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Relationships with parents

Building rapport and relationships

Building rapport and relationships with parents is crucial in achieving effective permanency planning. It is very important to develop an open and trusting relationship, although it may be difficult to do so.

Given the statutory nature of child protection work, parents have generally not initiated contact with the department, and they may be involuntary clients. This provides an additional challenge in the engagement process and in building relationships. Parents may not be ready to acknowledge the problems that need to be resolved for the safety of their children and the wellbeing of their family.

When building a relationship with a parent, the following strategies are often effective:

  • The first meeting is important, so plan what needs to be said and what can wait.
  • Listen more than you speak.
  • Consider what your body language is saying.
  • Show empathy. Even if you disagree with what they are saying, you can show you understand and hear what is being said.
  • Consider their background and culture. Is it different from yours? Ask curious, open questions to learn more about them and about what is suitable for their cultural group. (For example, is eye contact acceptable?)
  • Smile, if appropriate.
  • Use humour, if appropriate.
  • Reframe or summarise the information you hear to ensure you have understood what they are saying.
  • Be genuine.
  • Encourage and answer questions, and if you do not know the answer, agree to find out.
  • Follow through with anything you agree to do.

To ensure that parents feel empowered, practitioners should foster the relationship between the child’s carer and parents as soon as practical after a child enters care. Encourage carers and parents to meet and talk about different aspects of caring for the child. For example, allowing a parent to explain to the carer what the child likes and dislikes may create a sense of safety for a parent and start to build a relationship between carer and parent.

Ideally, carers should become part of a child’s and parent’s safety and support network.

The way a worker engages with parents and family when discussing permanency is directly linked to impacts on a child. A worker’s attitude and manner of engaging with a family can impact on the likelihood of reunification. According to Altman (2008):

Parents felt that dealing with workers who were empathetic, reliable, and supportive helped them to engage in services. They believe workers who have good knowledge of their situation and are on top of case details help them the most to engage in change efforts.

Partnering with parents while keeping safety as the non-negotiable is crucial in permanency planning.

Ensure you are working with both parents. At times practitioners miss engaging with fathers, and they may not be represented in case plans or case work tasks. This can be for many reasons, for example, they may be difficult to locate, may use aggressive behaviours, or may work full-time hours or not have been very involved previously in the child’s life.

Continue to make attempts to engage fathers in decision making and involve them in their children’s lives. Acknowledging the important role a father plays in a child’s life can assist with building a relationship between a father and practitioner.

Further reading

For additional information on working with men who use violence, see the practice kit Domestic and family violence: Engaging fathers.

Participation and collaboration

Involving parents in discussions about permanency can be challenging in statutory work. Consider how to enhance participation and reduce barriers. Always work in a manner that actively seeks parents’ views and work in collaboration with them in planning for their child.

The importance of participatory and collaborative practice with families and children is well established and is embedded in the department’s Strengthening families protecting children Framework for practice. Participatory practice is important because:

  • of the human rights and child rights implications
  • of the value of client self-determination
  • it can improve assessments
  • it can lead to improved client outcomes

(Healy & Darlington, 2009; Darlington, Healy & Feeney, 2010).

Factors identified from child protection (and other) practice contexts that can facilitate participation are:

  • recognising power and managing the imbalance
  • building relationships
  • assisting parents to understand their child’s needs and connect to relevant services 
  • addressing practical needs (for example, providing transport)
  • integrating participation into everyday practice
  • gaining other support for families who are involved with a statutory child protection service (for example, via non-government services)
  • using a range of strategies
  • having child-friendly approaches
  • being sensitive to client needs
  • being flexible 
  • having organisational support 
  • ensuring clients feel valued and are encouraged to be involved 
  • respecting all involved and seeking their views
  • having an organisational culture where participation is positively promoted
  • ensuring appropriateness of options (ensuring they are achievable and responsive to client needs, for example, age appropriate, culturally sensitive, and based on working with strengths)
  • being transparent (being open about purpose and process)
  • adequately preparing all parties prior to meetings. 

(Darlington et al, 2010; Hernandez, Robson & Sampson, 2010; Tilbury et al, 2007; Healy & Darlington, 2009)

Parents not engaging

When parents do not engage with CSOs they may miss out on being involved with decision making for their child.

Practitioners must always try to include both parents of a child in all aspects of casework. If one method does not work try a different method:

  • Consider if the approach is being sensitive to the parent’s culture and background.
  • Be flexible - consider different days or times to meet as well as locations. Include other family members as support or consider a different staff member assisting.
  • Consider how finances may be affecting a parents’ engagement. For example provide toll-free numbers if possible and assist them with providing activities during family contact.
  • Go to where the parents are.
  • Focus on empowering parents at all opportunities. Use strength-based approaches and celebrate small successes.

Further reading

Read practice kit Safe care and connection to gain an understanding of the historical and cultural implications that may impact an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander parent’s engagement with Child Safety.

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