Assertive Engagement Practice Guide
This Practice Guide provides practical advice for practitioners about how to assertively engage with families who are involved in the Child and Family Support System (CFSS). Assertive engagement is critical when working with families who are reluctant to participate with services but need to engage promptly and consistently to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their children. Assertive engagement is particularly important in the delivery of family preservation services, as practitioners are required to build collaborative working relationships with families to ensure that families are effectively engaged in assessing risk and in planning to keep children safe at home.
As every family is different, the assertive engagement strategies that work, and those that don’t, will vary. Practitioners must be alert to the different types of non-engagement and react in a consistent and effective manner. If a family is persistently not engaged with a service and progress is not being made to address the identified safety issues, an assessment of the level of risk and safety for the child and family must take place. A practitioner, in consultation with their supervisor, must then identify an appropriate escalation strategy, including the possible involvement of the statutory child protection service.
Families with multiple and complex needs require various levels of specialist services and supports to reduce risk and build their capacity to safely care for and protect their children. However, research indicates that vulnerable families are also less likely to proactively approach, actively participate in or remain engaged with relevant services and supports. (Hackworth, NJ, Matthews, J, Westrupp, EM et al, 2018) As a result, these families face two risks; the risk to the safety of their children as well as the risk of becoming part of the child protection system.
In this context, it takes extraordinary courage and resilience for children and families to build trusting relationships with new workers and services. To help build this relationship, practitioners must be respectful, creative and assertive in their approach to engaging with vulnerable families. Assertive engagement takes a proactive approach to delivering support. It challenges the idea that a client is always responsible for engaging with services and instead requires the practitioner to persistently and consistently approach the client to build a relationship, to engage them in critical conversations around risk, capacity and functioning, and to continue to offer support. (Department of Human Services, Case Management Framework, Safer Family Services, 2020)
CFSS services are offered to families at risk of entering the statutory child protection system. While client engagement with CFSS services is voluntary, it is important that families are aware that refusing a referral or support may result in statutory intervention from the Department for Child Protection. Where a client appears to be resistant to engaging with a service, the practitioner is expected to be more creative in their approach. CFSS services will often need to make continuous attempts to contact families using multiple methods (such as phone, home visiting, and approaching with other existing services), so that families can make an informed choice about their involvement with the service. (Harvey, E, Harman-Smith, Y, and Brinkman, S, 2020)
The use of assertive engagement strategies requires a high level of skill and commitment from practitioners. Practitioners are required to adopt flexible ways to build rapport and establish a healing relationship while addressing child safety. This may involve being prepared to meet in locations where families feel most comfortable and being brave in having difficult conversations.
Why may a family be reluctant to engage?
There are a variety of reasons why a family may be reluctant to actively engage with or wish to disengage from a service. Some reasons may include:
- fear that children will be taken away, fear they won’t be able to make the changes required, and fear of judgement about how and where they live
- negative or harmful experiences with service providers or experiences with service providers who have not listened to them
- services seen to be lacking cultural authority or not working in ways that respect their cultural needs and strengths
- experiences of systemic racism
- being prohibited from having contact with a service by a perpetrator of family violence, or experiences of services refusing to engage with a perpetrator of family violence
- inflexibility in approaches to service delivery (for example, not providing outreach via home visits, and so on.)
- language barriers (including difficulty accessing or using an interpreter) or a lack of confidence in speaking or understanding English fluently
- difficulty attending services due to limited access to transport, the absence of childcare arrangements or other family, work or study obligations
- experiences of crises or past unresolved trauma that prevent following through with service provision expectations
- over servicing, leading the family to feel overwhelmed by service provider expectations, or experiences of service fatigue from the involvement of multiple services
What are some of the signs that a family has disengaged?
Signs of family disengagement from a service can be overt and others hard can be hard to interpret. All are relevant. These behaviours may include:
- not being home, or appearing not to be home for scheduled home visits
- missing scheduled appointments without explanation or with explanations which indicate appointments are not a priority
- not returning telephone calls or responding to text messages
- making repeated excuses why a practitioner cannot see the child
- saying “yes” to everything (motivated by fear/power imbalance).
Aboriginal children and families
As practitioners we must acknowledge the historical and ongoing impact of colonisation, dispossession, genocide, forced removal policies (Stolen Generations) and practices such as segregation, assimilation and racism on Aboriginal communities. The resulting intergenerational and complex trauma continues to impact Aboriginal individuals, families and communities. Distrust and fear of agencies, particularly mainstream government agencies are directly linked to these harmful policies and practices. These experiences may cause an Aboriginal client to be reluctant to engage with a support service for fear of statutory intervention. With this knowledge assertive engagement can be adapted in culturally responsive ways for Aboriginal children and families.
