level that avoided disruption of other public welfare benefits received by parent partners working less than full time on the project.
"We can't get a parent [with a] felony hired through the county, so we put them on a contract. Problem is that keeps people in poverty. We need to look at that and the other practical issues systematically. How do we raise [parents] out of poverty to do exactly what needs to be done?"
- Agency Practitioner