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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 22, No. 1
December 2016

Engagement: An Indispensible Skill in Child Welfare
A Conversation with Dan Comer

Being able to engage families is an indispensable skill in our work. For insight into how to cultivate this core skill we spoke with Dan Comer. A child welfare veteran of more than 30 years, Dan sees engagement as the key to keeping children safe and achieving positive outcomes for families.

What is engagement?
Engagement can mean different things to different people, but you know it when it's happening. It means you are really with somebody--you've got their attention. There is a conversation happening: they are sharing their take on things and then you are collaborating on a solution to that situation.

Why is engagement so important?
Because it's the first step in the path toward reaching the outcomes we want for children and families. Without engagement you tend to just spin your wheels and not get anywhere. You don't get the information you need to assess if a child and family is safe. If people come into a conversation being resistant, and you are not able to overcome that resistance, you can't get an accurate picture of what is going on in the family.

Is there a secret to engagement?
If there is, the secret is in the way you approach families and how you see them. It is really related to how you put the Principles of Partnership into practice (see box below). The way you use those principles is going to be different with each family. This means you need to be flexible, and be willing to go in whatever direction you need to go with that family at that particular time.

The Principles of Partnership

The NC Department of Health and Human Services, in collaboration with its partners, protects the health and safety of all North Carolinians and provides essential human services. The Division of Social Services works to accomplish this mission by applying these family-centered principles of partnership:

  • Everyone desires respect
  • Everyone needs to be heard
  • Everyone has strengths
  • Judgments can wait
  • Partners share power
  • Partnership is a process

Source: NC DSS, 2016; AFI, 2003

Why is engagement so hard?
In child welfare we are starting in somewhat of a "hole," because of the nature of our work. We have to be able to come back from the fact that right off the bat families feel judged, evaluated, and forced into this partnership. So we have to work hard to get out of that hole and get to square one with families.

We do this by being transparent, being a real person and sharing a bit of yourself. We do it by going slow and fighting the urge to "get to the next thing." We've got to take the time to ask more question and be ready to hear the full answers.

What advice do you have for working with hard-to-engage families?
Families who are hard to engage have often been in the system before and dealt with many workers in the past.

To engage them, start by being different than what they are expecting. That gets their attention and demonstrates that this encounter may be different than ones in the past.

This can mean asking different questions, being more yourself, being more respectful, or any other way you can show the family you are different from what they are expecting.

I knew a CPS worker who made it his practice on his first visit not to bring anything with him--no notebooks, no briefcase, no official documents. That is definitely not what families expect. What this does is show the family that I am here to listen to you and I don't want anything between us.

That's a pretty dramatic example of what I mean by being different than what they expect. If you can achieve this, you can change the entire nature of the relationship from the very first meeting.

Can you share an engagement success story?
There was a CPS worker I met who told me a great story that really captures what I mean when I talk about engagement. She had worked with a mother as a CPS worker and had to do a removal of her two children. That mother worked with in-home services and was eventually reunified with her kids.

Several years later this worker was now working in in-home services and was assigned to this same mother after a new CPS referral had occurred. She was nervous to work with the family, knowing she had removed the kids in the past. But when she arrived at the home the mom opened the door and said, "Oh my God, I am so glad to see you! I am so glad it is you!"

What that says to me is that worker had done what she needed to do to keep the kids safe in the past, but had done it in such a respectful way that the mother felt she could trust this woman any time in the future.

This just reinforces to me that engagement is always possible, even in the most difficult circumstances.

Dan Comer is part of the Coaching and Curriculum Development team at the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect.

References for this and other articles in this issue

Training on Engagement: NC Resources

Want to sharpen your family engagement skills? Consider taking--or re-taking as a refresher--one or more of the following NC DSS-sponsored courses, all of which touch on family engagement:

  • Building Cultural Safety
  • Coaching Children's Caregivers through Challenging Moments
  • CPS Assessments in Child Welfare Services
  • CPS In-Home Child Welfare Services
  • Domestic Violence Policy and Best Practices in Child Welfare
  • Engaging the Non-Resident Father for Child Welfare Staff
  • Introduction to Child and Family Teams
  • Introduction to Supervision for Child Welfare Services
  • Investigative Assessments in Child Welfare Services
  • Keeping It Real: Child and Family Teams with Youth in Transition
  • Motivating Substance Abusing Families to Change
  • Navigating CFTs: The Role of the Facilitator
  • Step by Step: An Introduction to CFTs
  • The 3rd Dimension of Supervision: The Role of Supervisors in CFTs
  • Understanding and Intervening in Child Neglect

North Carolina child welfare professionals employed with county child welfare agencies who want to learn more about or register for any of these courses should go to


Podcast: Engaging Youth in Foster Care

As youth in care begin to develop their own sense of self and independence, caseworkers may find it hard engaging them in their case plans or helping them realize the impact their decisions may have on their long-term future.

This podcast (runtime: 27:53) gives caseworkers the perspective of a former youth in foster care and provides:

  • Insight and tips on using Facebook to learn more about youth in care
  • Information about the knowledge gaps youth may have about transitioning to adulthood
  • Ways to help youth recognize the supportive adults in their lives and develop trusting relationships

Featuring: Sixto Cancel, a former youth in foster care, current consultant for the Child Welfare Capacity Building Center for States, and CEO of Think of Us.

Available at