Cultural consultation should occur prior to commencing engagement with a family to gain knowledge of the cultural context in which child safety concerns are raised and to guide the response and service intervention. Consultation with wider Aboriginal kinship systems such as Community Elders, cultural authorities/decision makers, Aboriginal workers, community-controlled organisations or staff in other organisations that know the family may also take place to assist in approaching family members and working in flexible ways to build rapport with children and families.
Practitioners should ensure transparency early in the process (first meeting) regarding information sharing, confidentiality and obtaining consents wherever possible and practical to do so.
Some Aboriginal families may have different communication styles. It is important to enquire about these communication styles when commencing engagement with a family. If you are speaking with an Aboriginal person whose first language is not English, it is also important to seek advice about appropriate communication protocols. A practitioner may need an interpreter to ensure that language barriers do not compromise the quality of service.
It is important that clients are offered a choice about who they work with. We must never assume that because a client is Aboriginal that they will want to work with an Aboriginal service or Aboriginal worker. (Sawrikar, P, and Katz, I 2008). ]Some families may prefer to work with a person of the same cultural background and perspective. However, some families may want to seek assistance outside a closely-knit cultural community for reasons of anonymity or concerns with confidentiality (SNAICC 2010).
Aboriginal families must be supported to self-determine solutions that enhance the safety of their children within cultural practices, inclusive of Aboriginal family led decision making and collective parenting practices. True partnership with Aboriginal families will ensure that solutions are family led and sustainable.
For additional information refer to the Practice Resource: Aboriginal Cultural Lenses of Practice which has been to developed to provide a guide all CFSS staff in their practice with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.
Culturally and Linguistically Diverse children and families
When working with culturally and linguistically diverse clients, refugees and new arrivals, it is important that practitioners have an understanding of how the migration experience and settlement process may impact on their engagement with services. Some of the barriers to engagement may include:
- a fear or suspicion of authorities and government officials based on pre-migration experiences
- a reluctance to seek support because of the stigma associated with seeking help from outside of the family group
- a fear of jeopardising the person or family’s residency status in Australia
- a previous experience of culturally insensitive interventions by professionals.
Before meeting with the family, consultation should occur with cultural consultants, workers or other organisations who have worked effectively with the family to gain knowledge of the cultural context in which child safety concerns are raised and to help guide the response and service intervention. This is important to ensure that any cultural protocols are observed while working with the family.
Effective communication recognises that different approaches and strategies may be required as well as sensitivity to the role of both verbal and non-verbal cues in seeking to communicate successfully with families.
If English is not a parent’s first language additional time or a more flexible approach may be needed to support their participation. A practitioner may need an interpreter to ensure that there is clarity in all discussions, families wishes are heard and understood, and decisions and processes are made clear. It is important to ask the client if they have any preferences for the interpreter. This may include the interpreter’s gender, ethnicity, or whether they are sourced from outside of the local community (an interstate interpreting agency may be used). You may request that the interpreting service provide a list of interpreters and provide this list to the client so they can select an interpreter they are comfortable with. Also ask the client if they would like to use a different interpreter for each appointment to safeguard impartiality, or the same interpreter for each appointment to support continuity of care. Refer to Using Interpreting Services Practice Guide.
It is important to ask the client if they would prefer a practitioner who is of the same cultural background as themselves (if the service has a worker from that background); their choice should not be assumed, simply based on their cultural background. (Sawrikar, P, and Katz, I 2008).
Managers, Supervisors and Senior Staff are responsible for:
- Supporting a clear agency-wide approach to assertive engagement.
- Ensuring staff are aware of their obligation to assertively engage with families to ensure the safety and well being of children and are supported to do so
- Strengthening ongoing assertive engagement practice through clinical supervision and training.
- Providing appropriate advice and guidance when concerns are raised in respect of families who do not attend appointments/disengage/are at risk of disengaging from services.
- Ensuring clinical governance for practitioners to support self-reflection, build cultural fitness and responsiveness, practice with cultural humility and understand both individual and organisational white privilege
- Ensuring cultural consultations are available and regularly utilised by practitioners to support engagement with families in ways that are appropriate and respectful of culture
- Managing worker safety and observing safe work practices.
Practitioners are responsible for:
- Being aware of their obligations to respectfully, creatively and assertively engage with families to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children
- Adopting strategies to approach clients and supporting them to actively participate in and remain engaged with relevant services and supports.
