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What is engagement?

Engagement is the process of establishing effective working relationships so that there can be a shared understanding of goals and a shared commitment to supporting the child, young person and/ family to realise those goals.

Effective engagement enables a productive relationship to develop between a worker, the child or young person and their family. This involves establishing relationships between a worker and the child or young person, a worker and family and between workers. Engagement is fundamental to working effectively in child wellbeing and child protection contexts as it can increase the likelihood of realising sustainable, positive change in a child, young person and their family.

Initially engagement occurs during the early stages of work with a child or young person and the family, principally when a worker first makes contact and there is a commitment to work together. As a process, engagement involves the worker creating an environment that is conducive to the child or young person and/or their family actively working to achieve change.

Developing open, honest and positive relationships between the child or young person, their family and workers is important for:

  • productive two way communication
  • facilitating the child, young person and family’s active participation in decision making, goal setting and case planning
  • promoting trust between the child or young person, family and worker
  • genuine contribution and a greater sense of control by the child or young person and/or their family
  • maximising accountability of workers and organisations.

Engagement aims to:

  • create a positive, collaborative, effective working relationship between the worker, child or young person and family to ensure the best interests of the child or young person
  • ensure the family understands and provides feedback on what is happening in circumstances that can often be challenging and distressing
  • ensure the family has opportunities to build on their capacity to address issues in relation to providing care and protection to their children and young people
  • enhance social inclusion within the family structure.

Engagement can be challenging when participation is not voluntary. In a statutory child protection context feelings of guilt, anger, fear, shame, confusion, hostility, suspicion or even depression can lead family members to appear reluctant, unmotivated or unwilling to be involved. This can make engaging a child, young person or their family more difficult (Blythe, Ivanoff & Tripodi, 1994).

Practice points

Preparing for engagement

  • Adequate planning and preparation are a foundation for good engagement. Prior to a first meeting, it is important that the worker:
    • Collate and review existing relevant information about the child, young person and/or their family. This may include:
    • Reviewing previous case notes or other relevant records.
    • Speaking with other workers, both internally and externally, who have been involved with the child, young person and/or their family. This is to build a holistic picture of the child, young person and their family’ s needs and strengths as well as to test the currency and accuracy of information held about the family and to identify any recent developments.
    • Keeping an open mind as there will be subjective elements in all information.
  • Obtain a holistic picture of the child, young person and their family to minimise any unnecessary repetition of fact by the child or young person and their family. However, this should be balanced against the need to hear first hand rather than relying on secondary sources of information.
    • Be clear on why engagement is required and understand the respective roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders.
    • Identify the best engagement approach, based on the circumstances of the child or young person and their family, including consideration of whether:
    • the child or young person and/or their family will be open to engagement
    • first contact is to be by phone or face-to-face
    • other workers should attend, i.e. a worker currently engaged with the child, young person or family
    • separate meetings with the child or young person and their family are required
    • anyone needs support to attend the meeting/s (transport, interpreters, child care)
    • the meeting should take place at a particular organisation’s office, the family home or a neutral location.
  • Prepare for culturally appropriate engagement.
    • When working with Aboriginal families it is preferable an Aboriginal worker has case management responsibility. However, as this is not always possible, or because the Aboriginal worker is from a different community than the family, consulting with relevant Aboriginal workers, organisations and community members to identify culturally appropriate forms of engagement is essential.
    • If the child, young person or any family member is a refugee or from a culturally and linguistically diverse background the worker needs to understand the family’s background and how best to facilitate effective, culturally appropriate engagement.
  • Be sensitive to special needs and consider whether assistance and/or support is required where the child, young person or a family member has a disability that may affect engagement.

Ongoing engagement

  • Engagement is not just about the first meeting. It is also important to maintain a relationship with the child or young person and their family while they are involved with the child wellbeing and child protection system.
  • The child or young person and their family may go through a series of stages, including assessment, planning, service delivery, monitoring and review. During each stage the worker should endeavour to ensure effective relationships are maintained.
  • Strategies that will enhance ongoing engagement include:
    • being clear about the worker’s role and the role of other organisations
    • promoting collaboration between organisations servicing the family to minimise duplication and the potential for excessive or conflicting demands being placed on the family
    • being clear about what the child or young person and their family’s rights are
    • keeping appointments and returning phone calls
    • maintaining good records and confirming with the child or young person and their family any agreements made and that the records accurately reflect what was said and agreed to at the meeting
    • promoting ongoing discussion with the child or young person and their family
    • remembering that the worker and the family have a common and shared interest in wanting what is best for the child
    • being clear about the issues that are negotiable and non-negotiable, particularly in statutory child protection cases or where there is a need to place a child in out-of-home care
    • if there is a need for a new worker, it should be a coordinated transition undertaken with the child and their family.

Further reading

  • Blythe, B., Ivanoff, A., & Tripodi, T. 1994. Involuntary clients in social work practice cited in Altman, J.C. 2008. A Study of Engagement in Neighborhood-Based Child Welfare Services. Research on social work practices. 18(6). (p 556).
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