A Parent's Perspective on Child Welfare & Family Engagement

As part of the federal Child and Family Service Review (CFSR) process, Child Welfare systems are graded on their ability to engage families. All of them fail and most are struggling to do better. Why is Family Engagement so difficult for child welfare systems and how can it get easier? 

One of the reasons is that family engagement is not very well defined. At Be Strong Families, family engagement in child welfare comes down to relationship-based practice. From this perspective, the answer to why it's so difficult becomes pretty simple: There is a huge gap between philosophy and practice models for child welfare that acknowledge the importance of building relationships with clients and the way the work is done in real time, with the pressures on both workers and clients.  Before we’re able to successfully offer or refer families to effective services, we must establish a mutually respectful relationship and that's not easy in these situations. 

Looking at it from a child-welfare-involved parent’s perspective might shed some light.

Imagine you are that parent and that you have never physically harmed your children and you have no idea that because of your circumstances in life, you may be neglecting your kids. This could mean you're doing it the way your parents did, your power got turned off, your kids showed up to school several days in a row with dirty clothes, or you left your 12-year-old alone in order to go to work. It could mean that you drink too much or do something else to excess to make the pain go away. Statistics say that there's a high probability that you are living in poverty, have a history of childhood trauma yourself, and are struggling to keep it together. (75 percent of children enter the child welfare system for reports of neglect - not because parents are intentionally hurting their kids (Children’s Bureau, 2016, p. ii).)

Someone knocks on your door, without warning, there to investigate you for child abuse and neglect. Next thing you know, they are taking your kids away, crying, screaming, terrified. You have no idea when or if they will come back. They give you a number to call but no other information about where your kids will be. You call the number the next day and eventually you get an appointment. (Are you angry yet? Scared? Do you have any confidence that this will end up okay?  Especially if you are black or Native American -- populations that are overrepresented in child welfare even though white people abuse and neglect their kids at the same rates -- do you trust that you will be treated fairly given what you know about the biases of government systems?) At this point, anything this person who has knocked at your door has to say is meaningless.  More than likely you feel dehumanized, violated and completely powerless.

You need an attorney. You have a court date. After you are essentially found guilty and the state has justified and a judge has co-signed the need to remove your children, you eventually get into a little room with your caseworker, and this person behind a desk thinks they have all the information about who you are and what you’ve done, the book on how you have egregiously violated your children’s rights: how you are unfit to parent. Next, he or she is laying down the law about all that has to change if you want to get your kids back. It’s complicated, confusing, embarrassing, frustrating, scary and it feels like everyone is against you.  How do you feel about engaging? How are your defense mechanisms causing you to react? 

Couple this with the fact that the child welfare agency and court are telling you that the only way to get your family back together requires facing and fixing some pretty deep stuff: deal with your depression, stop smoking weed / get clean, get a new or better job or find someone trustworthy to take care of your kids when you have no money or family or friends in town. Or a combination of these. Feels like it might as well be climb Mt. Everest. 

What would you need in such a situation to do the work to reunify your family or make long-term plans for the best interests of your kids? That’s what these parents need, too. They need someone who can help them navigate the system, preferably someone compassionate, empathetic and respectful who wants to build a positive, trusting relationship with them.  They need help.  (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011). From there, it’s about building Protective Factors by identifying meaningful strengths and encouraging parents to build on them. The stick is big enough. The carrot is growing underground behind an electrified fence. If child welfare systems put resources into assisting parents with getting to the carrot rather than punishing them with the stick, they would score better on the CFSR measure of Family Engagement. 

One thing that might assist with empathy is for employees in the child welfare system, all the way up the food chain, to take historical trauma, segregation, and implicit bias into account when attempting to engage families of color. And imagine how different the system would be if the prevailing assumptions were that parents loved their kids, but that love is not enough to keep their family strong AND that the majority of these parents are doing the best they can to keep their family afloat?

The bottom line is that in order to do better with engaging families, child welfare systems must respond to them differently — whether or not it’s a formal differential response case. It means holding workers accountable to relationship-based practice standards. It means viewing the work as healing trauma instead of punishing perpetrators: a paradigm shift from Blame — Shame — Punish — Disconnect to Protect — Connect — Grieve — Regulate (Alia Innovations and Anu Family Services, 2018, p. 7). It means training and supervising in a way that models and encourages quality relationships, because if workers feel under the gun all the time and not appreciated, supported, or respected it will be very difficult for them to give appreciation, support, and respect to their clients. It also means parity in the resources and supports and strategies we give to all parents: not privileging foster parents and suffering biological parents.

Be Strong Families is proud to be assisting jurisdictions with conscious leadership who understand all this and are working hard to implement policy, program, and practice changes aligned with these insights. We do our work where the rubber meets the road: not outlining the model but working arm in arm to improve the practice. We have co-created and extensively tested respectful, strengths-based, trauma-informed training and tools for birth parents and foster parents to get them together for the good of the child, to promote family connectedness, and to support birth parents — including intact families whose kids have not been removed — through the process of getting the child welfare system out of their lives. We also have co-created and tested training and tools for workers to effectively engage child-welfare-involved families and to hone their skills in family-centered, strengths-based, trauma-informed practice.

Good intentions and a positive attitude are not enough: workers and parents both need to enhance their knowledge and concrete skills to effectively engage with each other. 

Relationship-based practice is Family Engagement and when child welfare agencies realize that and manage to those outcomes they will improve their performance on the CFSR measure for Family Engagement. Together we can seize the opportunity to act with justice and compassion to uplift and heal, the people who are the most important and influential people in their children’s lives, their parents.

Article by Corey Best, Family Engagement Consultant and Dad who believes that only healthy organizations can promote healthy communities and Katthe Wolf, Founding Partner and CEO of Be Strong Families.


Alia Innovations and Anu Family Services. (2018). Healing Guidebook: Practical tips & tools for working with children and youth who have experienced trauma (and for the adults who love them, too).

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2011). Family reunification: What the evidence shows. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). Long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Racial disproportionality and disparity in child welfare. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

Administration on Children, Youth and Families. (2016). Child Maltreatment 2016. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.