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2009 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 15, No. 1
December 2009

What to Do and Say When a Child Asks an Unanswerable Question

by Rose Marie Wentz, MPA (Reprinted from Permanency Planning Today, Summer 2008)

A 7-year-old child just placed in care asks,
“When do I get to go home?”

A caseworker is talking to a 15-year-old about
permanency and asks the young man if he
wants to be adopted. He quickly says, “NO”
and walks out of the room.

* * * * * * * * *

It is not always easy to talk with a child who is in care, especially when the child asks questions that cannot be easily answered or resists talking to the worker. We know that having high quality worker/child contact will help a child be safe and reach timely permanency and will provide the worker with an opportunity to assess the child’s well-being. Here are some suggestions on how to address tough questions.

When can I go home?
Assure the child that the adults are working to make that decision and the child does not have to be responsible. Young children often believe their actions control adults and thereby need to be reassured on this point.

Think about the connection issues that home represents and ask the child questions about those connections on visits, such as: Who would you like to see? Who do you miss? Can you draw me a picture of your house? What makes it a safe, fun, or happy place? What would make where you live right now feel more like a home to you?

Avoid giving the child a long description about the legal timelines or failing to answer the child because you cannot provide a specific date. By exploring the child’s view of home, time, and what the child wants, it is likely the worker can answer those questions and meet the child’s need to maintain connections while in care.

I don’t want to be adopted
Youth often feel that agreeing to adoption is being disloyal to their parents, or they are afraid to admit they want to be adopted for fear of being rejected. Ask questions such as: Can you describe an ideal family that would support you having contact with everyone you love? What does “being adopted” mean to you? Is there anything you are afraid will happen if you are adopted?

For additional resources and other ideas on how to talk to teens about families and permanency, visit: http://www.rglewis.com/families for teens key questions sept03.htm

What grade are you in? What is your favorite subject?
School age children think adults are kind of silly for asking these same questions over and over. It can also seem disrespectful to the child that you did not take the time to read or remember facts about the child. If the case is new to you, be sure to learn the basic information about the child before the contact. To learn about how the child is doing at school you may want to ask: What would be the best/worst thing that could happen at your school? On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the best day ever at school and 1 is the worst, what number describes the type of day you had? Why was it number X? What could happen that would make it one number better?

If I am really good, can I go home?
This may be the child’s way of bargaining, a stage of grief and loss. Children often have perceptions
that what they did caused them to be placed in foster care. A worker may be tempted to answer, “What you do does not make a difference as to when you go home.”

Instead, use this as an opportunity to talk about the child’s perceptions of foster care, whether the child feels responsible for what occurred, or if the child needs help handling grief and loss. If you go home what would that be like? What would be the best thing? What might not be so good? It sounds like you are really missing your home. Tell me what you miss the most? What would you do on your first day back at home? What would you do differently when you are back at your home that would make things better? What would your parent do?

Assessing nonverbal children can be even more difficult. The National Rsource Center for Permanency and Family Connections suggests questions for the caseworker to use with the foster parents or relative caregivers. These include:

  • What is it like for you to care for this child?
  • What has been the effect on your family of having this child placed here?
  • What did you expect it to be like?
  • Describe who this child is.
  • What about the child is easiest and most pleasurable?
  • How has the child changed since coming to live here?
  • How has the child adjusted to this placement?

These suggestions and many more for how to ask children, youth, and caregivers questions based on the developmental age of the child can be found at: http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/socwork/nrcfcpp/downloads/visitingModule3.pdf

Suggestions on How to Conduct an Interview
  • The worker should observe interactions between the foster parent and child (for children/youth of all ages). Ask the child and caregiver for some time to just observe rather than using the entire time for a formal interview.
  • Workers should conduct some of their visit with the child out of sight and sound distance of others. This will allow for the child to share more openly.
  • Visits should be conducted by a consistent worker, preferably the worker responsible for case planning and case decisions, to encourage the child to know and trust the worker.
  • Workers will be more effective if they understand children’s developmental ages; how children handle grief, loss, and separation; the special needs of abused and neglected children (such as parentified children); and the child’s sense of time. To achieve the outcomes of safety, permanency, and well-being, we must develop a relationship with the child, which requires time and the skill to engage the child in a conversation at his or her developmental level. As one state manager said, the goal is that there be NO “drive by visits.” It is not enough to meet the quantity measurement of one contact a month – it is critical to have quality interactions with the child.

Source: Wentz, 2008

Other Resources
Following are other resources for how to have quality contacts with children:

References for this and other articles in this issue