Definitions of Family Engagement

Over the past decade, the field of child welfare has seen a practice shift with greater commitment to involving families, children and youth as active decision makers in all stages of the case planning process. The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997, The Foster Care Independence Act in 1999 and The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 all support full engagement of those served by child welfare systems.   Current research literature describes family engagement in child welfare as a series of intentional interventions that work together in an integrated way to promote safety, permanency and well being for children, youth and families.  The following synthesizes what the research says about family engagement.

I. Definition of Family Engagement

A. The Family Driven Study
The Family Driven Study, funded by the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, focused on evaluating outcomes for families who participated in Comprehensive Community Mental Health Services for Children and Their Families Program (Osher, Xu, & Allen, 2006).  The study considered “family engagement” with voluntary clients.  It defined “family engagement” as follows.

  • Engagement is the act of doing something for your child, yourself, or your family, that:
      • determines or derives from a care plan or
      • supports the delivery of services and supports.
  • Engagement is also participation of families and youth in governance, management or evaluation activities with the intention of improving or enhancing service planning and delivery of treatment, services, supports, or care for children in the community as a whole.
  • Families may engage in different ways and intensity as their child’s and family’s needs change or as opportunities to become engaged in their child’s care or in the service system vary.

B. The Yatchmenoff Study (2001)
This study defined and measured family engagement in the child welfare context.  It used as the working definition of “family engagement”:  “positive involvement in the helping process.” The study identified five factors related to engagement with clients served by child welfare agencies:

  • Receptivity: openness to receiving  help, characterized by recognition o f problems or circumstances that resulted in agency intervention and by a perceived need for help
  • Expectancy: the perception of benefit; a sense of being  helped or the expectation of receiving help through the agency’s involvement; a feeling that things are changing (or will change) for the better
  • Investment: commitment to the helping process, characterized by active participation in planning or services, goal ownership, and initiative in seeking and utilizing help
  • Working Relationship: interpersonal relationship with the caseworker, characterized by a sense of reciprocity or mutuality and good communication; and
  • Mistrust – a negatively related factor, defined as the belief that the agency and/or worker is manipulative, malicious or capricious, with intent to harm

In the end, the factors of expectancy of help and investment were combined into a single dimension labeled “buy in” – which includes commitment or investment in the process and the expectation that the process would serve the client’s interests.

C. Other Definitions
Other definitions of “client engagement”, “family engagement”, and “engagement” can be found in the research literature.
Client engagement: An interactional, interpersonal process whereby the social worker creates an environment of warmth, empathy and genuineness that enables a client to enter into a helping relationship and actively work toward change; the degree to which a given client is committed to collaboratively working with a worker toward change (Cooper-Altman, 2008)
Engagement: The participation necessary to obtain optimal benefits from an intervention (Prinz & Miller, 1996)
Family engagement:  A strengths-based approach and a defining characteristic of family-centered and team-based decision-making (Child Protection Best Practice Bulletin, 2007)

II. Factors Identified as Most Significant in Engaging Clients  

The research literature addresses the factors that are most significant in engaging clients. 
1. Dawson and Berry (2002) found that key factors in engaging clients in child welfare services are:

  • Setting mutually satisfactory goals
  • Providing services that clients view as relevant and helpful
  • Focusing on client skills rather than insights
  • Spending sufficient time with clients to demonstrate skills and provide necessary solutions

2. Rooney (1992) states that successfully engaging involuntary clients requires:

  • Being clear and specific about expectations
  • Providing choices when possible
  • Asking for overt client commitment
  • Involving clients in goal and task selection

III.  Characteristics of Family Engagement
The Child Protection Best Practice Bulletin (2007) provides the following characteristics of family engagement:

  • Family resources and kinship connections are maximized.
  • The family actively participates in solution- and outcome-focused planning and decision-making that is needs-driven and strengths-based.
  • Interactions with families are open, transparent, and non-judgmental.
  • The relationship between families and professionals is viewed as a partnership.

IV. Benefits of Family Engagement
A number of studies have identified the benefits of family engagement for families, children and youth.
A.  Research Findings

  • Reduces the chances that parents will lose custody of their children (Atkinson & Butler, 1996)
  • Hastens family reunification (Jivanjee, 1999; Tam & Ho, 1996)
  • Increases the likelihood that parents receive the services they need (Jones, 1993)
  • Parents visit more with their children and are more likely to be reunited (Davis, Lansverk, Newton, & Granger, 1996; Hess, 1987)
  • Results in fewer subsequent reports of child maltreatment (Littell, 2001)

B. The Family Driven Study Findings (2006)
This study identified the following outcomes that families attribute to engagement:

  • Increased empowerment
  • Improved care and services
  • Improved child or family outcomes
  • Improved access to services
  • Greater family voice in advocacy

Atkinson, L., & Butler, S. (1996). Court-ordered assessment: Impact of maternal noncompliance in child maltreatment cases. Child Abuse and Neglect, 20, 185-190.

Child Protection Best Practices Bulletin. (2007).  Family Engagement: Maximizing Family Resources & Kinship Connections.  Retrieved April 2, 2009

Cooper-Altman, J. (2008). Engaging families in child welfare services: Worker versus Client perspectives.  Washington, DC:  Child Welfare League of America.    
Davis, I., Lansverk, J., Newton, R., & Granger, W. (1996). Parental visiting and foster care reunification. Children and Youth Services Review, 18, 363-382.

Dawson, K. & Berry, M. (2002). Engaging families in child welfare services: An evidence-based approach to best practice.  Child Welfare, 81(2), 293-317.

Hess, P. (1987). Parental visiting of children in foster care: Current knowledge and research agenda. Child Welfare, 67, 311-326.

Jivanjee, P. (1999). Professional and provider perspectives on family involvement in therapeutic foster care. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 8(3), 329-341.

Jones, L. (1993). Decision-making in child welfare: A critical review of the literature. Child and Adolescent Social Work, 10, 241-262.

Littell, J.H. (2001). Client participation and outcomes of intensive family preservation services. Social Work Research, 25, 103-114.

Osher, T.W., Xu, Y., & Allen, S. (2006). Does Family Engagement Matter? Findings from the Family Driven Study. Retrieved April 2, 2009

Prinz, R.J. & Miller, G.E. (1996). Parental engagement in interventions for children at risk for conduct disorder. In R.D. Peters & R.J. McMahon (Eds). Preventing childhood disorders, substance abuse and delinquency (pp. 161-183). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rooney, R.H. (1992). Strategies for Working with Involuntary Clients. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tam, T.S., & Ho, M.K.W. (1996). Factors influencing the prospect of children returning to their parents from out-of-home care. Child Welfare, 75(3), 253-268.

Yatchmenoff, D.K. (2001). Measuring Client Engagement in Non-Voluntary Child Protective Services.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Portland, OR: Portland State University.