Parent Engagement in Child Safety Conferences: The Role of Parent Representatives

By Lalayants, Marina | Child Welfare, November/December 2012 | Go to article overview

Parent Engagement in Child Safety Conferences: The Role of Parent Representatives


Lalayants, Marina, Child Welfare


Parent engagement is a critical and challenging task of child welfare, and meaningful parent engagement in a dialogue, service planning, and acceptance of services is even more challenging in the context of non-voluntary child protection. This study described and examined the parent representation model that made use of parent representatives in engaging birthparents during child safety conferences in child protection. The findings identified the barriers to parental engagement and determined factors promoting engagement. Implications of this model are discussed.

Social service providers have long agreed that client empowerment and inclusion in service planning and delivery will result in improved outcomes for them. To increase parent engagement, there has been an emerging use of a "parent mentor," "parent partner," "parent advocate," or "parent representative" (Cohen 6c Canon, 2006; Marcenko, Brown, DeVoy, 6c Conway, 2010). While this approach has been promoted, for example, in the education and mental health fields, there is little empirical support for this model in working with marginalized populations, such as birthparents in the child welfare system (Mizrahi, Lopez Humphreys, 6c Torres, 2009; Singer et al., 1999). Although it is especially difficult to engage parents who are being investigated for maltreatment, authors claim that meaningful parent engagement in service planning and delivery can have impact on parental outcomes, such as cooperation with the workers, service acceptance, and involvement (Featherstone 6c Fraser, 2012), and lead to better permanency outcomes for children and families, such as less placements and speedier reunification (Anthony, Berrick, Cohen, 6c Wilder, 2009; Cohen 6c Canan, 2006; Mizrahi et al., 2009).

Meaningful parent engagement seems to be most effective when done by a parent representative who shares the parents experiences of child welfare involvement and has successfully negotiated the child welfare system (Anthony et al., 2009; Cohen 6c Canon, 2006; Mizrahi et al., 2009). Cohen and Canan (2009) stated that "when help is offered by the right person in the right way, parents will respond" (p. 880). The involvement of parents beyond their individual case plan is an emerging practice in public child welfare that has been gaining increased attention (Anthony et al., 2009; Cohen 6c Canan, 2006). Parent mentors could educate birthparents about their rights and responsibilities, refer them to appropriate social services, and model attitudes and sets of behaviors that may lead to empowerment, healthy families, and reunification.

Parent Engagement

Engagement is an important part of the social work field, for it has long been associated with the process of client change (Altman, 2009; Yatchmenoff, 2005). Despite its importance and relevance, little is known about the process and composition of engagement itself (Turney, 2012; Yatchmenoff, 2005). Although research continues to be conducted on client involvement and the outcomes of client engagement, the concept lacks a standardized definition and consistent measure of effectiveness. However, with the continued contribution of analytical data to the concept of engagement, research suggests its necessity and sustained relevance, primarily in the field of parental involvement in mandated child welfare services.

Engagement has been used interchangeably with client participation (Girvin, DePanfilis, & Daining, 2007; Kemp, Marcenko, Hoagwood, & Vesneski, 2009; Littell, Alexander, &c Reynolds, 2001; Yatchmenoff, 2005) and involvement in services (Alpert, 2005). Affronti and Levison-Johnsons (2009) study on family engagement in the field of residential care, defined family engagement as "participation by parents, guardians, or other family members of children receiving services... activities may include, but not be limited to: (a) planning and decision-making, (b) education and skill-building, (c) relationship-building/recreation, (d) involvement in direct clinical services, (e) transition planning, and (f) provision of aftercare supports" (p. …

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