Successfully engaging parents is a challenging element of child welfare practice, particularly in involuntary services, such as foster care. The complex and co-occurring problems experienced by parents (Marcenko et al., 2011) can create barriers to engagement. Few studies have examined parent engagement during early stages of foster care and considered parents’ views on potential barriers. This descriptive study used data from parent-reported engagement and challenges to explore these issues at the time of initial case plan. Our research questions were: 1) What were the levels of parents’ engagement early in their foster care involvement?; 2) What challenges did parents identify most frequently?; and 3) Were significant associations identified between parent reports of engagement and challenges?
A purposive sampling approach was used during an 18-month period to invite all parents to complete a questionnaire at their first case plan following a child’s placement into foster care (N=269). Case managers presented parents with written materials from university-based researchers to inform them of the study and invite their voluntary participation. Measures included the client engagement scale short form (Yatchmenoff, 2005), which measured overall engagement with the foster care agency across four dimensions (receptivity, buy-in, working relationship, trust). Challenges were measured by a researcher-developed list of 16 potential challenges, which permitted parents to endorse multiple challenges (e.g., transportation, substance use, housing, etc.). Following univariate analysis and checks for internal consistency, we examined bivariate associations with ANOVA.
Out of a maximum score of 70, parent engagement scores ranged from 19 to 70 with an overall average at moderate levels (M=51.3, SD=10.6). Approximately two-thirds of parents identified one or more challenges, indicating the most prevalent challenges were transportation (25.3%) and substance use (17.5%). Other common challenges related to financial hardship, such as finding affordable housing (14.5%), a job (12.3%), and affordable services (11.2%); and to service access (taking a long time to get services, 15.3%; affordable childcare, 13.0%). Bivariate analyses showed significant, negative associations between engagement and the following challenges: 1) it takes a long time to get services (F=7.5, p<.01); 2) did not understand why we needed social services (F=37.1, p<.001); 3) did not understand what social services wanted (F=7.5, p<.01); and, 4) judge was too hard on us (F=14.6, p<.05). There was a significant, positive association between parent engagement and the challenge of drug or alcohol use (F=4.9, p<.05).
This study contributes to foster care literature by building knowledge on parent engagement and parent-endorsed challenges in the early stage of foster care. Results suggest parents who have recently had their child removed report moderate levels of engagement, indicating this early period of foster care may be an opportune time for workers to focus on engaging parents. Strategies may be necessary to support parents’ engagement, particularly when they do not understand why their child was removed or the expectations of the agencies. Results also indicate parents may have difficulty accessing services timely. Access to services is critical for parents working toward reunification. Implications for practice and future research will be discussed.