Understanding and engaging parents of children in care

Understanding and engaging parents of children in care

27 March 2014
Understanding and engaging parents of children in care

Christina Battle and Janine Bandit describe a program for parents whose children have been placed in care, and describe best-practice approaches.

Written by Christina Battle1 and Janine Bendit2

How do you think you would feel if your children were removed? Angry? Devastated? Despairing?

These are the basic emotions reported by parents attending the Relationships Australia, Hunter ‘Kids in Care’ group. This group, which is run for 18 hours over a 6-week period, is for parents whose children are in the care of the Department of Family and Community Services (NSW).

The expressed emotions may be in contrast to our immediate assumptions that parents who harm or neglect their children love them less or have some malicious intent towards them. These assumptions can compel service providers to focus on addressing abusive behaviour as a priority at the expense of engagement. Our experience of working with this group, however, tells us that if parents are asked to look at their behaviours that have led to their children’s removal, a high level of trust, safety and engagement is necessary.

Most of these parents love their children no less than other parents and experience acute despair, grief and anger at their loss. A focus on these emotions can lead to more effective engagement with parents. To stand alongside these parents, we need a firm belief that their intentions for their children are based on love and wanting the best for them.

We understand that life traumas have often intervened in the space between parents’ intentions and actions. We also recognise that some parents, even with the best of intentions and support, may never have the ability to act on these intentions to provide a safe home for their children.

The notion of meeting people at their point of need is fundamental to grief, trauma and narrative theories. Drawing from these theories has allowed us to develop a simple engagement exercise in our group for parents whose children are in care.

Attention is paid in Week 1 to authentic engagement and active group contracting. We then move on to ask parents a simple but deeply challenging question: ‘What have been the hardest things for you about having your child/ren removed?’ Having others bear witness to the pain that these parents are experiencing creates a sense of unity, shared purpose and a path to validation within the group.

In small groups, members are asked to represent what has been hard about having their children removed. Each group is given a sheet of butchers paper, textas, magazines to cut from and other materials such as feathers and glitter to use in creating their representations.

Parents write, draw and create collages of their experience. While doing this they share their experiences through conversation about the challenges they face. Some examples are: ‘Not being able to read my child a story at bedtime’, ‘Not knowing when my child is sick’, ‘I feel like an unworthy dad’, ‘the quiet, no laughing, crying or snoring at night’.

We have found that this exercise gives parents a focus for their anger at Family and Community Services but then invites them to look more closely at the impact removal has had on them. Emotions of grief, shame, and loss are then more readily accessed and expressed.

Participants often report that this is the first time anyone has asked them about their experience. From this shared experience the work of the group can begin. Key areas addressed for the remainder of the group are: emotional regulation, communication skills, assertive styles of relating managing and identifying strengths and values.

For further information contact: Christina Battle or Janine Bendit at Relationships Australia, Hunter Region on 02 4940 1500.

The feature image is by Seniju, CC BY 2.0.

1. Senior Group Facilitator, Relationships Australia NSW, Hunter Region.

2. Senior Group Facilitator, Relationships Australia NSW, Hunter Region.


Hi, This program looks really interesting. I am just wondering how the participants are left at the end. I guess I'm asking the "where to from here?" question. Is there a follow on program that looks at their parenting behaviours or is it only about helping them to deal with the grief and anger over losing their children? Thanks.
Hi Shelley. Thanks for your interest and inquiry. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge that there are many gaps in service provision for this group of clients, which is one of the reasons we began running this group. Primarily we view this group as a way of supporting clients in readiness for accessing other services such as other groups and counselling. Our organisation in the Hunter Region runs groups relating to domestic violence and self esteem and many of the clients from the Kids in Care group move into these programs. We have recently added to our suite of programs a 'Circle of Security' course (which is an attachment based parenting group) for families who are in the process of restoration or are at risk of having their children taken into care. An entry criteria for this group is to have a minimum of 2 hours contact per week with their children. From here we are looking at publishing an article with more details about the group and undertaking research to look at program outcomes. Cheers
CatholicCare Sydney offers a 7 week groupwork program, My Kids and Me, for parents who have had children removed into care. They are currently training facilitators in Victoria so that My Kids and Me can be offered to more parents. My Kids and Me was evaluated in 2013 by the Australian Centre for Child Protection.For more information contact Angharad Candlin at CatholicCare Sydney.
I see significant value in this program. Is there any evidence yet as to whether or not the program reduces the time that the child/ren are in care before returning home?
Dear Steve Thank you for your question. Our aim, in this group, is to support parents in a number of ways with the immediate and ongoing issues that they are experiencing in their lives (such as grief & loss, getting support, navigating the system) rather than reunification. For some parents this program may increase a readiness to engage with other services to enhance their health and well-being and for others to more confidently continue to pursue restoration. Anecdotally, we have seen that some parents, in participating in this program, have more successfully engaged with child protection services.
There is a need to look at the whole family and it's trials and tribulations to be able to really help the family. The family's trauma must be acknowledged before you can begin the necessary work for the family to heal. I think you are moving in the right direction. One step further would be to get the family to identify any adverse childhood experiences that might be impacting the behavior in the family and help the family understand that there are things that can be done to strengthen their family by building up their protective factors such as concrete supports, social network, parenting and child development and school and health connections.
sandra killett

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