Partnership in Casework – Improving communication between parents and case planners

Dana Christensen

Interview by Keyna Franklin

Dana Christensen is the model developer of Solution-Based CaseworkTM and a professor at the Raymond A. Kent School of Social Work at the University of Louisville.

Q: Solution-Based Casework is about caseworkers having “full partnership” with the family to make decisions. Why is that so important? 

A: Partnership means actually believing that the family knows what needs to happen and is the best expert on themselves. The family needs to to be a major part of defining the problems they are struggling with, as well as what is working in the family. A lot of times, child welfare is too problem-focused and there’s not enough focus on what is working.

Say the problem you’re working on is trying to control your temper. Obviously, everybody has a temper—the question is whether you can keep it under control enough to be a safe parent, and that can be a challenge when you’re under stress. So we would look for times that you were under stress and didn’t lose your temper and so we would look at what skills made that possible. 

Once there is consensus about what needs to change, the  caseworker and parent make a “family agreement” about the problem what they’re trying to solve. That can include plans for services to help accomplish the family’s goals.. You may need to get some help from others to be the parent you want to be. But services are not the goal. The goal is that the everyday life in the family can go well most of the time and not go really bad any time. That’s every parent’s goal. 

Q: How do you think workers can talk to parents about their needs and wants?

A: The caseworker should say: “What are the issues that you’re struggling with as a family to take care of your kids? It’s not like you’re a bad parent and everything you do is bad, but for some amount of time it hasn’t gone well. Let’s come up with a plan to get things back on track.” Casework should target what parents are struggling with. Planning should ask: How can we help the parents have more good days than bad days, and not have any really bad days that make the kids unsafe? It may be that parents’ problems are overwhelming and need to be worked on first, and then they will be in a better position to focus on the children after that. Sometimes families work on both at the same time. 

We want to help families not just notice what they’re doing wrong, but also notice their small steps of change. We ask parents to document their own successes. For instance, you may feel discouraged because you haven’t changed a behavior yet, but you can notice that you want to change. That’s actually a sign of change. So we try to notice even little bitty steps. Even a thought about what you might do differently is a change. 

Q: The better a parent can tell their story, the more likely the worker can hear it and help them. How would you suggest that parents get ready to talk with their worker? 

The challenge for parents is that they’re afraid to tell someone what they’re actually doing. It’s not unreasonable to be cautious as a client, but the more your worker knows about you – and doesn’t misuse what they know – the more they can help you.

When parents minimize, that’s evidence that parents know there’s an issue, and they would like to be able to address it. But they’re also afraid that if they talk about it at all, it’s going to be held against them forever. We need to give people hope that if they work with the case planner and help the worker understand the full story, they won’t overreact. 

Q: What can parents do if their worker doesn’t seem to want to listen to them?

A: This is a hard thing in life.  And because it is hard to address, a lot of people just do what they’re told, feeling even more angry inside. The problem with that is that it’s really hard to hide your feelings. That can make the worker suspicious and say, “You’re doing it but you’re not really meaning it.” It starts a vicious cycle. It’s better to try to make the effort to get your plan closer to what you believe is important and fair. 

In a worker-client relationship, it’s really challenging for the parent to be strong and say, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t feel like you’re listening to me, maybe I’m not explaining it well, but I don’t think we are working on the right thing.” It’s hard, but that’s really the most productive thing to say. 

When people aren’t heard, and don’t feel understood, they’re not invested. No one likes being not listened to. It’s pretty hard to trust someone if they’re not listening to you. It’s so important for the worker to realize that they have this power. Whether or not they feel that power in their heart, that’s how they’ll be seen. They’re part of a system that can feel very threatening. Because workers have that power, they have to use it very thoughtfully and carefully. 

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