Studies have found that many parents have negative experiences with child welfare agencies. Fear and blame permeate the system and hinder the development of effective working relationships. Although it is especially difficult to engage parents who are being investigated for maltreatment, meaningful parent engagement could give voice to parents and ultimately lead to better safety and permanency outcomes. There has been increasing interest in innovative ways of elevating parents’ voice and meaningfully involving them in the development of more humane and socially just child protection processes. One such example is an emerging use of parent advocates, who share parents’ experiences of child welfare involvement. However, little is known how such programs impact parent engagement and involvement in child welfare decision-making and services as well as case outcomes.
This presentation helps to fill this gap by examining (1) the supports provided by parent advocates to increase parent involvement and (2) the impact of such services on child welfare outcomes. Drawing on participants’ suggestions, implications for future child welfare system reforms are discussed.
Multi-method study design was employed. Qualitative face-to-face interviews with parents (n=16), parent advocates (n=35), and child protective services staff (n=41) explored the types of supports offered to families by parent advocates. Quantitative data were generated from administrative case-level data pre-intervention (n=5598) and post-intervention (n=3224) to detect the impact of parent advocacy on child welfare outcomes. Bivariate and multivariate multinomial logistic model analyses were applied.
The study identified multiple constructs that comprised engagement and gave voice to parents: (a) reduction of mistrust, (b) understanding that the help matters, and (c) active participation, such as involvement in decision-making about their case, brainstorming of the service plan, acceptance of services and following up with caseworker recommendations. The quantitative data analyses demonstrated positive case outcomes, including decrease in the rates of removals from home and reliance on foster care services, as well as increase in placements with family members, whenever needed.
Conclusions and Implications
Parent advocacy contributed to the reduction of foster care placements and, as a result, more children remained home. Parents expressed gratitude for the many emotional and concrete supports the parent advocates provided in a time of familial crisis.
The study findings indicate that parent advocacy is a step forward towards building a family-centered practice in a highly adversarial and legal environment. From initial outreach to service provision, parent advocates worked closely with parents and child welfare staff to engage parents and assess and support the various needs of families. The innovative impetus behind the parent advocacy program and its promising conclusions offer a template for future endeavors similarly focused on strengthening permanency planning objectives and bolstering familial involvement. To increase the use of advocates and enhance engagement, policy, organizational, and administrative attention is needed that supports inclusive, participatory, and family-centered practice.