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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 18, No. 3
June 2013

Working with Families Who Are "Stuck"

Child welfare work is tough. Because the safety, permanence, and well-being of children are at stake, there can be a great deal of pressure to act decisively and get results quickly. At the same time, most families we work with face complex challenges that defy simple solutions.

For proof that child welfare work is hard, consider the phenomenon of families who get "stuck." Typically, the situation looks like this: (1) a case decision has been reached, requiring involuntary services for the family; (2) the family and DSS have developed a case plan; and (3) there is a distinct lack of progress on the issues that caused the family to become involved with DSS in the first place.

In other words, there is a plan, but it is not being implemented. Time is passing, but things aren't getting better. The day when DSS is out of the family's life seems to be getting no closer.

In this situation, family members are often resentful, defiant, passive aggressive, and/or defensive toward the agency. They know things are not working. They anticipate criticism and may feel despair. For their part, child welfare workers may feel disappointed, frustrated, and pessimistic about the family's future.

Suggestions for Getting Unstuck
Here are some suggestions, drawn from Turnell and Edwards (1999) and other sources, for working with families who are stuck.

1. Withhold judgment. The idea that "judgments can wait" is one of North Carolina's family-centered principles of partnership. It is also a great challenge. When you feel you have done all you can on behalf of a family, it can be extremely frustrating if it appears the family is not holding up their end of the "bargain." However, don't give in to the natural impulse to assign blame. Restrain your expectations. Keep an open mind regarding the family's motives. There are many reasons why a family might not work towards the stated case goals. Until a family can share with you their true fears and motivations, progress is unlikely. If you avoid appearing critical, you may increase the likelihood that a family will open up to you and real progress can take place.

2. Look for positive intent. Families often do what they do (and don't do) in order to meet some need they have. Find this positive intent and then help the family use it to get things moving in the right direction.

3. Focus carefully on details. This will help ensure you do not overlook subtle changes or signs of progress. It may also help you identify new things to try. A family may have some small detail they are willing to work on that seems relatively unimportant to you--but it may be crucial to building rapport and increasing their motivation for bigger changes.

4. Consult your supervisor and/or peers. As soon as you notice yourself feeling frustrated, disappointed, or pessimistic about working with a family, talk to your supervisor and other social workers in your agency. Timely consultation and hearing varied perspectives can help generate ideas for achieving progress and renew your enthusiasm and sense of possibilities.

5. Be clear on the fundamentals. Review the situation. Are you clear about the purpose of your involvement with the family? Do you have clear and reasonable criteria for case closure? Sometimes a case appears "stuck" because, although the family may have continuing needs, safety and CPS issues have been addressed. When this happens, the case should be closed because the issues that remain are better left to community resources.

6. Own your part in things. When a family seems resistant, they are in part resisting or reacting to your relationship with them. Acknowledge to the family that your partnership has gotten stuck and ask how to get it back on track. If your agency has been wrong or missed something, admit it. If what the agency is doing clearly isn't helping the family, let them know that you know. Sometimes an admission of this kind can change the power differential with the family just enough to spark or rebuild cooperation.

7. Hold a family-led review of the situation. When the family is stuck, we need to find what will work for them. The best way to do that is to ask them. This can be done in a discussion with the family and the caseworker, or in a Child and Family Team meeting (CFT).

8. Do something different. When a family gets stuck, it is a cue that we need to change strategies (Miller & Rollnick, 1991). Don't try to solve problems with solutions that aren't working. If what you are doing (e.g., current case plan) doesn't work, don't do it again. Do something different. Ask the family their ideas again about what they want to change and how they think you can help. Once you know what works, do more of it (deShazer & Berg, 1995).

Reprinted from NC's MRS newsletter v. 4, n. 2 (NCDSS, 2008b).

References for this and other articles in this issue