For full length reports and summary documents of study findings, please visit the research publications page.
Since it’s inception, the Partnerships for Children and Families Project has been invested in carrying out multiple method investigations of the everyday lives and service experiences of families involved with child welfare and/or children’s mental health. Over many years, we have talked to 700 parents and surveyed over 800 service providers working in child welfare and/or children’s mental health systems.
TRANSFORMING FRONT-LINE CHILD WELFARE PRACTICES: THE IMPACTS OF INSTITUTIONAL SETTINGS ON SERVICES, EMPLOYMENT ENVIRONMENTS, CHILDREN AND FAMILIES
Our 2005 exploratory research on alternative service delivery models in child welfare found that different service delivery settings (central, school, neighbourhood) influenced child protection service delivery in ways highly relevant to the development of differential response models for child welfare in Ontario.
Funded by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services from 2007 to 2009, the “Transforming Front-Line Child Welfare Practices” project studied more in-depth the impact of institutional settings on front-line child protection practice. There were five child welfare agencies in Ontario that participated in the research chosen for their illustrative service delivery models. Each institutional setting varied on dimensions theoretically important to differential response models of child welfare including service values, physical accessibility of services, and community partnerships. This research utilized qualitative methods and a quasi-experimental outcome design.
One of the central messages from this research is that “program intentions matter”. While all of the research sites in this study had as their highest priority keeping children safe (and there was no indication that this priority was compromised by any of the service delivery strategies investigated), the sites with clear intentions to be more accessible to children and parents, to create more cooperative helping relationships with families or to facilitate more collaborations with professional partners and community associations had success in doing so.
A comparison of service delivery settings (central or accessible) as experienced by parents and employees of child welfare found:
· Service providers at accessible sites were more confident about their capacity to establish cooperative helping relationships with families. Parents at accessible sites described many more trusting and helpful relationships with service providers and, in the quantitative ratings, clearly assessed these relationships as more beneficial and satisfying.
· Both parents and service providers suggested that there was less use of formal authority (e.g. use of court or police) in helping relationships at the accessible sites. Service providers at the accessible sites believed that having access to clients in schools and neighbourhoods provided them with better and quicker access to information about children and families and consequently helped them to keep children safe.
· Central and accessible sites that were co-located with other professional service providers were able to access more resources for families and sometimes do so more quickly. Overall, parents at the accessible sites described being connected with a much broader range of services and supports and were more likely to rate these services and supports as sufficient.
· Involvement with the child welfare agency was perceived as more acceptable at accessible sites. Parents from school or neighbourhood based sites were substantially more willing to ask for help again in the future and to tell friends to contact the agency for assistance.
For a complete list of topic specific research reports (Working Reports #1 to #8) related to this project and the overall synthesis report, see the Research Publications page.
FATHERS AND CHILD WELFARE
In phase one of the Partnerships Project, 16 parents involved with child welfare services shared their life stories through interviews spanning 5-6 hours. The results of this project provided an opportunity to hear the voices of mothers involved with child protection services and to learn how they understand their own lives and their involvement with Children’s Aid Societies. It provided an alternative to professional and academic statements about who these women are.
As we shared the results of the life stories research, we were asked many times, “Where are the men’s stories?” Fathers of children involved with child welfare services seem to be overlooked in both the research literature and the service sector. Coley (2001) refers to these men as “invisible” because so little is known about these fathers’ lives, beliefs, and how they experience services.
The purpose of the father’s stories research is similar to the phase one research: to develop a greater understanding of the fathers that are involved with child welfare services, as well as create an opportunity for fathers to voice their perceptions and preferences about what is happening in their communities and families, as well as how they experience services. We interviewed 18 fathers that have children involved with child welfare services. Interviews took place over 2-3 visits and were 5-6 hours in total. Each interview was used to write a life story for that father. Fathers were sent their stories to keep.
Fathers who took part in the study and other fathers involved with child welfare services were invited to 2 discussion groups. Each discussion group member read all 18 life stories (confidentiality of fathers in the study was protected by changing the names and places mentioned in the stories). The purpose of the discussion was to learn more about the reactions, thoughts, and feelings fathers involved with child welfare had about the life stories of other fathers.
Service providers working in front line child protection were also invited to 2 discussion groups (separate from the fathers). Each discussion group member read all 18 life stories (confidentiality of fathers in the study was protected by changing the names and places mentioned in the stories). The purpose of the discussion was to learn more about the reactions, thoughts, and feelings front line child protection workers had about the life stories of these fathers.
