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Working with children in care

Engaging with children

To work as a practitioner with children in care, you must have strong engagement skills with children to help identify, understand and respond to the child's safety, belonging and wellbeing needs.

Having enduring relationships with safe and supportive adults is vital in the development and wellbeing of all children. As a practitioner working with children in care, you are a key adult in that child’s life. There are 6 key elements that need to be considered when working with children in care:

  1. Building rapport

    Building rapport with children and young people is affected by a range of factors, including:
    • chronological age
    • developmental age
    • cultural factors
    • disability
    • the child's perception of the purpose of the communication
    • the child’s current situation—hunger, frustration, tiredness, recent trauma and separation
    • the child's familiarity with the location/venue
    • your communication strategies
    • your relationship with the child
    • the physical environment
  2. Developing trust

    When building rapport with a child, it is important to show them that you can be trusted. For children, trust is about being consistent and not just saying the right thing but also demonstrating that you can do the right thing. If you tell a child that you will telephone them, then you need to follow through. Never make promises that you cannot keep.

    When building trust, be clear about boundaries where trust cannot be maintained. Children should be informed when you are unable to keep information they provide to you secret.

    Not being able to keep a child or young person’s ‘secret’ would only occur under certain circumstances. These include instances when the child discloses harm, abuse or neglect that has occurred to them or others, including any indications of suicidal thoughts. It is also necessary to disclose any information that is given pertaining to a criminal offence.

  3. Maximising participation

    Ensuring children meaningfully participate in decisions impacting on their lives is central to child protection practice. Maximising opportunities for age-appropriate participation can help children to:

    • better understand events in their lives
    • make sense of various actions taking place
    • make informed comment on future plans
    • more fully participate in the decision-making process
    • keep records of important events in their lives via written documentation
    • feel more empowered as client/consumer. (Cashmore and O'Brien, 2001) 
  4. Working in an age-appropriate way

    Many children coming into contact with the child protection system have learning or physical disabilities that will inhibit their ability to absorb, process, analyse and retain information. They may be street-wise but also may be immature.

    Most children have a shorter attention span than adults and cannot concentrate or sit still for long periods. The following points may assist in guiding the participation of children in care:

    • provide children with written material in person and after you have had a discussion about its content and what it means
    • children will need to know why they are receiving the material and what they should do with the document/letter - many may not be interested in the document, or will be angry and aggressive towards you if the document contains information they don’t like
    • for young children, use pictures or illustrations

    • use a variety of mediums to disseminate information, not just written information
    • ask a child’s carer and/or parents, teacher, or community partner to assist in providing the information
    • develop resources such as board games or cue cards to engage young children
    • no matter what age the child is, avoid the use of jargon - instead, use simple, short sentences and everyday words.
  5. Practising in a culturally sensitive way

    Child protection work with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander families evokes strong feelings among children, family members and the broader Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community. This is largely due to the historical practices of removing Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children from their families.

    Recognise and be sensitive to this history and the feelings it can evoke. Comments from parents and assistance from an independent person should be sought at significant  decision-making points in the child protection process. Seek advice from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander colleagues, community members and agency staff for further information about culturally sensitive practice.

  6. Building supportive relationships

    The best way to support vulnerable children is to strengthen their existing relationships—with families, friends, child care, schools and the community. It is the relationships a child has with safe adults that support successful interventions.

    The most successful child protection interventions are those that:

    • are flexible, responsive and work together with the child’s safety and support network

    • prioritise building relationships with children

    • allow the child and family to see the same practitioner on most or all of their case work

    • provide efficient referral processes

    • provide activities through which children can knowingly or unknowingly receive help
    • respect children's privacy.


“Worker D was really helpful and awesome because she listened, she helped me, and when she couldn’t answer or was busy, she would always get back to me! We were able to say goodbye when she left to have a baby. Other workers have been about 60%.” (Female, 17 years, quoted in McDowall (2018).

Engaging children who have high needs

Children enter care arrangements with all types of needs—some more complex than others. They will each require different techniques to include them in participating in the decision-making process.

You can read more information on working with children with high needs in the practice kits relevant to the needs of the child:

Engaging and supporting children in care

There are three distinct phases the child may pass through with each care arrangement they have: entering a care arrangement, continuing a care arrangement and exiting a care arrangement.

You can adopt the following ideas and techniques in your day-to-day work with children in care in each phase of their  journey in care.

Beginning a care arrangement:

  • share as much information as possible about the care arrangement with the child including the carer’s profile, photos of the house and where the carer lives
  • have the child contribute to their referral for a care arrangement, completing their own profile and choosing a picture to use
  • work through any of the child’s worries about the care arrangement
  • have plans in place for contact between the child and parents, so they know when and where they will see their parents next
  • purchase a suitcase and overnight bag for the child to use to transport their belongings
  • complete a belongings inventory and ensure all belongings accompany the child
  • stay with the child for a period of time when you first arrive at their new care arrangement– this can help them begin to feel comfortable in the care arrangement
  • visit the child the following day to see how their first night was.

Continuing a care arrangement:

  • conduct regular and meaningful home visits
  • provide quick approvals for child-related cost (CRC) reimbursements and consent where required for the child
  • support the development and implementation of support activities for the care arrangement, including the child’s education support plan, Evolve referral (where applicable), case plan and cultural support plan
  • continue to build and maintain your relationship with the child through home visits, phone calls and kicbox communication
  • seek the child’s view, through age-appropriate ways, for all decisions relating to them
  • share information with the child
  • provide the child with formal, written letters (as required by legislation) and read and discuss them together
  • have the child (if age-appropriate) attend placement meetings and family group meetings
  • update the child’s belonging inventory regularly
  • use practice tools and think of creative ways to tailor them to the child’s interests
  • for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, seek the child’s consent for an independent person to attend meetings with the child to facilitate their participation in decision making
  • learn about the child’s culture and show interest in their culture during visits.

Exiting a care arrangement:

  • share as much information as possible about the change of care arrangement (if applicable) with the child, including the next carer’s profile, photos of the house and where the carer lives
  • share and celebrate achievements the child has made during the care arrangement with the carer family
  • talk with the child about what mementos could be gathered to keep as memories to add to the child's life story
  • provide opportunities for the child to say their goodbyes to the carer, carer family members and other important people in their life as a result of being in this care arrangement
  • review the child’s belongings inventory and ensure all belongings are packed and moved to the next care arrangement/return home with the child
  • provide information as to when the child may see the carers again, if appropriate

Helping children through transitions

Helping children work through transitioning from one care arrangement to another requires a planned approach—with the child at the centre of the process.

Important points to take into account in your planning include providing the child with:

  • as much notice as possible of the upcoming change
  • opportunities to participate in the decision-making process
  • a voice when it comes to deciding what information about themselves to share with prospective carers
  • opportunities to identify family and community members they may wish to live with (as kinship carers)
  • breaks in the process to acknowledge their feelings and help them process their feelings.

Some of the following additional tools and resources may be useful in working through transitions as they can assist the conversation and help the child to feel at ease.

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