Measuring parent engagement in foster care.

Author:Alpert, Lily T.

Today, child welfare agencies widely endorse a family-centered approach to foster care casework. This approach centers on a collaborative parent-caseworker relationship as a mechanism for maintaining parents' engagement in services and presumes that continued engagement will propel parents toward reunification. However, despite the importance of engaging parents, parents of children in foster care are understudied. The existing literature offers little insight into parents' experiences of the foster care process, and even less in terms of quantitative analysis of parent engagement. The present study addresses this research gap by testing a new measure of parent engagement. The 46 parents of children in foster care in the study sample were mostly female, either black or Hispanic, and at the time of study had an average open case length of 30 months. The piloted measure showed good reliability. Results suggest that parent engagement is significantly negatively related to distance from the parent's home to the child welfare agency and length of time the parent spent working with his or her longest running caseworker. Implications for further measure development and directions for future research on parents of children in foster care are presented.

KEY WORDS: engagement; family-centered practice; foster care; parents; reunification


According to the most recent federal estimates, there are approximately 510,000 children in foster care in the United States (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS], 2008).The majority of these children have been removed from their caregivers (normally, parents) because of abuse or neglect, and parents must prove a certain level of competence to reclaim their children from state custody. In fiscal year 2006, approximately 49% of these children had a case goal of reunification (HHS, 2008). This means that in approximately half of foster care cases, child welfare workers were, to some extent, working with parents, children, foster parents, and service providers toward returning foster children to safe and stable home environments with the individuals from whom they were removed.

Today, child welfare agencies widely endorse a family-centered approach to foster care service delivery. This approach is based on the concept that an empowering, strengths-based parent-caseworker relationship is central to maintaining parents' engagement in services and the belief that continued engagement will propel parents toward success (that is, reunification; for example, Maluccio, 1981; Zamosky, Sparks, Hatt, & Sharman, 1993). However, despite the importance of engaging parents, parents of children in foster care are understudied. The current literature offers little in terms of insight into parents' experiences in the foster care process and even less in terms of quantitative analysis of parent engagement. The present study attempts to flU this gap in the research by testing a new measure of parent engagement.


Family-centered Practice

Social work theorists and researchers note that family-centered practice involves "respect for parents, listening to and addressing their concerns, focusing on strengths, and helping them stay emotionally connected to their children" (Petr & Entriken, 1995, p. 528);breaking down the power differential between client and worker (Forrest, 2003); and communicating empathy and concern for all family members, while clarifying expectations and gently asserting authority (DePanfflis, 2000). Caseworkers must be willing to take into account parents' perspectives. They must respect and incorporate parents' knowledge about their own families and develop service plans, in partnership with parents, on the basis of parents' personal goals.

The approach manifests in frontline foster care casework in a variety of ways (for example, Dawson & Berry, 2002; Petras, Massat, & Essex, 2002). Family centered strategies include the following: intensive family reunification services (Child Welfare League of America, 2002; Fraser, Walton, Lewis, Pecora, & Walton, 1996; Gillespie, Byrne, & Workman, 1995; Hess, Folaron, & Jefferson, 1992; Walton, 1998); family-centered practice training for frontline staff (Alpert & Britner, 2005; Forest, 2003); and specific case management practices such as family group conferencing (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2008; Corby, Millar, & Young, 1996; Waites, Macgowan, Pennell, Carlton-LaNey, & Weil, 2004).

Unfortunately, some barriers exist to family-centered service delivery. One obstacle is the incompatibility of the mandatory nature of foster care with the goal of parent empowerment. The foster care system is inherently punitive. The unwavering presence of state power, characterized by the threat of having their children permanently removed, pervades the foster care process for parents. It is in this environment that caseworkers are expected to communicate empathy and respect for parents, gain their trust, highlight their strengths, and improve their skills and resources.

Other impediments pertain to the practical translation of family-centered principles into daily casework. Foster care caseworkers have identified training-related obstacles (for example, being trained to consider the child as the primary client; being trained to prioritize child safety above all); logistical obstacles (for example, high caseloads, lack of time and resources); and obstacles based on workers' beliefs and expectations of parents (for example, worker bias against parents, workers' skepticism regarding the ability of parents to be rehabilitated) (Alpert & Britner, 2005).

Research on Parents

Qualitative Studies. Despite the fact that family-centered casework is intended to maximize parent engagement, little research exists investigating the extent to which parents feel in receipt of family-centered services. A small group of qualitative studies describes parents as feeling underserved and overlooked by child protection services. Parents in these studies reported hopelessness and rage toward the child welfare system (Haight et al., 2002), inconsistent caseworker responsiveness, feeling left out of decision making (Kapp & Propp, 2002), and feeling vulnerable to and fearful of their caseworkers (Diorio, 1992).

Dumbrill's (2006) study adds to the discourse by describing the relationship between parents' style of engagement and their perceptions of power within the parent-worker relationship. In this study, parents who perceived their workers as wielding power over them were more likely to directly oppose their workers or "play the game" with them (that is, feign cooperation simply to placate workers). In contrast, parents who perceived their workers as taking a "power with" approach were more likely to report a collaborative parent-worker relationship.

Finally, Corby et al. (1996) contributed to our understanding of parent engagement in their study of child protection case conferences. Although most parents in this sample reported being glad they attended conferences, more than half felt their views were not taken into account during these meetings. Nearly a third stated that they did not feel empowered to challenge professionals who made statements that the parents felt were inaccurate, suggesting that these parents were more concerned with appearing compliant than pursuing a more interactive collaboration with their workers.

Quantitative Studies. Some researchers have embarked on quantitative analyses of parents' experiences. For example, among its vast collection of variables, the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW) (Administration for Children and Families [ACF], 2005) asks parents to report their degree of satisfaction with their child welfare workers. In a recent report, the mean scale score for this group of questions emerged as a 4.59 on an eight-point scale, indicating a "middle level of perceived relationship quality" (ACF, 2005). In another study using NSCAW data, Chapman, Gibbons, Barth, McCrae, and the NSCAW Research Group (2003) found that the following variables showed a significant negative association with parents' perception of the quality of the relationship with their caseworkers: having two or more child welfare workers, longer time periods between visits, not being offered the kind of help needed, and feeling that more services should have been offered.

Using their Parent Satisfaction with Foster Care Services Scale (PSFCSS), Kapp and Vela (2004a, 2004b) found that parents were more likely to be satisfied overall "when they perceived that the social worker "(i) [was] working with them to get their child back, (ii) had clear expectations of them, (iii) prepared them for meetings, (iv) stood up for them in meetings, and (v) respected their cultural background" (Kapp &Vela, 2004b, p. 203). Harris, Poertner, and Joe (2000) have also attempted to measure parent satisfaction using their Parents with Children in Foster Care Satisfaction Scale (PCFCSS).These researchers reported a one-factor instrument with an internal consistency of [alpha] = .97. Though Harris et al. (2000) highlighted the need for instrument development and further experimentation using the PCFCSS, literature searches did not produce subsequent studies using the tool.

Attempts at measuring parent satisfaction with foster care services are admirable and represent important first steps in quantifying the experience of parents of children in care. However, the quantitative studies mentioned earlier raise an important question: Is satisfaction, per se, the most important construct to measure in an effort to get to the heart of parents' experiences in foster care? To be sure, we want parents to be satisfied with the services they receive, but in looking at a casework model in which the ultimate goal is reunification, do we believe that it is parent "satisfaction" that leads to success, drives a parent to persevere through his or her service...

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