Academic journal article Child Welfare

The Connections Project: A Relational Approach to Engaging Birth Parents in Visitation

Academic journal article Child Welfare

The Connections Project: A Relational Approach to Engaging Birth Parents in Visitation

Article excerpt

This paper presents a practical framework for relational practice with birth families, organized around parental visitation. The approach was developed in the Birth Family-Foster Family Connections Project, a three-year collaborative research demonstration project between a large private agency and the Washington State Department of Child and Family Services. The overall goal of the Connections Project, which served young children from infancy to age 6, was to create supportive connections among birth families, foster families, children, and the child welfare system. Although engaging parents in child welfare services is a challenging task for social workers, the Connections Project resulted in strong parent-worker relationships, very high participation in weekly visitation by birth parents, and quite extensive contact between birth and foster families. The paper describes relational strategies used by Connections social workers before and during visits, with the goal of providing child welfare social workers with a practical and effective framework for engaging parents through this core child welfare service.

One of the most complex tasks in child welfare practice is working with parents whose children have been placed in foster care. By definition, families with children in placement are in acute distress, struggling not only with the issues that precipitated the loss of their child or children, but also with the trauma of the loss itself. Feelings of fear, shame, guilt, and anger are inevitably present in parents7 relationships with child welfare social workers. In turn, workers face the difficult challenge of building supportive relationships with parents while holding them accountable for the issues that precipitated the removal of their child. Since profound tensions mark each side of the interaction, it is not surprising that work with birth parents is often accorded low priority by overburdened workers (Smith & Donovan, 2003).

Nevertheless, the ability to engage and assist parents struggling with a complex array of issues lies at the heart of effective practice with child welfare-involved families (Dawson & Berry 2002; Dore & Alexander, 1996). Asked about their training needs, child welfare caseworkers identified skills in intervening with very conflicted, involuntary clients as a high priority (Pecora, 1989). To help such parents engage in services, workers need an appreciation of the damaging impact of multiple family stressors on anyone trying to parent, a good working knowledge of parents' defensive patterns and developmental needs, and a sound understanding of relational processes (Halpern, 1997).

For many child welfare social workers, gaining these skills is difficult. Training curricula and best practice models target parental behaviors that place children at risk, such as substance abuse and inadequate parenting skills. Less attention is focused on preparing workers in the relational and therapeutic skills that give power to development and growth. Furthermore, parent-focused services such as visitation, parenting interventions, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and supportive services are often contracted to other agencies, leaving child welfare workers with limited opportunities for sustained work with birth families, and increasing the likelihood that parents will experience child welfare services as fragmented and unwelcoming.

Responding to these issues, this paper presents a practical framework for relational practice with birth families, organized around parental visitation, a cornerstone of child welfare practice. The approach was developed in the Birth Family-Foster Family Connections Project (also called the Connections Project), a threeyear collaborative research demonstration between a large private agency and the Washington State Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) established in 2001 with funding from the Stuart Foundation. The overall goal of the project, which served young children from infancy to age six, was to create strong, supportive connections among birth families, foster families, children, and the child welfare system. …

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