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Breaking Down Barriers: New Approaches to Engaging Parents in Child Welfare Services
“I think children, as they make sense out of the world, need to know who they are and how the key people in their lives fit into that."
Parents caught up in child welfare services are easily overwhelmed. The system can be bewilderingly complex, and so can parents’ emotions. They may experience fear, anger, outrage, shame and guilt in a society that stigmatizes them as a “bad” parent – someone accused of harming or neglecting their own children. At the same time, they may feel alienated from courts that have the power to take away their children, and disrespected if caseworkers aren’t listening to them, dealing with their issues candidly, or trying to understand their lives – however complicated those lives may be.
“You need to know what it’s like to be me,” said a straight-talking mother in Washington state, one of more than 800 parents interviewed face-to-face about their experiences with the state child welfare system. Partners for Our Children, a collaboration between private-sector funders, the state Department of Social and Health Services and the University of Washington School of Social Work conducted the sweeping survey.
UW researchers in the School of Social Work have paid keen attention to survey responses as they work to increase parent engagement in the child welfare system. “It seems from research that the key component to engaging parents is the willingness to understand, in deeper ways, what they are coping with and to incorporate their ideas and experiences into the process,” says Susan Kemp, associate professor at the School of Social Work.
Kemp is working with Maureen Marcenko, professor at the school and research fellow with Partners for Our Children, to develop and test practical, research-based, cost-effective parental engagement strategies that can be taught to caseworkers and used in day-to-day child welfare practice. “We’re trying to build a repertoire of tested strategies that can create change on the ground,” says Kemp.
Research shows significant benefits from increasing parent involvement in the child welfare process. Parents who engage early in identifying and solving the problems that brought them into the system, and who become decision-makers and active partners in their child’s welfare, are more likely to reunite with families. “More children are likely to go home and go home sooner when parents are engaged,” says Marcenko. “And engaged parents are more likely to persevere if the work gets difficult.”
Even when it’s impossible for families to stay intact, keeping ties can have positive mental health benefits for a child, who may have one relationship with a foster family and another with a biological family.
“I think children, as they make sense out of the world, need to know who they are and how the key people in their lives fit into that. They need to put the pieces of the family puzzle together,” says Kemp, who served as a child welfare worker herself.
In a Child Welfare Journal article, Kemp and Marcenko point out that it’s the parents who most need the services who are least likely to use them. A statistical portrait of child welfare families illustrates some of the reasons. The families tend to be disproportionately non-white, female-headed, poorly educated and living in extreme poverty. The Washington survey showed 47 percent of child welfare-involved parents made less than $10,000 a year, almost two-thirds were unemployed, 29 percent reported they had been homeless in the past 12 months and almost a third reported drug or alcohol abuse.
“I can’t believe I let this happen,” said one woman, an addicted mother of five who carried in her back pocket photos of the children she’d lost in child welfare proceedings. When people asked why she wasn’t home taking care of them, all she could say was “I don’t know.”
These parents are at high risk for failing to meet court-mandated requirements. And if they’re not showing up for programs and hearings, courts can terminate parental rights and put their child up for adoption.
“Courts look for solid data that people are doing the work they need to do to keep children safe and healthy,” says Kemp.
Distrust of the system runs high among these parents – because of cultural differences, linguistic challenges, or traumatic experiences with government agencies that can resonate over generations. Many parents grew up in the system themselves, and struggle with what it means to be a good parent. And most end up in the system involuntarily. They may view social workers assigned to their case as adversaries, not advocates, and blame them if children are taken away.
Setting up non-adversarial, peer-to-peer programs can help break down these barriers. That’s illustrated in two new state programs, developed with support from Casey Family Programs, that rely on veterans of child welfare services to work with and advocate for parents new to the system.
The Parent Mentoring Program trains experienced foster parents to help biological parents (not the parents of children they’ve fostered) with everything from proper nutrition and mental health care to finding safe housing, searching for jobs and connecting with community services. The Parent Partner Program uses parent “alumni” who’ve been through the child welfare system to help newcomers navigate the confusing maze of courts, caseworkers and services.
“Parents need a buddy, a peer advocate who can help them figure out how the system works and be by their side through the early part of the process,” says Kemp. “That person can make sure parents make wise choices – in terms of how the court will view them. They help them move solidly toward reunifying with their kids.”
Preliminary results show many parents in these programs are reunifying safely with their children, and doing it sooner.
“We’re reaching into the knowledge and wisdom experienced parents have and will share with one another if you give them a chance,” says Kemp.
The parents’ guide to child protective services: http://www.dshs.wa.gov/pdf/publications/22-484.pdf
Research on the child welfare community at Partners for Our Children: http://www.partnersforourchildren.org/
Article on “How the child welfare system works:” http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/cpswork.cfm
Parent-engagement guidelines for child welfare systems, from the 2007 Best Practices for Mental Health in Child Welfare Consensus Conference.
Guideline 1—Use of Peer Family Mentors
Child welfare agencies should have on staff peer family mentors with experience working with different populations (e.g., birth, adoption, foster, kinship or youth) to advocate with and assist families in seeking care.
Guideline 2—Training for Peer Family Mentors
Peer family mentors will be provided training, education, and consultation on child and family mental health issues to assist them in their professional roles.
Guideline 3—Agency Practices to Support Parents
Agencies will ensure that families experiencing removal of a child receive immediate orientation on their rights and responsibilities, preferably from a peer family mentor. Each family’s understanding of these rights and responsibilities should be reassessed periodically by an agency staff member, preferably the peer family mentor.
Guideline 4—Comprehensive Family Assessments
Agencies will conduct a comprehensive family assessment to identify strengths, service needs, and necessary support services. In addition to child welfare staff, such assessments should involve the family as well as a peer family mentor as members of the team. This plan should drive service delivery and should be reviewed at regular intervals by child welfare staff, the family, and the peer family mentor. It should be linked to a systematic tracking process so that agencies can be accountable for the provision of services identified in the service plan.
Guideline 5—Family Engagement Training for Child Welfare Staff
Agencies will ensure child welfare staff receives training on strategies for improving the engagement of families in services and the linkage of families to family support programs.
Guideline 6—Referral to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Treatment When Needed
If parental substance abuse or mental health issues for the parent are identified in the family assessment, agencies will include in the comprehensive service plan appropriate linkage and referral to efficacious substance abuse or adult mental health treatment services operating in parallel with parenting and family intervention.
Guideline 7—Early Assistance Services for Families
Early assistance and differential response services to support families and divert them from entering the system will be made available whenever possible.
Guideline 8—Parent Involvement in Services
When possible, parents will be encouraged to be involved in mental and physical health promotion assessment, treatment, education, medical services and other services as appropriate for their children.