Research examining parents' engagement in child welfare case planning and services suggests that engagement varies by not only parental and case characteristics but also characteristics of the child welfare organization and characteristics of the child welfare worker. Family characteristics that have been found to inhibit engagement include race, poverty, housing instability, parent-child separation, social isolation, substance abuse, domestic violence, and other mental health issues (Alvidrez, 1999; McKay, McCadam, & Gonzales, 1996; Alpert, 2005; Dawson & Berry, 2002; Littell, Alexander, & Reynolds, 2001).
Evidence also points to the importance of supportive work environments and worker empowerment to efforts to more effectively engage parents (Callahan & Lumb, 1995; National Center for Youth Law, 2007). Glisson and Hemmelgarn (1998) found that positive relationships between workers and clients are most likely to occur in organizations where caseworkers “agree on their roles, are satisfied with their jobs, and cooperate with each other.” Adequate supervision, job clarity, and workers autonomy is also associated with higher levels of collaboration with families (Littell and Tajima, 2000).
Although prior research has contributed importantly to understanding the complexity of parental engagement, knowledge of the relative importance of the many factors associated with engagement is needed to develop the most promising strategies for improving engagement. The current study uses multivariate regression analysis to assess the relative influence of organizational, worker, and caregiver/case characteristics on workers' self-reported use of engagement practices, their perception of caregivers' level of cooperation, and the workers' report of their inclusion of the family in case planning.
Methods and Results
Surveys administered to social workers (n=971, 96% response rate) participating in an evaluation of a parent engagement practice model measured their approaches to casework practice, their perceptions of obstacles to helping families, and their job satisfaction and perceptions of working conditions. Workers also assessed a family randomly-selected by the evaluators from their caseload.
Whereas organizational and worker characteristics accounted for no more than two percent of the variance in any of the three engagement measures, workers' perceptions of caregiver/case characteristics explained 21 percent of the variance in workers' use of family engagement casework practices, 46 percent of the variance in workers' reports of caregiver cooperation, and 27 percent of the variance in the workers' inclusion of the family in case planning. A particularly powerful predicator was workers' perceptions of caregivers' parenting adequacy. Workers' perceptions of caregivers' parenting adequacy was associated with a .57 standard deviation (p < .01) increase in workers' reports of caregivers' cooperation, a .50 standard deviation increase in workers' reports of using engagement practices (p < .01), and a .47 standard deviation (p < .01) increase in workers' inclusion of the family in case planning.
Conclusions and Implications
These findings suggest that parent and case characteristics, particularly workers' perceptions of parents' parenting adequacy, plays a major role above and beyond worker and organizational characteristics in the workers' use of family engagement practices, the workers' perception of parental cooperation, and the workers' inclusion of the parent in case planning. Accordingly, strategies to improve parent engagement should give adequate attention to practices aimed specifically at engaging parents whose parenting is perceived to be less adequate.