Series: Bulletins for Professionals|
Child Welfare Information Gateway. |
|Year Published: 2010|
Ways to Achieve Meaningful Family Engagement
Many child welfare agencies struggle with engaging families on a daily basis. There are challenges inherent in working with families that have experienced or are at risk of abuse and neglect, and additional challenges are posed by high caseloads, resource limitations, and reliance on traditional practices. Changing how child welfare agencies interact with families is difficult work, but it can be done.
Agencies can minimize the challenges and prepare for effective and sustainable engagement strategies by incorporating family engagement into the agency's child welfare practice model and implementing key elements at the systems and casework practice levels.
Child Welfare Practice Models
Many child welfare agencies are encouraging practice improvement and systems change through the use of practice models that emphasize family engagement as a cornerstone of achieving positive outcomes. The practice model, which builds from a clearly defined vision and set of core values, contains definitions, explanations, and expectations of how the agency will operate and how it will partner with families and other stakeholders in child welfare services (National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement & National Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice and Permanency Planning, 2008).
States that have implemented a practice model over multiple years, such as Utah and Alabama (http://dhr.alabama.gov/page.asp?pageid=245), have focused on practice as the core of their reform efforts. These States have organized their worker training to follow the process of working with families, beginning with engagement and building trusting relationships. Utah also has translated its practice framework into written staff performance expectations. One such expectation examines the worker's ability to effectively use engagement skills that include active listening (Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, 2008). Additionally, many States are developing practice models as an overarching strategy in their Program Improvement Plans as part of the CFSR.
Family engagement strategies are a foundation of the practice model and, together with other evidence-based practices can produce important gains for children and families.
To learn more about practice models, see An Introduction to the Practice Model Framework: A Working Document Series from the National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement and the National Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice and Permanency Planning.
Key Systems Elements
Elements relating to child welfare systems and infrastructure have been identified through research and State experiences as important to achieving meaningful family engagement. Not every element will be feasible in every instance, and many elements will evolve over time. They include the following:
- Agency leadership that demonstrates a strong commitment to family-centered practice and champions family engagement as a priority
- Organizational culture that models desired behaviors, actions, and communication among managers, supervisors, and frontline caseworkers
- Systems change initiatives and Program Improvement Plans with detailed strategies for achieving family and youth involvement
- Policies and standards that clearly define expectations, identify requirements, and reinforce family engagement in case practice
- Trained supervisors who explain agency policies that apply to family engagement, offer coaching to caseworkers, and provide support and feedback
- Manageable caseloads and workloads allowing caseworkers to attend to the time-consuming efforts of building rapport, engaging families, actively participating in team decision-making meetings, and maintaining frequent, meaningful contact with children and families
- Defined roles for planning and facilitation of team decision-making meetings to ensure that the meetings are timely (with reasonable notice to all parties), well facilitated, focused on the family and children's strengths and needs, goal directed, and inclusive of all team members
- Skillful facilitation, which in some agencies is carried out by external facilitators or coordinators who guide engagement activities such as family group conferences and make sure that all points of view are heard
- Availability and accessibility of diverse services that can respond specifically to the family's identified needs and conditions
- Identification of service gaps and new ways to develop the community services that families need
- Training and coaching to build family engagement skills among child welfare caseworkers and supervisors, and to help birth families, foster families, caseworkers, administrators, and other helping professionals work together effectively
- Systematic documentation of caseworker/family interaction and communication, and family involvement
- Individualized performance review systems that reward staff for family engagement efforts and provide ongoing feedback regarding performance
- Quality assurance and case review processes that monitor effective implementation of family engagement and measure its effects on safety, permanency, and well-being
- External assistance in the form of training, consultation, and technical assistance from recognized family engagement experts
- Monitoring of family engagement activities and family progress against mutually agreed-upon goals
Key Casework Elements
Research underscores the crucial role caseworker interaction plays in engaging families, particularly through the development of a supportive and trusting relationship (Dawson & Berry, 2002; Yatchmenoff, 2005; Rooney, 1992; Wells & Fuller, 2000). Elements that foster such a relationship and support family engagement practices include:
- Clear, honest, and respectful communication with families, which helps set a foundation for building trust
- Commitment to family-centered practice and its underlying philosophy and values
- Sufficient frequency and length of contact with families and their identified formal and informal supports
- A strengths-based approach that recognizes and reinforces families' capabilities and not just their needs and problems
- Shared decision-making and participatory planning, which results in mutually agreed-upon goals and plans reflecting both the caseworker's professional training and the family's knowledge of their own situation
- Broad-based involvement by both parents, extended family members, informal networks, and community representatives who create a web of support that promotes safety, increases permanency options, and provides links to needed services
- Understanding of the role of confidentiality and how to involve partners in case planning in a manner which is respectful of the family, but which also enables partners to plan realistically to protect the child and work toward permanency
- Recognition of foster and adoptive parents as resources not only for the children in their care, but for the entire birth family
- Individualized service plans that go beyond traditional preset service packages (e.g., parenting classes and counseling) and respond to both parents' identified needs, specific circumstances, and available supports
- Concrete services that meet immediate needs for food, housing, child care, transportation, and other costs, and help communicate to families a sincere desire to help
- Praise and recognition of parents who are making life changes that result in safe and permanent living situations for their children (including reunification, adoption, kinship placement, or guardianship)
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