Engaging parents in the child welfare process can be a challenge for a number of reasons, including the adversarial nature of interactions with the system, past negative experiences with services, as well as fear, shame, and the stigma of child welfare involvement. Commonly co-occurring issues such as substance abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence can further negatively impact the engagement process.
Supervised visits between parent and child provide an early opportunity to engage parents in the process and to build and strengthen their relationship with their children. However, with so many challenges and hurdles facing parents involved with the child welfare system, these goals can be difficult to achieve.
POC’s Strive Supervised Visitation Program, the first component of a portfolio of Strive programs for parents, seeks to enhance the quality of parent-child visits through the use of engagement strategies, education and support. The program addresses engagement between the parent and coach, parent and child, and other adults, including the child welfare caseworker.
Engagement has been described as a commitment and active participation. There are a number of aspects that impact engagement including:
- Attitudes, such as denial, hope, and motivation.
- Relationships, like bond, respect, and caring.
- Behaviors, such as goal setting, participation, and letting your guard down.
Now, why is engagement so important? Researchers have found when social workers have a positive relationship with parents and children, timely permanency outcomes is more likely to be achieved. Engaging and building a collaborative relationship between the parent and the support professional is critical. Further, supporting parental engagement in child welfare can lead to positive outcomes for child welfare services, drug treatment programs and mental health services.
To help illustrate what engagement looks like, the following are specific actions that a social work professional can take to build and strengthen a supportive relationship with families:
- Being honest and genuine when interacting with the family
- Listening and remaining curious
- Attempting to recognize the strengths of parents and children
- Seeking to discover the existing supports and resources a family already has
- Focusing on talking about solutions with parents
- Considering the parent’s point of view
- Seeking to find common ground
- Resisting taking the behaviors of a parent personally
How the Strive Parenting Program Supports Parent-Child Engagement
Another important type of engagement is between parent and child. Parent-child visit frequency has been found to be highly predictive of reunification and parent-child visitation offers ongoing opportunities to increase parent-child engagement.
That’s why we’ve chosen to initially focus on improving the parent-child visitation context through the Strive Supervised Visitation Program – an evidence-informed program that is currently under development through an active collaboration between professionals from POC, the child welfare system, visitation contractors, and representatives from a variety of organizations around Washington State.
The initial draft includes 15 sessions specifically designed to engage parents and to help improve the quality of parent-child visitation within the context of supervised visitation. Each session addresses a different issue thought to be conducive to improving a visit. Strive seeks to create predictable, goal-centered visits for parents and children.
Strive "coaches" are experienced visitation supervisors who have received Strive training and ongoing supervision. They work one-on-one with parents before a supervised visit, are present during the parent-child visit to provide support in trying out new strategies to improve visit quality, and talk with parents during a short debriefing after the visit. Each session with the parent and coach begins with assessing what worked well and identify areas for improvement. Throughout the program, additional resources are provided to parents to encourage and reinforce positive visits, such as handouts and video clips.
Strive is being designed with a tailored approach in mind. Not all families are the same, and thus Strive is not the same for all families. For example, if a parent is consistently on time for sessions, visits and other appointments, and arrived prepared and ready to go, they likely do not need the session on Planning Ahead. Strive is also being designed with a module design. For example, the first four sessions, an "engagement module" focuses on parental engagement with the child during visits and basic elements that can make a real difference in visit quality.
Although it is still early in the piloting process, we are seeing encouraging results with Strive. Coaches and parents from seven families involved in the first pretest of the Strive Supervised Visitation Program report liking the program and finding it to be useful. For example, one Strive coach said the following about her experience over the past several months:
“The difference I have noticed dramatically is the ability to leave chaos behind and switch to parenting. Usually for [the] first 90 days (or at least the first 8 visits), there is lots of complaining, lots of case talk, etc.—it takes a long time to switch to being present. During this time, people are trying to figure out 'are you for me or against me'. Strive seems to help switch on a collaborative process faster.”
Engagement is a key to success. By actively reaching out and supporting parents and children during the early stages of supervised visitation, we believe that engagement between parent and child can be increased. Each step along the way in the child welfare system process is an opportunity to strengthen families, and small cumulative successes can improve outcomes for vulnerable children and families.
Larsen-Rife & Brooks (2009)
Family Centered Practice Guide, Minnesota
Marcenko, et. al., (2011)
Cunningham and colleagues (2008)