- Persistently and consistently following up with clients, even when a client is resistant or reluctant to engaging with a service
- Participating in cultural consultations to support engagement with families in ways that are appropriate and respectful of culture
- Upholding clear lines of communication with clients, partnering with them, having a shared language, and being flexible in case plan goals to address any barriers to engagement.
- Alerting supervisors or other senior staff when a client is suspected to be disengaging from services particularly when concerns about safety and wellbeing of children have not been addressed.
- Working collaboratively with team members and partner agencies to identify ways to support client engagement in services.
- Documenting case notes of all agency engagement, including attempts to make contact with clients and non-attendance at scheduled appointments.
1. Encourage initial engagement
Prepare for initial engagement with the family
Before reaching out to a family, a practitioner should:
- Read the referral and any additional background information and learn about the family’s history. The ensures the practitioner is clear about the purpose of their involvement and prevents the family from having to retell their story when they make contact. A practitioner should seek clarification from a supervisor if they are unclear about the purpose of the involvement.
- Consult with other services working with the family. It is important to identify other services that are working with the family (such as Child and Family Health Services, Birthing Hospitals, SAPOL and education sites) and make contact with them to discuss their involvement and strategies that have worked to engage the family. Try to find ways that you can work together to support the family. Is there a practitioner known to the family that can introduce you to the child and family?
- Arrange a joint home visit. When meeting a family for the first time, it may be easier to build a trusting relationship if a practitioner is accompanied by a worker from another agency or a community leader already known to the family. Contact the family before you visit to ask whether they would like to have a support person present who knows them and/or their culture. This can include Aboriginal Elders and emerging Elders, kinship connections, community members, an individual family’s cultural authority/decision makers, Aboriginal staff members or Aboriginal service providers.
- Work collaboratively with team members. Team members can provide a great source of support in helping to identify new ideas and solutions to engage with a family.
- Consider the family’s cultural background: practitioners must be sensitive to a family’s cultural strengths and needs and consult with relevant cultural experts on the right protocols and ways of working with the family (see Cultural Considerations on pages 2 and 3).
- Identify opportunities for immediate practical support. In the early stages of involvement, an important way to foster engagement with families is to support them to address some of their immediate, practical needs. Some ways of doing this may include helping them to gain access to other services, to transport them to appointments, or to assistance with basic needs such as food.
- Maintain a non-judgmental stance. A family may be experiencing multiple and complex challenges and have varying levels of capacity to work with your service. It is important to maintain a non-judgmental stance about the problems they face or their previous lack of service engagement.
Be persistent, respectful and creative when reaching out to a family to encourage their initial engagement
Engagement begins with initial contact being made with a family and develops into an ongoing relationship building process. Practitioners must be persistent, respectful and creative when reaching out to families to actively encourage their initial engagement with their service, even when discouraged by clients. To help facilitate initial engagement a practitioner should:
- Make contact in a timely way. It is important for families to be engaged as soon as possible to ensure child and family safety and reduce likelihood of statutory intervention.
- Let the family know what to expect. Before meeting with a family, contact them to introduce yourself. At the beginning of the conversation, make sure to ask if it is a good time to chat. Be open about why a referral has been made, what they can expect at the first meeting and what might happen if they choose not to be involved. After the call, send the family follow up information (by email, letter or text) explaining what you have just outlined on the phone. It is helpful for families to have this information to read and think about before your first meeting. (CFSS Lived Experience Network, March 2021)
- Create a good first impression. The first contact that a family has with a service is key to subsequent engagement. The initial engagement needs to be warm, respectful and supportive to start the process of building trust and connection. Remember you are the ‘face of the system’ in which the client may have had numerous or complex experiences, adding to their trauma and mistrust.
- If the family is difficult to reach, try a range of modes to make contact. This may include:
- calling the family on multiple occasions at different times and on different days
- sending the family text messages
- writing the family a letter explaining the importance of making the initial contact
- visiting the family home at different times and on different days. If the family is not home, leave a calling card to let them know you visited
- visiting the family’s last known address (if the family is known to be highly mobile)
- contacting other known family members or other agencies involved to inquire about whether the family has a new phone number or address to help you get in touch.
To support engagement, services need to be flexible. The following strategies can help to make a service accessible:
- Provide services in the local community or the home: Services should be flexible and be located in places where families are. Ask the family if there is somewhere they would prefer to meet. This could include meeting the family at home or in the community (like a local park, cafe or cultural centre) where the family is not required to travel extensively. ( Doherty, Hall and Kinder 2003, cited in op 26.)