To read the 18 fathers' stories, go to Fathers and Child Welfare.
UNDERSTANDING WORKERS' EXPERIENCES AS EMPLOYEES IN CHILD WELFARE
Our focus in this study has been to understand the complex set of individual and organizational characteristics that contribute to staff turnover, to other indicators of organizational health, and to the overall quality of the helping environment for service participants and providers. Using the workplace survey results collected in phase I and the comments of both survey respondents and focus group members, we looked in particular at what might predict or be related to an employee's intention to leave their agency, to experience high levels of burnout or emotional exhaustion, and to be satisfied with her or his job.
In child welfare, 46% of all employees who responded to the survey indicated high levels of overall job satisfaction, and even among direct service workers, 42% reported high levels of overall job satisfaction. These very positive numbers are juxtaposed with the over 12% of respondents who indicated they intended to leave their agencies, the 40% who reported high levels of emotional exhaustion, and the 30% of respondents who reported having impersonal and unfeeling responses to service recipients. How can these figures be reconciled?
In an effort to further explore the complex relationship between levels of emotional exhaustion and job satisfaction in child welfare, we interviewed employees who fell into one of the following three categories:
1. High level of emotional exhaustion and high level of overall job satisfaction (Group 1).
2. High level of emotional exhaustion and low level of overall job satisfaction (Group 2).
3. Low level of emotional exhaustion and high level of overall job satisfaction (Group 3).
With the assistance of our child welfare partners, we administered a follow up questionnaire to employees. This information was used to categorize respondents into one of the three groups. Employees were contacted by letter and asked to participate in an interview with researchers. Participation was completely voluntary and confidential. We spoke to 25 employees working in child welfare (ten from Group 1, five from Group 2, and ten from Group 3).
Researchers examined interview content from each of the three groups to look for themes that may differentiate the experiences of job satisfaction and stress for employees in child welfare. Researchers were particularly interested in organizational factors perceived in the environment as well as individual self-identified qualities and coping mechanisms that are implicated in how workers experience stress and job satisfaction differentially.
To read the full length research report, go to Child Welfare Worker Interview Analysis.
ALTERNATIVE DELIVERY MODELS IN CHILD WELFARE
A priority for the Project has been to identify positive innovations in child welfare and children’s mental health. Several of our child welfare partners have created important positive innovations in implementing their child welfare mandate. They have requested assistance from the Partnerships Project in improving understanding and in publicizing:
(1) the Shelldale Centre: A Village of Support in Guelph, which brings child welfare services, multiple other human services, and neighbourhood residents under one roof
(2) community protection and prevention services located in neighbourhoods in Brantford
(3) school-based child welfare services in Halton
Our method is to investigate the nature and experiences of these alternative paradigms from the perspectives of families, service providers in child welfare, and the communities in which they are located. A key consideration in this research will be to maximize comparisons across the three sites, as well as comparisons to the profiles of ‘regular’ child welfare services in our phase I research.
We spoke to 46 parents, 12 community members, 25 service providers, and 12 individuals representing organizations that work with Children's Aid in the communities in which these programs are located. Specific program reports have been prepared for each of the participating child welfare agencies. An overall synthesis report that comments on overall themes that cross all three programs is also available.
Read the Final Report and visit the Research Publications page for additional site-specific reports.
A study of the life stories of 18 women involved with child welfare services
A study of 6 stories each co-authored by a parent, the matched service provider and researchers about the experience of sharing a positive helping relationship in child welfare
A study of the experiences of 31 mothers who had a child placed in care outside of the home (either voluntary or involuntary)
A study of 8 families’ experiences with child welfare services
A study of the daily living realities and service experiences of 61 parents involved with child welfare
A comparative study of 26 matched pairs of parents and their child welfare service provider
A study of 29 families’ experiences of receiving children’s mental health residential treatment services
An in-depth exploration of the experiences of 12 families involved with an intensive child and family services program for children with complex mental health problems
A survey of over 400 employees working in child welfare and focus groups with front line service providers, supervisors, and managers
The following paragraphs highlight key findings from this early research.
