The helping relationship is a key element of child welfare practice (deBoer & Coady, 2007). Yet, there is limited knowledge on how this relationship develops in the foster care setting. Further, as parents’ use of services has been associated with reunification (D’Andrade & Nguyen, 2014), understanding the perceptions of parents and workers on how this relationship influences parent participation in services is critical. This qualitative study used data from interviews with foster care care-involved parents and child welfare workers assigned to their cases to explore these issues. Our research questions were: 1) How do foster care-involved parents and their workers describe their relationship? and, 2) To what extent do foster care-involved parents and their workers perceive the helping relationship as influential to parent participation in case activities?
This study’s sample included six parent-worker dyads (n=12). The sampling frame comprised 68 parents who completed a parent engagement survey at the time of their initial foster care case plan and indicated willingness to participate in a follow up interview. The list of potential participants was randomized in Excel. Researchers attempted to contact 52 parents. Of those who responded, 16 parents participated in interviews prior to reaching saturation; 6 gave permission to contact their workers for interviews. Two semi-structured interview guides (i.e., one for parents, one for workers) were developed, and individual interviews were conducted by two researchers. Trustworthiness and rigor were increased through the use of multiple coders, peer debriefing, and triangulation between parent-worker dyad transcripts (Padgett, 2017). Thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) was used to analyze data.
Parents and workers shared perspectives about the helping relationship in foster care. Themes included attitudes and behaviors that facilitated or hindered good helping relationships, as well as the perceived importance of the helping relationship as it related to parents’ participation in case activities. Common across parent and worker interviews were subthemes of trust, honesty, responsiveness, and follow through as critical components of a good helping relationship. Parents and workers had differing perceptions of the influence of the helping relationship on parent participation in case activities. Parents did not identify the helping relationship as a main driver for case participation; yet, parents recognized that the relationship (good vs. poor) affected their stress surrounding their case participation. Workers – particularly those who believed they had positive relationships with parents – identified the helping relationship as important for parents’ case participation.
This study contributes to the foster care literature in at least two important ways. First, these findings support those from prior research that indicate key aspects of good helping relationships include trust, honesty, and responsiveness. In this study, parents and workers emphasized similar attitudes and behaviors that aided the development of good helping relationships. Second, this study increases understanding about the perceived importance that parents and workers assign to the helping relationship as a driver for parent participation in case activities. Future research is necessary to explore the influence of the helping relationship on parents’ participation in foster care services.