20, No. 2
How to Be Family-Centered While Responding to "Tough" Cases
Cooperation, which increases the chances that the issues that brought the family to the agency's attention will be resolved successfully, is possible even when coercion is required (Turnell & Edwards, 1999). The following family-centered suggestions may help you inspire family cooperation, even when assessing reports of child sexual abuse or other forms of maltreatment.
Take time to engage families. Your relationship with the family is at the heart of your investigation and everything that follows. Invest the time needed to build a rapport with the family and you will probably obtain more and better information, and you and others from your agency will have a solid foundation for working with the family. Here your ability to listen empathically is key--when you listen respectfully, with an open mind, and withholding judgment, families feel heard and understood, defensiveness becomes unnecessary, and solutions can be sought (BIABH, 2002). Underlying principles: Everyone needs to be heard and Everyone desires respect.
Look for family strengths. Point out positives to the family when you learn about them. Use strengths-based language in your documentation. Underlying principle: Everyone has strengths.
Help families with transitions. Be clear, informative, and supportive as you explain things to the family, and whenever it is time to move to the next step in the process. Underlying principle: Families are our partners.
Give families empowering choices. Research tells us that when clients feel they have been given a say and presented with options, they respond favorably (Turnell & Edwards, 1999). Underlying principle: Partners share power.
Pay attention to the words you use. Present information in as non-threatening a way as possible. Practice using nonadversarial, nonauthoritarian language before you interact with families. For example, you may wish to come up with alternatives to phrases such as, "I'm not at liberty to say." Underlying principle: Judgments can wait.
Provide families with constructive alternatives. If alcohol is contributing to a safety risk, it is not enough to tell a parent to stop drinking. "Change and safety in child protection is about the presence of something new, not just the absence of risk" (Turnell & Edwards, 1999). Underlying principle: Families are our partners.
Exercise your authority only when necessary. Invoking your authority is easier and requires less skill than being family-centered. Avoid, to the extent possible, actions that minimize/undermine parents' power. Instead, look for opportunities to put the family in a position of authority--for example, by asking for permission, when appropriate. People are more disclosing, open, and cooperative if they don't feel threatened and judged. Underlying principles: Families are our partners, and Partners share power.