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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 19, No. 1
December 2013

To Strengthen CPS Assessments, Enhance Engagement

When we think about skill in assessments, many of us think first about technical elements such as familiarity with instruments/tools, protocols, policy, and documentation.

These all matter. But if you really want to strengthen your assessments, boosting your ability to engage families may be the best place to start.

Engagement occurs when families are positively involved in the helping process (Yatchmenoff, 2001). According to Cunningham and colleagues (2009), engagement has three dimensions:

  • Client attitudes (e.g., motivation to change, expectations about what will be achieved by participating in services, etc.)
  • The relationship between the social worker and the client (e.g., rapport, trust, comfort, liking, credibility), and
  • Client behaviors (collaboration, cooperation, agreement, effort on the part of the client).

In the past, there was a tendency in child protective services work to see engagement as a one-time event--as a bridge that took us to a place where we could get the information we needed to accurately assess a family.

The evidence now shows that en-gagement is a complex and long-term part of the change process, not a one-time event (Kemp, Marcenko, Hoagwood, & Vesneski 2009).

Engagement is not a bridge. It's the foundation of good assessments and of all effective child welfare practice.

Barriers to Engagement

Many factors can hamper family engagement, including:

  • Families' prior experiences with DSS
  • Parents' fear, shame, and stigma
  • Families' struggles with domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, and poverty
  • Worker bias/making judgments prematurely
  • Lack of time
  • The adversarial nature of child welfare involvement
  • Poor fit between services offered and families' urgent needs
  • Cultural barriers
    (Sources cited in Marcenko, et al., 2010)

Rather than labeling families as "resistant," we must to try to understand the true cause of the breakdown in engagement and partner with families to overcome barriers.

Tips for Deepening Engagement
The following suggestions may help you engage families, even those who seem most resistant.

Make sure initial contacts are timely, responsive, and structured. Your relationship with the family is at the heart of your assessment and everything that follows. Invest the time needed to build rapport 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.

Focus on conveying, acknowledging, validating, and responding to parents' feelings and needs. The way we interact, how and what questions we ask, tone of voice, and demeanor will all convey your intention to build a supportive relationship (Turney, 2012).

There's also evidence social workers who use structured interview techniques (such as motivational interviewing) are more effective than those who employ a more open conversational style (Forester et al., 2012). For more on motivational interviewing, take the Division-sponsored course described in the box below, or visit

Provide practical help. Many parents involved with child welfare feel their most pressing needs for help aren't adequately addressed (sources cited in Marcenko et al., 2010). When this happens, clients' motivation to participate in services decreases (Kirsh & Tate, 2006). Conversely, prompt responses to practical needs have been shown to build trust and increase engagement with workers and other services (Kemp et al., 2009).

Listen empathically. Most of us have been trained in active listening. Though this can be a useful tool, there are limits to what it can accomplish. For example, we have all had experiences when someone appeared to be listening, but we didn't feel heard. This occurs because active listening has some pitfalls. These include:

  • Selective listening. We hear only part of what someone is saying because we are focused on what we expect to hear.
  • Pretending. Although we act as if we're listening, we're not because we are busy, distracted, or focused on completing a task.
  • Focusing on content. We're listening only to what is being said, not how the person is saying it.

Empathic listening is a better tool for engagement. When you use this approach you listen respectfully, with an open mind, and withhold judgment. As a result, families feel heard and understood, defensiveness becomes unnecessary, and solutions can be sought (BIABH, 2002).

Look for and recognize family strengths. Point out positives to the family when you learn about them. Use strengths-based language in your documentation.

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.

Communicate clearly. The more families know what is expected, the more able they are to engage in the process. Take time to make sure families understand information. Avoid acronyms and terms unfamiliar to families. "Informed parents who are educated about what they can expect as child welfare clients and about their own and others' roles and responsibilities are more likely to become and stay involved in services" (McKay & Bannon, 2004).

Pay attention to the words you use. Present information in as non-threatening a way as possible. Practice using non-adversarial, non-authoritarian 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."

Give empowering choices. Studies tell us that when clients feel they have been given a say and presented with options, they respond favorably (Turnell & Edwards, 1999).That's why the US Children's Bureau (USDHHS, 2010) encourages us to use shared decision-making and participatory planning in our work with families. These techniques result "in mutually agreed upon goals and plans reflecting both the caseworker's professional training and the family's knowledge of their own situation."

Provide families with constructive alternatives. If alcohol is contributing to risk, it's 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).

Exercise your authority only when necessary. Invoking your authority is easier and requires less skill than being family-centered. What's more, parent perception of worker power is a critical factor that can enhance or inhibit engagement. One study found that when parents perceived workers as "having power over them" (as opposed to having "power with them") they were less likely to engage in the work (Dumbrill, 2006).

Avoid, to the extent possible, actions that minimize or undermine parents' power. Instead, look for chances to put the family in a position of authority--for example, by asking for permission, when appropriate.

Explicitly seek assistance from families in completing your assessment. Make it clear that you rely on them to help you understand the family and to complete your responsibilities (Action for Child Protection, 2006).

Actively explore parent perceptions of power and demonstrate ways the parent has power in the process. People are more disclosing, open, and cooperative if they don't feel threatened and judged.

Think collaboration, not compliance. When we focus on compliance with items in family service agreements or court orders, we are asking families to meet minimal requirements. Ensuring compliance is part of the child welfare agency's mandate, so it must receive some attention.

However, engagement is more likely to be successful when we set the stage for collaboration, which occurs when a client participates in all levels of treatment planning. Promote collaboration by encouraging clients to contribute to and alter plans and to see themselves as partners in the process (Littell & Tajima, 2000). Child and family team meetings are a great way to inspire collaboration and other dimensions of successful family engagement.

Don't forget agency factors. These have a big influence on the quality and success of our efforts to engage families. True family-centered organizations create climates, offer resources (e.g., training and coaching), and use policies and structures that allow workers to take the time they need to engage families in a family-centered way.

Agencies that want to strengthen engagement may wish to explore the promising foster parent and peer mentoring models described by Marcenko and colleagues (2010):

If individuals and agencies make engaging with families a priority, we'll strengthen CPS assessments and all areas of child welfare practice.

Family Engagement Learning Resources

National Resources
Family Engagement: A Web-Based Practice Toolkit. This in-depth guide to family engagement is offered by the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections.

Family Engagement. Bulletin for professionals offered through the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Family Engagement in Child Welfare Video Series. Offers insight into the key elements needed to make peer-to-peer family engagement programs successful.

Training in NC
CPS Assessments. Required for those new to family and investigative assessments.

Motivating Substance Abusing Families to Change. Teaches effective ways to motivate families.

Coaching Children's Caregivers through Challenging Moments. Teaches coaching and engagement skills, with a focus on improving parents' behavior management skills.

Connecting with Families: Family Support in Practice. Teaches tools and strategies for providing customer-centered services motivating families to make changes in their lives.

Engaging the Non-Resident Father. Helps supervisors build skills needed to support their staff in actively engaging non-resident fathers.

To learn more about these and other courses, or to register, go to


References for this and other articles in this issue