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2010 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 15, No. 3
June 2010

Engaging Workers and Families
Supervisors and Child and Family Teams

Child and family team meetings (CFTs) are a central strategy in North Carolina’s child welfare system. Child welfare professionals participating in CFTs need to be able to represent the agency with confidence, prepare families for meetings, and help the family engage and build its natural support network. It can be a challenging job.

It’s also an important one: as the plans and recommendations produced by these meetings become more accepted by courts and other key partners, they can have a big impact on what ultimately happens to children and their families.

With so much at stake, supervisors have a clear interest in ensuring that CFTs are done well. Here are some tips, based on interviews with experienced supervisors and CFT experts, that supervisors can use to ensure CFTs are as successful as possible. In all of this, the supervisor’s presence at the CFT meeting itself is an important factor.

Advantages of Having Supervisors Present at CFTs

Benefits for Families. When workers must present unpopular information in the meeting, families may need reassurance that what they are hearing from a worker is the reality. Having the supervisor on hand to confirm a worker’s assertions depersonalizes the situation for the family. They are more likely to see that things are the way they are because of law and agency policy, rather than the whim of the worker.

A supervisor’s presence can also convey to families the agency’s commitment to the team process.

Benefits for Workers. Staff of all experience levels benefit when supervisors attend CFTs. New workers can find the supervisory presence reassuring as they gain experience in representing the agency and explaining its policies and mandates within the team setting.

For all staff, supervisor participation in meetings can lead to better alignment in decisions. As one supervisor puts it, “When I’m not there, I don’t always like the outcome. It is not fair to my worker to question the way things went in the meeting after the fact. Supervisors can really throw a wrench in the process if the worker comes out and says ‘we decided x’ and after the fact, I say that he should have done ‘y’ instead.”

Having the supervisor in the room to maintain the agency’s position can reinforce a worker’s efforts. Workers may feel most supported at times when the agency has to hold to a tough stance.

Benefits for Supervisors. Supervisors gain a firsthand perspective of case progress and what workers are experiencing in their daily work, enabling them to offer the kinds of tangible support likely to make a difference for individual workers and the agency as a whole.

Also, by taking time to help a worker prepare for a CFT meeting and listen to concerns, a supervisor extends critical support that may in the long run help to alleviate burnout and increase staff morale and retention.

Before
Set the tone in your agency. Use supervisory and staff meetings to emphasize how useful CFTs can be for engaging families, demonstrating the agency’s desire to respectfully partner with them, and for ensuring safety and other positive outcomes for children.

Contribute to the prep work. Successful CFTs require adequate preparation. Without taking over the process, supervisors must ensure that the worker and all parties understand the specific purpose of the meeting at hand and the principles that should guide all CFTs. You can find these principles in Chapter VII of North Carolina’s child welfare manual: http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/manuals/dss/csm-55/man/.

Support your staff. Prior to the meeting, spend time one-on-one with the worker to discuss how to prepare family members for the meeting. Identify ways to overcome blockages, such as the family’s inability or unwillingness to invite supporters to the meeting. Ask exploratory questions such as, “What are ways you might work with the family to brainstorm people to come to the meeting?” Be consistent in emphasizing this as an important part of practice with families. Later on, follow up by asking, “Did those questions I suggested work with the family?”

Be clear about your role. If a supervisor and worker are aligned in their understanding of their roles prior to a meeting, they stand a greater chance of having a solid partnership during the meeting. This partnership will communicate to others around the table that the worker is the person to go to with questions.

If you can’t attend . . . As explained below, it can be extremely beneficial to everyone involved when supervisors attend CFTs. However, if you will not be attending a CFT, be sure the worker knows how to get in touch with you or another supervisor, and that they are confident they will be supported and backed up during the meeting, should they need it.

CFT Prep Tip: Identifying “Hot Buttons”

Prior to a CFT, supervisors should help their workers identify what their “hot button” issues might be—for example, the worker may really recoil at the presence of family violence. If these issues are present in this family (e.g., abusive dad, alcoholic parent, etc.), how will the worker leave this issue at the door during the meeting?

It’s not easy for supervisors to do this. It’s not easy for the worker. We all have hot button issues. But it helps no one if our reactions cloud our judgment.

At the Meeting
Being part of a CFT meeting helps supervisors see firsthand the reality of the risk, family dynamics, and other aspects of a case. It can also help supervisors identify ways to develop, support, and retain their staff. Because most supervisors don’t have time to shadow staff in the field, CFTs can be an opportunity to get insight into their level of practice—where a staff member is strong and where they need coaching and training.

CFTs also provide an opportunity for the supervisor to model good practice for the worker. By demonstrating a family-centered approach and good communication skills, a supervisor enhances staff learning.

Here are some things supervisors attending CFTs can do to ensure meetings are productive:

Reassure families, if necessary. Even when communication has been good prior to the meeting, many families find CFTs intimidating. If they are on the same page regarding their roles in the meeting, workers and supervisors can find the right way to provide support and information to families and other team members. If necessary, reassure the family that, like the other professionals present, you are here to help them to resolve their situation successfully.

Stick to your role. When there has been good preparation, after the initial introduction, supervisors will need to say little aside from making a clear statement of the agency’s position at the end or at key points—for example, to say, “If things don’t go well, X will happen.” If appropriate, talk in terms of timeframes, actions, and consequences. It’s often better for statements of the “bottom line” to come from supervisors—they have the authority, so it helps to convey the seriousness of the situation.

Use your power carefully. Supervisors must use their authority and power carefully during CFTs. If they don’t, things can go awry. As one worker shared, “I’ve been part of meetings where the supervisor unintentionally undermined the worker’s power in the eyes of the family.”

This can hurt more than the worker’s relationship with the family. As one supervisor explained, “I’ve been in meetings where I overpowered the worker because she wasn’t doing what she was supposed to. Bad outcome—the family starts calling me! Supervisors, be very aware of your role in the meeting.”

After
Debrief. When supervisors sit in on a CFT, they should take time soon afterwards to ask the staff member working with the family:

  • How did that feel?
  • What went well?
  • Is there anything you would do differently?
  • What about your role?
  • What about mine?

Encourage learning by asking these kinds of questions and helping workers see the importance of taking time for reflection.

Be positive. During the conversation, reinforce good practice by discussing the strengths you saw the worker demonstrate. Give your supervisee a boost!

Be constructive. Talk about specific ways to enhance family engagement with the worker, if you observed this as a need. Create opportunities for skill development in areas such as modifying tone of voice or body language to open up communication with families.

Spread the word! Take time to celebrate CFT successes, sharing what went well with the rest of the team or the agency. Doing so creates a positive climate and can spark change you want to see in people’s practice with families.

Special thanks to the following for their contributions to this article: Jenny King, Holly McNeill, Billy Poindexter, and Katie Turk.

Making CFTs Work for Workers
To make CFTs work for families, supervisors must also make them work for workers. For example, can workers work after hours? Support flex time so there’s a balance between taking care of families we work with and taking care of the families we live with. Advocate for changes in your agency to make high quality CFTs possible.