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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 24, No. 2
May 2019

Assessment and Engagement: Insights from a Parent
An Interview with Teka Dempson

Often in child welfare, we talk about the importance of engagement with families. In this article, we want to share a family's perspective on engagement, and how it can assist us in assessing safety and risk. We are grateful to have the perspective of Teka Dempson, a member of the NC Child Welfare Family Advisory Council.

Teka, thank you so much for talking with us today. What is engagement, from your perspective?
Engagement is building a relationship with the family. It starts with the social worker being sincere, honest, and authentic.

Why is engagement so important?
Child welfare is a hard place to be in as a family, especially since the agency is so deficit-based. Everyone still thinks child welfare is going to take your child, and it's not about reunification. Families feel hopeless and it is hard to share our truth with you.

However, once a relationship is built, it opens the door to honest conversations about the concerns at hand. But families have to trust you first. They have to know you're going to partner with them throughout this challenging process and not fight against them.

Once families trust you, they begin opening up and sharing the realities of their lives. Then, you can have candid conversations about safety and risk. Because of your relationship, families can hear you and are more invested in the process. They will trust you enough to try some of the suggestions on the plan, such as therapy or a parenting group. And, they will be more honest about barriers that keep them from meeting the goals on the plan.

What does engagement look like, from your perspective?
Take your time. Have a conversation with us without being rushed. Families know you have too many cases, but this is the case that is important to the family. Be attentive. Show families, with your eye contact and body language, that you really want to hear what they have to say. Focus on us and not the boxes on your forms.

Have hard conversations with families. Let them know if there is a possibility the child may be removed, won't be returning home, or if parents' rights may be terminated. Be honest if you don't know what will happen with the case or what the judge may say in court. What families need to know--whether they want to hear it or not--is the truth. Be transparent about your concerns and what families need to do to reunite with their children. Let them know when they aren't meeting the criteria. Families respect your honesty.

Prepare families for court by walking through what the process will look like. Share whether they can bring natural supports with them to hearings.

Be careful about language. Families are offended when referred to as "manipulative" or "non-compliant."

Answer the telephone or call back in a day or two. This is huge. Eighty-five percent of the families I know say their social worker doesn't call them back. If you can't call, text us!

Don't overpromise or give false hope. Tell us what your agency can or can't do for us. When you say you will do something, honor your word.

What are some mistakes social workers make when trying to engage a family?
They aren't coming across authentic. Their language and tone of voice comes across as having a superior attitude. We feel belittled and humiliated.

They aren't flexible with their schedule. Families understand you have children of your own, but saying you can't ever meet after 4 p.m. makes us feel not valued.

How can engagement help social workers assess and plan around risk and safety?
When the relationship is there, families are more likely to be honest about whatever incident caused DSS to be in their lives. They are more likely to accept responsibility. If the relationship isn't there, families will share just enough to get by.

Some families aren't aware that things are a safety issue, due to their family's culture. Until they are knowledgeable about safety factors, they may not know to do things differently. Their mother and grandmother may have done the same things, and no one had concerns about it, so this is their norm. If you ask parents to do something very different from their family culture, think about how the new actions can be seen with some family members. What impact will this have on relationships within the family? How will mom explain this to her aunt, who criticizes everything she does? When families are invested in the process, these are the conversations they will have with you.

When case planning, encourage the family to ask you: how do I keep you out of my life? This is an opportunity for you to be honest about agency and court expectations.

Teka, are there any final words you'd like to share?
Families aren't looking to be 100% right. We just want to feel respected, valued, and that we matter. We don't want to feel like a number in a system. All of us don't need fixing--we aren't broken. Everyone makes mistakes, and we may just need a little tweaking in our life.

National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health
Established 30 years ago, NFFCMH was the first national, family-run organization advocating for the needs of children with behavioral, emotional, or mental health needs and their families. A valuable source of information on the family perspective, NFFCMH offers a wealth of resources for families.