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Tensions and Possibilities: Forging Better Links Between Family Resource Programs and Child Welfare

"The protection of children is too important to be left to any one profession or agency."

Ken Barter, Chair in Child Protection, Memorial University of Newfoundland

I Introduction: The issue

Although family resource programs and child welfare services share the goal of child and family well-being, they go about their work quite differently. They have different mandates, approaches, origins, organisational structures, levels of accountability, staffing requirements, funding formulas and connections with the community. Not surprisingly, working relationships between these two sectors are quite often characterised by misunderstanding and even mistrust.

FRP Canada (Canadian Association of Family Resource Programs), in partnership with the Child Welfare League of Canada and the Canadian Institute of Child Health, has recently completed an extensive project to learn from community practitioners what is currently happening around this issue and to suggest ways to foster more positive and effective working relationships. The project aims to encourage productive dialogue between family resource programs (FRPs) and child protection services (CPS) in their communities and to increase the capacity of family resource programs to work with families considered at risk of abuse and neglect. This work was funded by Health Canada's Population Health Fund.

II Project description

Project activities included interviews with 22 key informants from family resource programs and child welfare organizations, analysis of 70 surveys from family resource programs across Canada and coordination of eighteen focus groups with family resource practitioners, child welfare staff, parents and others in eleven communities across the country. A publication based on this extensive input was released April 2002 (see OHPE 268.2 for more details).

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III Differences in structure and approach

Family resource programs operate in over 2000 community settings across Canada. FRPs are informal, grass roots organizations with a focus on prevention and wellness. They are flexible and responsive to community contexts and requirements, they work from a strengths-based perspective in collaboration with families and their programs are generally voluntary and open to all. Staff bring a variety of skills and abilities to their work and life experience is often considered to be at least as important as formal qualifications when hiring decisions are made in this field.

In contrast, child protection services focus most of their attention and resources on intervention and protection. They tend to be formal, highly regulated, rule-bound, bureaucratic and hierarchical. Their actions are closely scrutinized and harshly criticized by the media. Client status is often involuntary and adversarial. Typically, new graduates from social work programs are recruited to work in the field, and staff turnover is high due to very stressful working conditions.

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IV Project findings

FRPs report that they are now working with more families involved with child protection services than five years ago. Forty-three percent (43%) of the FRP survey respondents rated their relationship with CPS as good, very good or excellent. Nevertheless, on the written survey and in the focus groups, family support practitioners identified many challenges and frustrations arising from their interactions with child welfare.

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V Six areas of concern

The following areas of concern were frequently mentioned by family resource program staff:

* Loss of trust when child welfare becomes involved: Since family resource programs nurture relationships based on trust and mutual respect and participation in FRPs is voluntary, anything that jeopardizes the trust of families and communities is a concern. The bonds between FRPs and families are especially important when there may be concerns about parenting. Insensitive involvement of CPS with the program or its participants may deter other parents from seeking resources.

* Reporting: FRP practitioners understand and accept their legal and moral responsibility to report concerns about child maltreatment. FRPs generally prefer to involve the parent(s) when making a report. Often, this does not coincide with the child welfare agency's preference that parents not be informed about a report. Also, when a report has been made and no action follows, FRPs are frustrated because they may have lost the voluntary participation of a family at a time when support is most needed.

* Sharing information: Rules and regulations regarding confidentiality can inhibit productive sharing between service providers. FRP staff feel they could offer helpful information about a family's particular situation, but a two-way mutually respectful flow of communication rarely occurs.

* Power imbalance: Family support practitioners may be regarded as naive and unqualified by child welfare staff. Community-based workers report that routine meetings and phone calls with child welfare staff can become very intimidating encounters. Whereas FRP staff may consciously downplay their professional status to reduce any gulf between themselves and program participants, child welfare staff must maintain a certain distance from clients and take the role of an authority figure to be effective in their work. It appears that this role is often carried over to relationships with community colleagues.

* Demands and expectations: CPS has expected FRPs to provide parenting courses and other programs and services for their clients. These expectations may be difficult for FRPs to fulfill since their programs are designed for voluntary participation and funding is limited. FRPs often resist requests to monitor attendance and assess parental capacity because these activities are inconsistent with their mandate and abilities. Expectations around record keeping, on-going reporting of progress, provision of free courses to child welfare clients or provision of space for supervised visits may also create tension if not negotiated respectfully.

* Lack of confidence in the child welfare system: Some family support practitioners believe that the child welfare system is not working in the best interests of children and families. There is a perception that child welfare workers do not have enough understanding of child development and attachment theory or enough sensitivity to the economic and cultural contexts in which families live. Any reluctance to report concerns about a family may stem from a belief that a child's involvement with child welfare might actually create greater problems.

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VI Ideas for building healthier working relationships

* Representatives of these two sectors must reach out to each other to begin open honest and constructive dialogue about ways to improve understanding.

* Both should engage in a process to clarify roles and responsibilities, including an exchange of information about each others' values, strengths and limitations.

* There is a need to build personal relationships with colleagues in the other sector.

* Each sector should seek opportunities to offer training to and receive training from the other. Joint training initiatives are especially effective in building relationships.

* Together, both organizations should consider partnering on projects of mutual interest, seeking funding together, working together and celebrating success together.

Several promising approaches were recommended:

* child welfare workers actively connecting families with family resource programs before they are in crisis,

* moving child welfare social workers out into the communities they serve, and

* shifting child welfare focus and resources from protection to family support.

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VII Conclusion

It is widely agreed that the child welfare system in Canada is in a state of crisis. Departments and agencies are overwhelmed and their primary focus is on risk management and protection, not on helping families. Although many commentators have recommended that resources and efforts should be shifted from policing functions toward prevention and family support, structural change from the top-down is difficult and slow. We believe that subtle but important change can be achieved at the community level if service providers, including family support and child welfare representatives, initiate respectful dialogue with each other and with community citizens to develop new and more positive ways of working together.