DAILY LIVING REALITIES
Families involved with child welfare confront a number of challenges and disadvantages that in combination make for complex and demanding life circumstances. The following paragraphs highlight some of the patterns common in our previous research:
Of approximately the 140 interviews conducted with parents involved with child welfare services only a handful of families could be described as other than “working poor” or “low income families”.
Many families described financial and living circumstances which left them vulnerable to disruptions. From our life stories study, all women at some point had been single mothers and typically this coincided with a substantial drop in their income. Most had been on social assistance at one time.
Parents confronted issues of unstable living arrangements, poverty, abuse, substance abuse, problems with physical health, mental health problems, poor neighbourhoods, isolation, unemployment, and disability.
Stories of hardships that included incidents of childhood abuse as well as incidents of abuse in adult relationships were mentioned by many mothers who had a child placed outside of the home. Some spoke of their personal struggles with addiction and depression.
Long term relationships with partners were not discussed often. More common were a series of relationships with different partners over time. From the life stories, most of the children in these stories were not living with their biological fathers and many had minimal contact with them.
Despite many of the challenges facing families, almost two-thirds of parents describe taking part in leisure and recreational activities in our study of 61 parents involved with child welfare. Common activities included low-cost family activities such as camping, walking, swimming, going to the park, and family trips. Less than one-quarter of parents mentioned sending their children to organized community activities or sports, most likely because the costs made this prohibitive.
Families trying to manage the extremely challenging behaviour of one of their children represent a major sub-grouping of families in our research in both child welfare and children’s mental health:
The constant daily living pressure on families with an emotionally or behaviourally challenged child is intense and unlike the experiences of any other sub-grouping of families in our previous research.
Families, but mothers in particular, pay an extraordinary price coping with such pressure over many years in terms of emotional and physical health, break up of families, and lost work and educational opportunities.
Our research raises serious concerns about longer term functioning for these children as they move through life transitions such as moving into adulthood.
Many families facing the challenges of raising a child with emotional or behavioural difficulties become involved with child welfare and the absence of appropriate responses was highlighted by parents. Very few of these families talked about receiving useful assistance from the Children’s Aid Society.
In our study of families involved with residential treatment, two-thirds of families had experiences of working with both child welfare and residential treatment services. Thirteen of the families (45%) who had their children placed in residential treatment also had their child placed outside of the home by CAS in a foster home, group home, or emergency shelter.
LEVEL AND RANGE OF ASSISTANCE
Families received a variety of services and supports as a result of their involvement with child welfare.
Services that parents identified as helpful included referrals that enabled them to access daycare, counselling, assessment, and/or treatment for themselves or their children.
They also identified concrete help, such as food, shelter, and special education for their children as useful.
For some families, however, assistance was limited to a standardized range of service options and these helping strategies sometimes fell short in their usefulness for families.
Parents described receiving a fairly standardized range of interventions: individual and group counselling of various types, anger management and parenting courses, and alcohol and drug testing and treatment were most common.
This “one size fits all” model may limit the ways in which parents and service providers interact, as well as restrict the conceptualization of service plans that are perceived to be individualized, creative, or negotiated.
Mothers and mothering received much of the attention in child welfare interventions. Mothers were frequently held responsible and accountable for making improvements in family functioning. More often than not, our research showed that even when there was a long time partner in the home, the male partner only became a focus of the child welfare investigation if he was a perpetrator of child or partner abuse.
Mothers were repeatedly the focus of interventions, with particular emphasis being placed on addressing mothers’ unresolved personal issues, such as childhood trauma, alcoholism, or abusive relationships. Interventions were generally parent-focused with little support provided directly to children.
Descriptions of first contacts between parents and service providers were mixed. Many parents expressed fear around the first time child welfare became involved with their families. Parents appreciated service providers who acknowledged their fears and clearly explained what was going to happen.
Clear and direct communication about the reasons for child welfare involvement and clear explanations of agency expectations was thought to alleviate parents’ fears.
Service providers who came to the door with an attitude of support and receptiveness were able to create less adversarial interactions with parents.
Parents voiced dissatisfaction around first contacts with child welfare that were perceived as overly intrusive and coercive. Intrusive interventions described by parents included unannounced home visits, the accompaniment of police upon the initial visit, immediate apprehension of children, and searching through a family’s home, including kitchen cupboards and the refrigerator.
The use of early intrusive interventions was perceived as an impediment to establishing effective service relationships by both parents and service providers.
