One of the most important tasks you have when you work with a family is to engage them in the process. Engagement is “positive involvement in a helping process” (Yatchmenoff, 2001). The emphasis may be on joining, forming a relationship, establishing a goal, developing trust or something else. When working with a resource family, engagement needs to occur on all these levels.
When engagement does not occur, 60% of resource families recruited leave during the first year of fostering, citing lack of support as the primary reason for leaving (The National Commission of Family Foster Care). Another reason families cited for leaving was a worker’s disrespect for them as partners and team members and giving them few opportunities to provide input about training or services.
Engaging a resource family is critical and should begin the moment a family contacts an agency. One of the first things a worker needs to do when engaging a family is to LISTEN. Engagement is about dialogue – a two-way discussion that brings people together to discover and share information. A worker needs to work WITH the family and go where the family is – get to know them and find out their needs. With each interaction, more is learned about the family, and the family learns more about the process. As engagement occurs, trust and relationships will build. When a family is engaged and able to participate in the decision making, goal setting and case planning, they feel they are making a genuine contribution to the process and they feel a greater sense of control.
- Creates a collaborative, positive, effective working relationship between the worker and the family to assure everyone’s best interests;
- Ensures the family understands and provides feedback on the process in circumstances that may be challenging and stressful, and;
- Ensures the family can address any issues that arise during the process.
There are three tools a worker can use to enhance successful engagement.
- Interactional skills: Interactional competence is knowing how to initiate and manage conversations and negotiate meaning with other people. This includes both verbal and non-verbal behavior. Non-verbal behaviors include eye contact, direction of gaze, posture, proximity, body movements and gestures, tone and volume of speech, facial expressions and physical presence (e.g., gender, race, clothing). Non-verbal communication is often viewed as involuntary, yet it conveys strong messages that can often override the meaning conveyed verbally.
- Strengths-based perspectives: A strengths-based perspective is one that assesses the inherent strengths of a person or family and builds on them. Agency workers need to recognize and support a family’s strengths. A family can grow and change by identifying and building on their assets and strengths. Identifying strengths will inspire hope and promote engagement.
- Solution focused approach: According to the Highland Council, basic assumptions of a solution-focused approach are that everyone has skills and competencies and can contribute. A small change can lead to bigger changes. An agency working from a strengths-based perspective leads them to being solution-focused. One is not looking at what’s wrong, but at what’s right and then building on that.
How does a worker know the difference between a family who is just going through the motions of engagement and a family who is positively involved in the process? Some factors can influence a family’s engagement (Yatchmenoff, 2001).
- RECEPTIVITY: Is the family open to the process? Are they open to help from the agency worker? Is the family open to completing necessary steps such as attending training, completing paperwork and participating in interviews?
- EXPECTANCY: Does the family feel that the family profile process will change their family for the better? Do they have realistic expectations of the process?
- INVESTMENT: Is the family invested in the process? Are they actively involved? Do they want to achieve their goal? Do they have the initiative to seek and use available services?
- WORKING RELATIONSHIP: What is the family’s relationship with the agency worker? Do the worker and family communicate well with each other? Is the relationship characterized by a sense of reciprocity or mutuality?
- MISTRUST: This occurs when there is a negative dimension in the relationship. Does one party view the other party as manipulative or malicious?
Engagement is a process where resource families can join together with the agency worker to develop and implement a plan that ensures a child is cared for and protected in ways that fit their culture and circumstances. It extends the responsibility for outcomes to family, community and natural support systems.
Three factors are crucial to strong engagement. An agency worker should know these factors and incorporate them into their work with families.
Workers need to:
- Spend time with the family.
- Respect the family’s time – be on time for appointments.
- Arrange to call back if a time is not convenient for the family to talk when the call is made.
- Ask when would be a good time to call back.
- Understand that a worker needs to prepare ahead of time in order to successfully engage with a family. Prepare questions for the interview, have all necessary paperwork available at a meeting.
- Relationship building
Workers need to:
- Listen to what the family is saying.
- Listen to what is important to the family.
- Talk with them (not at them or to them).
- Explain the purpose of the contact.
- Ask how other family members are doing.
- Ask if they understand what is being discussed.
- Make them feel safe enough to ask questions.
- Don’t judge the family.
- Be available to talk with the family based on their schedule. They may work nontraditional hours and cannot be reached during normal business hours.
- Ask permission to re-contact the family.
Workers need to:
- Continue to LISTEN to what the family is saying.
- Continue to talk WITH the family.
- Give the family permission to ask questions at any time.
- Maintain ongoing contact.
- Return phone calls, emails promptly.
Some ways that an agency can keep families engaged include:
- Agency events (picnics, holiday events, pot luck dinners)
- Agency newsletter
- Group family preparation
- Social media (Agency Facebook page, Twitter)
- Support groups