Academic journal article Child Welfare

Recreating Family: Parents Identify Worker-Client Relationships as Paramount in Family Preservation Programs

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Recreating Family: Parents Identify Worker-Client Relationships as Paramount in Family Preservation Programs

Article excerpt

Although existing family preservation program research has focused on identifying the components of effective treatment, we remain far from fully developing empirically supported interventions (Barth, Chamberlain, Reid, Rolls, Hurlburt, Farmer, James, McCabe, & Kohl, 2005; Dufour, Chamberland, & Trocme, 2003). The current longitudinal study expands existing efforts to understand the active ingrethents of effective interventions by learning from parents who experienced a family preservation intervention themselves. The current study reports on the reflections of 35 parents who child protection social workers referred to family preservation programs. In contrast to a focus on intervention components, parents related the helpful interventions they received to the effectiveness of intervention processes-namely, to the quality of the relationships they had with their individual family preservation workers and with service teams at the programs they attended. Parents identified that workers in effective programs used specific relational skills to recreate a nurturing family environment that fostered parent engagement and change throughout the process of intervention.

The quality of the relationship between social workers and their clients has historically been recognized as a key element of effective practice (Chapman, Gibbons, Barth, McCrae, & National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being [NSCAW] Research Group, 2003; Verge, 2005). The worker-client relationship may be a particularly important aspect of intervention in family preservation programs because the worker plays a role in determining whether a family keeps or loses their children (Chapman et al., 2003; Verge, 2005). Yet, getting parents to engage in family preservation interventions can be particularly challenging due to the fear and shame they often experience in being identified in a child protection report and in dealing with child welfare personnel. Qualitative reports are increasingly identifying the difficulties that child welfare clients may experience in connecting with their workers and the very significant impact that the failure of the worker-client relationship can have on parent treatment and family outcome (Boyd, 1999; Kapp & Propp, 2002; Verge, 2005).

Despite the potential importance of the worker-client relationship in determining program outcomes, there is a relative absence of research on this aspect of family preservation intervention (Cash & Berry, 2003; Littell, 1997; Verge, 2005). Intervention research has focused almost exclusively on identifying the components of effective interventions. This research has contributed to revealing the importance of intervention strategies that take a strengths-based perspective and provide services of sufficient duration, which are targeted to address a variety of family needs (Bagdasaryan, 2005; MacLeod & Nelson, 2000; Pecora, 2003). Although these advances have been integrated into emerging program models, the overall results of program outcome studies remain "weak" (Bacon & Gillman, 2003, p. 2) or "promising" but inconclusive at best (Dufour et al., 2003, p. 4; see also, Barth et al., 2005). The limitations of the knowledge gleaned from the current focus on intervention components suggest that we need to broaden our focus to consider the equally important role of service processes and relationships in building effective programs (Cash & Berry 2003; Littell, 1997).

The absence of research on client views of child welfare services mirrors the absence of research on the relational aspects of intervention. Despite the fact that early client engagement has been shown to predict a program's success or failure (Dawson & Berry 2002; Littell & Tajima, 2000), we know very little about how clients perceive and experience the programs we design to assist them (Baker, 2007; Drake, 1996; Harris, Poertner, & Joe, 2000; Kapp & Propp, 2002; Kapp & Vela, 2004). …

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