Engaging parents in child welfare services is a long-standing challenge due to the involuntary status of parent involvement, the nature of the issues that brought them to the attention of the agency (Alpert, 2005; Littell, Alexander & Reynolds, 2001), and their prior, often negative, experiences with such institutions (Kerkorian, McKay, & Bannon, 2006).Given these factors, many parents are poorly connected to key services, including court-mandated services (Butlenr, Radia, & Magnatta, 1994; Jellinek, Murphy, Poitrast, Quinn, Bishop, & Goshko, 1992). Particularly troubling is evidence that families of color received and use fewer services and supports that while families (Benedict, White, Stallings, & Corneley, 1989; Courtney, Barth, Berrick, Brooks, Needell, & Park, 1996; Hill, 2006).
Detailed understandings of the multilevel issues that support or derail parents' engagement in services are necessary foundation for successful engagement interventions. Engagement strategies must therefore respond to parents' contextual and personal factors in culturally appropriate ways if parents are to be connected to and successfully navigate the child welfare system. The current study uses multivariate regression analysis to assess the relative influence of parental demographic factors (race, age, partner status, number of children, and education) and parental preconditions (financial strain, addictions, mental health, and parenting stress) on parents' perception of workers' use of engagement strategies.
Face-to-face interviews were conducted with the primary caregivers of families whose children were either in out-of-home care or who were receiving in-home supervision from the public child welfare agency. All parents who both were currently served by the child welfare system and had been clients between 60 and 180 days were eligible for the study (N=990). The response rate was 82 percent (n=810). Measures of financial strain, mental health and substance abuse (Sheehan, et al., 1992), parenting stress (Abidin, 1995), domestic violence (Straus, 1979), and parent engagement (Yatchmenoff, 2005) were administered at a time and placement convenient for the caregiver. Respondents were paid $50 in appreciation for their time.
None of the demographic variables with the exception of partner status (p = .05) had a signification impact on perceived parent engagement. Parenting stress (p < .01), substance abuse (p < .01), and the type of family involvement (in-home versus out-of-home) (p < .01) were also significant predictors of engagement. All of the relationships were in the expected direction, i.e. greater parenting stress, substance abuse history, and children in out-of-home care were associated with lower levels of perceived engagement. Despite these significant relationships, the model explained only 7 percent of the variance in engagement.
Conclusions and Implications
These findings suggest that while parenting stress, substance abuse, and the type of family involvement with child welfare are significant predictors of parent engagement, these factors account for a relatively small proportion of the variance. Other variables such as workers' perception of the parents' capacity to parent and likelihood of reunification may be more robust predictors of parent engagement.