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2003 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 9, No. 1
October 2003

Family-Centered Supervision in Child Welfare

Child welfare supervisors regularly receive the message that if they are doing their jobs correctly, they are doing them in a family-centered way. But how can supervisors tell if they are family-centered? If they find they’re not as family-centered as they might be, what can they do about it?

Conventional Supervision
First of all, it is important to recognize that in our culture the standard approach to supervision is not family-centered. In the conventional model, a supervisor is a person with superior knowledge and skills who oversees the work of other, lesser-skilled individuals. Responsible for the volume and quality of production, this person must be ready to spot and prevent errors. If a mistake happens, he or she must fix the problem and control the damage. Evaluation and development of employees are top-down: it is the supervisor’s job to identify an employee’s deficiencies, to develop a plan of action for addressing those deficiencies, and to ensure the employee carries out this plan effectively. Until recently, this problem-oriented, hierarchical notion of what a supervisor should be has been the dominant paradigm in many of our businesses and social institutions, including child welfare agencies.

Another Perspective
Enter family-centered practice. The notion of family-centered practice was developed by people who were concerned by what was happening to families and children involved with our child welfare system. These critics, who were part of the family support movement, looked with alarm at the growing number of children in foster care, the fact that some children spent years without a permanent home, and other questionable system outcomes. In their analysis the system was failing because it incorrectly assumed that:

(1) families were the problem and

(2) professionals were the only ones who could keep children safe.

To these reformers it was obvious that the best way to protect children was to strengthen and support their families and communities. They argued that to reform itself the system needed to do a better job respecting families, supporting them, and building on their strengths. It needed to become more family-centered.

Social workers and academics then developed family-centered principles and began teaching them to supervisors and social workers. For example, Berg and Kelly, in their influential book, Building Solutions in Child Protective Services (2000), presented 11 principles as the foundation for the family-centered approach. In North Carolina, these family-centered beliefs are expressed in six principles of partnership intended to guide and inspire workers’ interactions with family members: (1) everyone desires respect, (2) everyone needs to be heard, (3) everyone has strengths, (4) judgments can wait, (5) partners share power, and (6) partnership is a process.

Proponents of this approach also developed strategies that fit with the family-centered perspective. These include Brief Solution-Focused Therapy (Berg, 1994), which employs strengths-based techniques such as the miracle question and the exception finding question, and Family Group Conferencing, a strategy for including the family in case planning that is linked to positive child and family outcomes (Pennell, 1999). Family-centered practice in child welfare today combines strong foundation values with specialized knowledge and skills to enable practitioners to join with families, identify their strengths and needs, and work with them to enhance the family’s resources and connection to the community.

The federal government has endorsed family-centered practice by making it a focus in its comprehensive review of our country’s child welfare system (the Child and Family Services Review), and by establishing a “National Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice and Permanency Planning” (see In North Carolina enhancing family-centered practice is a primary goal of the Multiple Response System (MRS), our state’s approach to reform child welfare services.

As this approach matures and spreads, it is becoming increasingly clear that the conventional model of supervision is at odds with family-centered child welfare practice. Simply put, the habit of focusing on workers’ deficits—on what they don’t know and can’t do—does not teach them to identify and develop strengths in families. If we want social workers to possess certain characteristics and skills, supervisors need to model these characteristics and demonstrate these skills in their interactions with workers.

Family-Centered Supervision in Action
Applying the family-centered approach to child welfare supervision does not change the basic facts of the job. Supervisors are still bound by legal and policy mandates. They are still responsible for ensuring the safety, permanence, and well-being of children. They must still play the role of coach and mentor, evaluator and advocate, trainer and manager. What’s different about family-centered supervisors is the way they go about these tasks:

Leader. Family-centered supervisors focus on families and seek to find realistic solutions that result in good outcomes. They emphasize the importance of partnering with families and affirm progress and successes. They embrace family-centered principles and strategies and articulate to others how applying them benefits everyone.

Model. Family-centered supervisors possess and demonstrate the specialized knowledge and skills practitioners need to engage families, assess their strengths and needs, and include them (through the use of child and family team meetings) in the planning process. Supervisors with poor engagement, assessment, and case planning skills cannot promote family-centered practice in the workers they supervise (Safekeeping, 2003).

Communicator. Because listening is the key to effective communication, family-centered supervisors spend a great deal of time listening to others. Even when workers or others have input about items that cannot be changed (due to laws, standards, and policies), supervisors acknowledge that input and seek solutions whenever possible. They communicate their priorities and expectations clearly and respectfully.

Advisor. Family-centered supervisors continuously seek opportunities to explain, demonstrate, and support workers as they develop new skills. They encourage workers to attend training. They also urge workers to apply what they learn in training to their work with families.

Teacher, Coach, and Mentor. Supervisors guide workers on cases, encouraging them to look to each family’s experience as a source of knowledge. Regular, scheduled case consultation is used to enhance worker skills. They also look for peer learning opportunities.

Collaborator. Interaction is team-focused and collaborative, providing opportunities for workers to take lead roles in peer learning, to develop unique expertise, and to become “model” practitioners.

Evaluator. Evaluation is ongoing, constant, and mutual. The supervisor is a discoverer of individual competencies and strengths in workers. The worker and supervisor jointly plan how to build worker strengths.

Learner. Family-centered supervisors make time to attend training to keep up with best practices and ensure they have the skills and knowledge to successfully mentor staff. They are open to learning from families, other professionals, and the people they supervise.

Differences between family-centered supervision and the conventional approach are contrasted in the figure, "Moving to Family-Centered Supervisory Practices."

Does It Work?
Family-centered supervision as it is described above may sound good, but does it lead to better outcomes for families and children? Unfortunately, there have been no studies specifically about the relationship between family-centered supervision and family outcomes.

However, previous research about supervisors and managers suggests that family-centered supervisors will be highly effective. For example, Likert (1967) found that “supervisors with the best records of performance focus their primary attention on the human aspects of their subordinates’ problems and on endeavoring to build effective work groups with high performance goals.” Likert also found that high-producing supervisors make objectives clear and give their employees freedom to do the job (Morton & Salus, 1994).

How Do You Measure Up?
How can a supervisor tell if he or she lives up to the ideal of family-centered supervision? One way is to follow your gut—consult resources about family-centered supervision and see if the practice tips they describe fit your way of doing things.

Another way is to ask the people who work for you. Refer your supervisees to the link "Tool for Assessing Your Supervisor/Work Group Leader" in the table of contents of the online version of this issue of Practice Notes. This link will take them to a survey instrument they can use to evaluate the extent to which you listen to and include them, empower them, and encourage them to use their own strengths to develop themselves as social workers.

Living out family-centered principles in your role as supervisor will not necessarily come easy. Like partnership with families, it can be a slow process, but one that ultimately benefits everyone.

References for this and other articles in this issue