- Consider child-care arrangements: Ask the family whether they would prefer to meet and have critical conversations at a time when the children are not present. Planning appointments around the needs of children, such as naps and school drop off and pick up times, is important to ensure engagement is meaningful and other critical tasks are considered and planned for. This also models positive organisational skills for families.
- Help the family get ready for appointments: If the family needs to attend appointments at an office or another venue, the practitioner might consider arriving early at the family home and helping the children and family get ready (Katz et al., 2001). This assistance should be stepped down over time to ensure that a family does not become dependent on this support. If this assistance is not within the scope of service delivery for a specific program, the practitioner might have a conversation with the family or help them make a plan about how they will prepare for the appointment, or seek assistance from a friend, family or community member.
- Provide practical support to the family: A family may be better able to engage with services when they are supported in areas where they are experiencing stress. Demonstrate empathy for their circumstances and let them know what practical support you can provide. Be creative in the support that is provided. This might include support to help meet a families’ basic needs by using brokerage to obtain household items (for example, cots, clothes, safety gates), helping a family to gain access to other services, helping with school drop offs, taking family members to appointments, coordinating food packages.
2. Support ongoing engagement
Invest the time to build a trusting and supportive relationship with the family
It takes extraordinary courage and resilience for a child and family to build a trusting relationship with a new worker or service. To help form a trusting and supportive relationship with the child and family it is important to:
- Provide sufficient time to invest in the relationship: It can take time to build a trusting and engaged relationship with a family, particularly when they are experiencing multiple and complex challenges. This must be balanced with the need to provide immediate support to a family to ensure they start making positive changes to keep children safe in their homes, with their families and culture.
- Be open and honest about the safety and wellbeing of the child and the purpose of the practitioner’s involvement: Some families will not be aware that concerns have been raised about the safety or wellbeing of their child. Practitioners must be prepared to have difficult conversations with families about patterns of behaviour that might place a child at risk. A practitioner should provide clear information about the practitioner’s role and how they will work in partnership with the family to identify their strengths and needs, and develop an active plan to address the concerns identified. Practitioners should be open with families about the possibility of statutory child protection involvement if changes are not made to ensure a safe home environment and safe relationships.
- Be brave in challenging situations: It is important to manage discomfort, whether that be the practitioner’s discomfort or a family’s discomfort, when having the hard conversations. This means that a practitioner needs to be able to ‘sit’ with being uncomfortable and acknowledge that ‘this is a really hard conversation, but it’s really important.’ A person with a lived experience of significant trauma relies on knowing exactly where they stand (especially when there is an imbalance of power). Although it may be a difficult conversation for both parties, it will likely help the worker-client relationship because openness and honesty is so important for traumatised people, and it will give them a chance to work on things that they may not have even realised were issues (you can't fix something if you don't know it is broken).( CFSS Lived Experience Network, November 2020)
- Remain curious and seek to obtain understanding from the family’s point of view: Often services may receive information that may not be accurate or contain a balanced account. It is essential to seek the family’s version of events and to actively listen to show they are being heard. Within this stance of curiosity, a practitioner may be required to gently challenge a family’s version of events based upon information reported or contained within the referral.
- Seek support to address fears: Sometimes is can be daunting for practitioners to engage with families who are angry at practitioners for coming into their lives and pressuring them to engage. Working with families experiencing family violence is another common situation that can raise fears in practitioners and can make it difficult to sustain engagement. When a practitioner is intimidated by an aggressive or threatening individual or is otherwise reluctant or fearful about continuing engagement, it is important to discuss concerns with a supervisor, manager and/or other colleagues. These discussions can help to identify an appropriate course of action and support, any escalation strategies and ensure compliance with work health and safety policies.
Be consistent and persistent in maintaining ongoing contact
To encourage a family to stay engaged with services, it is useful to:
- Invite the client to determine the best method of contact for them. This may be by text message, phone, email or letter. Practitioners should be sensitive to a client’s levels of comprehension and understanding of the spoken and written English language.
- Set up consistent appointments at a time that works for the client. Ask the client to identify a time of the week that works well for them and establish a regular appointment at that time. Let them know you will call, message or email the day before to remind them.
- Provide reminders via phone, SMS, email or letter. Before each appointment, contact the client (by their preferred contact method) to remind them of their appointment. If a client cannot keep an appointment, be understanding, but be persistent to ensure appointments continue to take place.If the client does not respond to reminders, reach out to them again and ask whether there is another way to contact them.