RELATIONSHIPS WITH SERVICE PROVIDERS
The study of co-authored stories of successful relationships and other studies indicated that it is possible and important, although sometimes difficult, to establish and maintain good helping relationships in child welfare. Other findings about relationships between parents and service providers included:
Parents most often appreciated having someone who would listen to them and who believed that they were doing their best. Service providers were also appreciated for offering useful advice and finding helpful resources.
Traits of a “good” service provider in child welfare identified by parents included being informal, down-to-earth, friendly, genuine, respectful, empathic, supportive, encouraging, and hopeful.
Parents appreciated service providers who “went the extra mile” by sharing feelings, doing things that were perceived to be outside of their jobs (such as driving a parent to an appointment), and being realistic and flexible with parents. Service providers themselves noted that these “extras” were the more enjoyable aspects of their child welfare work.
Obstacles such as little time available to help families, formal timelines and recording requirements presented challenges to building relationships between families and service providers.
Many parents identified infrequent contact with their service provider and the difficulty in getting service providers to return their calls.
Having more than one service provider while their case was open was commonly mentioned by parents. Parents expressed frustration around “telling their story” over and over with each new service provider. For service providers, the frequent transferring of cases was associated with feelings of not ever really getting to know a family in the little time that they work together.
Some mothers talked about being made to feel guilty until they proved themselves innocent. This sense of being criminalized by the system could be intensified or ameliorated by different service providers.
Between 1997 and 2001 there was an unprecedented 40.2% increase in the substitute care population in Ontario. At that time, over 13,000 children and their mothers were experiencing the various impacts of substitute placement. Our study of 31 mothers who had a child placed in substitute care by the Children’s Aid Society showed that:
Frequently the voluntary placement of children was experienced by mothers as a welcomed intervention. This was particularly true for families struggling with an emotionally or behaviourally disordered child. Mothers described a natural sense of loss, but also expressed feelings of relief. They believed they coped as well as could be expected under difficult circumstances.
Situations of apprehension (involuntary placement) were associated with intensely negative feelings including grief, fear, and shame. Some mothers were confused about why the apprehension occurred and felt accused of being a “bad” mother.
In situations of apprehension, service plans were primarily focussed on changing mothers’ behaviour and mothers felt that they were left with little choice but to comply. Legal processes often reinforced this helplessness.
Collaboration with service providers and foster parents was important to creating a positive placement experience.
SERVICE PROVIDER EXPERIENCES
From our survey of over 400 child welfare service providers, it is clear that working in child welfare can be a challenging and rewarding job both professionally and personally. Our research highlights a number of issues central to the experiences of service providers:
46% of all employees who responded to the survey indicated high levels of overall job satisfaction, and even among front line service providers, 42% reported high levels of overall job satisfaction. Focus group comments suggested that feelings of gratification were associated with believing one’s work is important and meaningful. Dissatisfaction was linked to increased documentation and less time for direct contact with families.
The current emphasis on standardized risk assessment, documentation, and court preparation appears to have impacted the way many employees experience child welfare work. Service providers described struggling to reconcile their “policing” role with their “social work” role.
43.5% of front line service providers reported being highly emotionally exhausted (as measured by the Maslach Burnout Inventory). Thirty-nine percent of all employees who responded to the survey reported high levels of emotional exhaustion, suggesting that high levels of stress affect a significant proportion of individuals working in child welfare.
Among front line service providers, 39% reported high levels of “depersonalization” (an unfeeling and impersonal response) towards the families they worked with. Only 33% of front line service providers scored in the low range on this measure of depersonalization. Feelings of depersonalization are thought to be one way of coping with high levels of emotional exhaustion in one’s work.
STRENGTHS OF FAMILIES
Often underrepresented in professional discourse, what emerged from talking to parents was a sense of the perseverance and strength of families as they strive to improve their lives. We noted that:
In many of the stories, becoming and being a mother was central in these women’s lives. Many talked fondly about “who their children are” and endeavoured to maintain a family and a home for themselves and their children, under sometimes very difficult circumstances.
Relationships with extended family, especially with mothers, and other family members played a central role for about half of these women and their families. This was often true even in stories of abusive childhoods. Families were around for many of these women long after social services had gone away.
We heard stories of survival and resiliency. Many women overcame significant life obstacles such as childhood abuse and violent partners and talked about future hopes for themselves and their families.
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Ontario (Secretariat to the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Working Group on Child and Family Services Information, 2002).