Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock () or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

March 2021Vol. 22, No. 3Engaging Families in Congregate Care

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

Engaging and empowering families as partners and decision-makers has the potential to improve child welfare quality and outcomes (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016). While family engagement is a valued practice in child welfare and has steadily increased over time, the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) emphasizes the importance of family connections across the child welfare continuum and establishes a set of engagement requirements for qualified residential treatment programs (QRTPs). To create a family engagement culture, programs should reach out to families, include them in their child's treatment, and provide 6 months of family-based supports after discharge (Children's Bureau, 2018).

The literature makes a strong case for this approach. Family engagement in congregate care settings is linked to shorter stays in care and increased reunification (Hess, 2003). Children and youth who have frequent contact with their families adjust more easily to out-of-home care, experience less depression and increased well-being, have an increased sense of normalcy, and have fewer behavioral challenges (McWey et al., 2010).

The information and tips below are adapted from the Capacity Building Center for States' forthcoming publication, Congregate Care in the Age of Family First: Family Engagement, which is designed to help state agencies, QRTPs, and other child welfare stakeholders understand the family engagement requirements of the FFPSA and thoughtfully plan for meaningful partnerships with families and youth in residential treatment programs.

Engaging Families in Congregate Care

Child welfare agencies can help QRTPs meet FFPSA requirements and meaningfully engage families throughout the course of treatment. They consider how QRTPs engage families along the following touch points:

  • During initial contact: At the time of admission, families may feel uncertain, anxious, exhausted, and afraid. Staff members with lived experience, sometimes referred to as professional parent partners, can help a family feel welcome.
    • Do families have the opportunity to tell their story, ask questions, and learn about next steps without being overwhelmed?
    • Are staff focused on what it will take for the child or youth to return home?
  • During treatment: Consistent connections to family throughout a stay in congregate care can improve treatment outcomes and prepare families for a successful reunification (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016). QRTPs need to have clear, consistent guidelines for partnering with families in the day-to-day care of children and youth.
    • Are families engaged as partners and decision-makers?
    • Is there thoughtful preparation for family visits and clinical support afterward to help families and youth process their emotions?
    • Are there opportunities for concrete skill building to facilitate a smooth transition home?
  • During discharge and aftercare: Discharge planning should begin at the time of admission. Staff should consider what will help a family feel hopeful and excited about reunification. Families should have a clear understanding of next steps and expectations for the transition home.
    • Do staff clearly communicate with families about the discharge and aftercare processes?
    • Are families connected to supports in their community?
    • Do families have the opportunity to inform aftercare service delivery?

Planning for Family Engagement

Engaging families in congregate care requires vision and organizational commitment highlighted in policy and practice, along with workforce development.

Articulating a Vision and Organizational Commitment

Creating a vision for family engagement in collaboration with youth and families sets the tone for authentic partnership.

  • Consider how congregate care leaders model and communicate the vision and commitment to family engagement. For example, do they encourage youth and families to participate in hiring, training, and organizational policy development?
  • Has the program budgeted sufficient funds to support family engagement activities? Consider compensation for family and youth consultants at agency and system levels as well as tangible supports at the case level such as transportation and technology for family visits.

Building Workforce Readiness

Supporting meaningful family engagement through staffing and clinical practice embeds family-centered practice and support for authentic partnership.

  • Does the program use equitable and inclusive hiring practices that result in a diverse workforce that is representative of the families served?
  • Does the program offer family-centered training and skill-building opportunities?
  • Does the program provide clear expectations that hold staff accountable for authentic family engagement?

Thoughtful planning for family engagement takes work, but by partnering with each other—and with families—agencies and QRTPs can increase the likelihood of a more positive experience and improved child and family outcomes.

Want to Learn More?

The Center for States' forthcoming 2021 series, Congregate Care in the Age of Family First, will offer more strategies for implementing FFPSA provisions in a congregate care setting. (Visit the Center for State's website for updates). Agencies can also work with the Center for States to develop and implement successful approaches to family engagement. Visit the Child Welfare Capacity Building Collaborative Liaisons webpage to find your state's tailored services liaison.


Children's Bureau. (2018). Information memorandum: ACYF-CB-IM-18-02. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Family engagement: Partnering with families to improve child welfare outcomes. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau.

Hess, P. (2003, October). Visiting between children in care and their families: A look at current policy. The National Resource Center for Foster Care and Permanency Planning. 

McWey, L., Acock, A., & Porter, B. (2010). The impact of continued contact with biological parents upon the mental health of children in foster care. Children and Youth Services Review, 32, 1338-1345.