- Enlist friends and family members as reminders. Ask whether the client can provide contact details for other family members or friends who can assist with reminders about appointments. For Aboriginal children and families, this may include people who have cultural decision-making authority or know the family or their culture.
- Maintain frequent contact: practitioners should follow up and make frequent contact with a client. This helps to build a relationship between the practitioner and the client, particularly in the early stages.
3. Be proactive when a family is no longer successfully engaged
Take proactive action to ensure that a family does not simply ‘drift’ away
Over time a family’s willingness to engage can fluctuate. Practitioners must be alert to any signs of dwindling engagement and be proactive in their actions to strengthen engagement. There are a number of strategies that could be used to improve engagement. These include:
- Reflect on what may have contributed to disengagement and what could help: It is important to reflect on factors within the family and within practice and systems that may contribute to disengagement. For example it is common that families will have set backs in achieving goals in their case plans, which can undermine their confidence in themselves to make changes.
Being proactive in reflective discussions with families, seeking their involvement in creating solutions and coaching them about how engagement can be sustained in difficult times is essential.. A practitioner must be aware of any emerging needs of the family, critical events or unintended blocks or issues that may have influenced their ability to engage. Each family is different and should have the choice to do things in a way that will bring out the best results for their family.
Other sources for reflective discussions and advice on actions include: cultural consultations, family meetings, colleagues, senior practitioners, supervisors, managers, and partner agencies. Any concerns about prolonged disengagement must be discussed with a supervisor or manager.
- Remind the family of why then need to stay involved: Where engagement is fluctuating or weakening, and less assertive strategies have not worked, it is important to remind the family of why they need to remain involved. This may include the nature and severity of safety concerns about their children, and the need to work with the practitioner to prevent the need for statutory child protection service involvement. Highlighting any family strengths and progress they have made will need to be a part of this discussion. It may also be necessary to put this in writing
- Escalate service engagement concerns with partner agencies: Partner agencies may have insight into families that can assist with ideas and action to strengthen family engagement or encourage re-engagement. This can include joint visits, or warm referrals, nominating alternative lead agencies and exploring other service options that may be more suitable for the family. Wherever possible family members should be participants in care team meetings.
- Make a report to the Child Abuse Report Line: If there is a reasonable suspicion that a child is, or may be, at risk of harm, a report must be made to the Child Abuse Report Line. To ensure the notification is responded to, it must identify the concerns and make clear that the family has disengaged from the service and the risks to the child are still present and have not been addressed. When a notification has been made, a practitioner should consider how they continue to work with and respond to the needs of the child and family (refer to 4. Plan for transitions or exit if family is persistently not engaged).
4. Plan for transitions or exit if family is persistently not engaged
Take action if family is persistently not engaged
Practitioners must continually monitor and assess a family’s progress towards addressing the identified risk and safety concerns. If a family is persistently not engaged with a service and sufficient progress is not being made toward case plan goals, a practitioner must identify an appropriate escalation strategy.
- Assess the level of risk and safety for the child and family: the practitioner must determine any risk and safety factors for the child and family and decide if the current service intervention remains viable or stronger intervention (such as a statutory child protection response) is required.
- Consult with supervisor/manager: The decision for a family to transfer/exit from a program intervention must be reached in consultation with / under the supervision of a practitioner’s direct line manager.
- Ensure case plans and assessments are up to date: The practitioner is to ensure all assessments and case plans are up to date, including identification of elevated child protection risks at the time of case closure/transfer. The reason for case closure / transfers must be documented on C3MS.
- Ensure all partner agencies involved in the case (including the referring agency) are advised that the case closure/transfer will go ahead.
- Make a report to the Child Abuse Report Line: If there is a reasonable suspicion that a child is, or may be, at risk of harm, a report must be made to the Child Abuse Report Line. To ensure the notification is responded to, it must make clear that the family has not engaged with the service and the plan to transition/exit from the program intervention and that risks to the child are still present and have not been addressed.
- Exit or ending conversation: Families should be aware of the service ending and have an opportunity to reflect and confirm with the practitioner protective capacity and support that has been put in place.
Practitioners should record accurate and timely case notes of their engagement with a family, including:
- attempts to make contact with a family to encourage them to engage with available supports
- a record of the client’s preferred contact style and any specific considerations (such as a need for interpreter or literacy needs), this can assist is a practitioner is on leave or if another practitioner takes over primary case management
- non-attendance, either by the practitioner or family, at scheduled and agreed meetings or activities, and
- details of reasons and any related actions or outcomes leading up to or following the termination or interruption of a service or support.
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