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December 2020Vol. 21, No. 9Genuine Family Engagement: The Key to Doing Whatever It Takes

Written by Paul Vincent, M.S.W., independent consultant, retired from The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group

I worked in this field first as a child welfare caseworker and then as Alabama's child welfare director. That was followed by 20 years leading a nonprofit organization committed to improving outcomes by improving practice. In that span, which included involvement in thousands of cases, one case in particular stands out as an example of the power of engaging families. Alabama had settled a child welfare class action lawsuit filed by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Early in the reform effort, after completing intensive training and coaching in strengths- and needs-based work with families, a new caseworker described her first experience in using these new skills with a family with many challenges.

She was assigned the case of a very angry father whose two children were placed in foster care. The father had a long history of alcohol use, resulting in neglect of his children, job losses, and threatening interactions with his workmates, caseworkers, and court staff.  His former caseworkers were very fearful of him. Following some of the principles and techniques she had learned in training, his new caseworker began her first visit by sharing with him an update on his children's status rather than by asking about his compliance with a court order. She had asked the boys to draw a picture for their father, which she gave to him during the visit. She preceded each visit with a conversation with the children's foster parent, catching up on how the boys were doing so she could tell their dad. During her visits, she always engaged him by asking about some of his interests (fishing being a prominent one), in addition to case-related issues. As he grew less defensive, she broached the prospect of developing a team for him, in which he showed some interest. She also convinced the foster parent to let him have phone calls with the boys. 

Soon, the foster parent felt safe to join the father's family team and began to see the father's behavior as an expression of his many trauma experiences. With the team's support, the father retuned to Alcoholics Anonymous, maintained employment, and was granted unsupervised visits with his children. He invited his brother to join his team. The team tailored other supports for the dad, paying for repairs to his car so he wouldn't miss work and subsidizing the cost of court-ordered counseling. The father had made enough progress that the team was looking to permit overnight visits.

At the next court hearing, surprised by the reports of the father's progress, the judge said to him, "What has happened you? In past court hearings you were angry with everyone, refusing to complete the tasks ordered by the court and arguing with me. Now you and your caseworker are sitting together in court, and you have accomplished so much. What's happened to you?" The dad motioned to his caseworker and said, "She has. She is the only one of you that has cared about me!"

At the heart of the progress occurring in this case is the fact that the caseworker genuinely cared about the father's well-being and understood that his well-being was essential to successfully reuniting this family. What also mattered was that the father trusted the worker enough that he willingly identified a family team. And he trusted the team enough to share parts of his history that helped explain his pattern of anger.

The qualities of empathy, genuineness, and respect toward families that this child welfare caseworker possessed do not always come naturally to staff; however, these qualities can be developed by skilled training and coaching. The techniques used to train this worker helped break through the view that families with challenges are inherently different and show workers that the families in their caseloads face significant life challenges and that their responses are often a natural reaction to a threat—with the involuntary involvement of child welfare in their lives often being foremost among those threats.

Alabama staff were taught in training and follow-up coaching the essential skills in recognizing and affirming the functional strengths of families, utilizing exploring and solution-focused techniques, and identifying the underlying needs of the families they served. Every worker learned to facilitate their own team meetings. And the service array was both expanded and diversified so that the individualized plans created in child and family team meetings could be faithfully implemented. For these and many other reasons, fewer children entered care, children exited care more quickly, more children were placed in family-based settings, and children in care became more stable. However, those positive results began with the foundational, compassionate steps taken by staff to genuinely engage families one family at a time.

After the reform's implementation in the first groups of counties, CNN approached the department about being the subject of a news special on child welfare. They initially wanted to interview families about their experience with a changed system. In preparation, they interviewed families and their caseworkers, observed how the new practice model advanced training and coaching, and met with providers. After this orientation, the CNN producer met with me and said they had changed their mind about the focus and instead wanted to follow workers through the training and coaching process and feature their changed relationship with families. When we asked what caused them to change the focus of their examination, they said, "In talking to the workers we shadowed in preparation, it's not the new services and lower caseloads that struck us. It's that your workers are so different. They actually like their families."

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen corporate events, the filming was never completed, so the program never aired. However, that comment struck me because it demonstrated that it is possible to change a system from a reliance on coercion as a force for change to one of partnership. We acknowledge that it is vital to invest in families. Isn't it also vital to invest in the skills of the workforce that serves them?