Working With Parents During a Child Welfare Case
A helpful connection with the parents we work with in child welfare can make all the difference in the family’s ability to build a shared partnership with us in creating and sustaining safety for their children. The crisis that initiates the family’s contact with a child protection professional can be shaped into either an opportunity or an obstacle in building that partnership. After that, every interaction between the worker and the parent moves the dial on the quality of the working relationship. Actions taken or not taken by the worker determine whether the dial is moving toward a stronger relationship or a damaged relationship.
Most first contacts with child welfare professionals bring parents sudden and unwelcome surprise and fear, as well as implied criticism about their caregiving abilities. Child welfare social workers are greeted with a range of reactions in response that can range from curiosity and cooperation to anger and defensiveness. The unspoken question in the minds of most parents who are visited by a child welfare professional is, “Are you going to take my child today?” I try to reflect on how such a knock on my own door might have affected me as a parent, especially when I was not at my best.
As a child welfare professional, every time I walk up to the door, I am doing my best to bring my genuine self, my hopeful curiosity about people, and my belief that the parents I am meeting want the same safety and well-being for their child that all parents do. I try to remember that my interactions with them may have life-altering consequences for everyone in the household and that the path taken after my visit will be affected by the family’s perception of how they are treated. It is helpful to acknowledge this shared understanding of the impact I create whenever I knock on their door or pick up the phone.
Every time we meet, I want our conversation to focus on building a productive partnership that results in balanced and thorough assessments of the family’s situation for the duration of our work together. I greet the parent with respect; express appreciation; explain purpose and process; offer choices; ask permission; and, above all, try to communicate the message that I have come with a shared goal of ensuring their child’s safety and well-being.
No matter how similar or different I might perceive myself to be from this parent, I begin each encounter knowing that I am building a relationship with a family with a unique culture and history that will shape their perceptions and their experiences with me. I take time to notice, ask about, and talk through those differences and look for ways to bridge those differences in that first conversation, knowing that trust must be built over time.
Even when the child welfare worker must make arrangements to protectively place a child in order to create temporary safety, there is always a range of choices that can be offered at every step in the process that will respect the parent’s role and relationship with his or her child. Maximizing parental choice at every step of the process builds safety and control into their experience.
Establishing a helpful connection with a parent under these circumstances centers on a conversation between two human beings that involves asking good questions and then really listening to the perspectives of every member of the family, including the child, to allow everyone to think through together what needs to happen to create child safety. It requires attention both to what is said, positive
and negative, and to what has not been said. It means asking about the family’s support network of people that help out in good times and bad times. The conversation must balance attention to what is working well and to what is worrisome as we attempt to make good decisions about what needs to happen next.
Whatever the result of each contact with family members, my hope is that our interactions leave everyone with the sense of having been carefully listened to and respected throughout the process, laying and sustaining the groundwork for strong partnerships in the future.
At the same time, I am mindful that the relationship is not the intervention, but is what makes a positive intervention possible. I can build a quality working relationship without helping the family to achieve change if I forget the purpose of the relationship. Using key decision points as markers, I can leverage the strong working relationship we’ve built to help move the work with the family toward safety, permanency and well-being.