This January we are exploring the worker competencies associated with Implementing Child Welfare Services, which involves Identifying and applying the most effective, ethical and culturally appropriate services, resources, and processes to meet the goals established in the planning stage appropriate to the family. Sara Crotteau, ICWA Child Protection Social Worker with Hennepin County, is our guest contributor this month, and shares her experience and understanding of these competencies.

Working as a social worker in an ongoing child protection case management role will never be an easy job, not that anything in child welfare really is. When I was first hired by Hennepin County in 2014 to work in the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) unit, I remember being told on one of the first days of Induction Unit training that we shouldn’t have any expectation of feeling competent in our role for at least two years. That was terrifying, and while there was some truth in it, it wasn’t the whole story. Social work is hard. Case management is hard. Child welfare is hard. But it’s also rewarding, as well as emotional and real. When you consider the impact that the system has on individuals and families, and the time it takes to build real awareness of your role within that system, your approach to implementing child welfare services will undoubtedly change. In considering all of this while organizing my thoughts about the competencies involved in service implementation, several themes emerged. Ultimately, it’s not about the system or about us as workers: it’s about families.

Relationships are key. No matter how you approach this work, the quality of the relationships involved will directly impact the quality of the outcomes. I wholeheartedly believe this. Take time to get to know people, hear their story, learn about their family and build rapport. We cannot expect anyone to fully trust us, despite our best intentions, because we are inherently untrustworthy to the large majority of our population simply by nature of the job (child welfare) and our employer (government). But investing the time at the beginning to get to know the entire family, will pay dividends down the line. Listen and really hear them. Learn who they are, what they have been through, what their family is like and what is important to them. It’s become sort of a cliché statement in our profession, but families really are the experts on their own lives and family. The information that they can share with you will be invaluable in terms of implementing child welfare services that are necessary to address the safety and well-being needs of the child, but are also supportive, realistic and helpful to the family.

Collaboration invites success. I cannot stress enough how important it is to include the safety network for a family in the entire process of the case. This includes case planning, ongoing monitoring and assessing, development of safety plans, consulting regarding decision making, permanency planning, etc. Parents, youth, extended family, tribal representatives, cultural or community members, and anyone identified by the family and people who support them, should all be included as much as possible. These are the people that know the child best, and are even more invested in their well-being than we as the child welfare workers could ever be. This should never be about a single child protection worker reading a case file and creating a list of services for a client to complete. It should be about facilitating a conversation with families and their safety networks about what the worries are and what might help reduce those worries and help strengthen families. Buy-in is key here. A client given a check list of services, without understanding why or being included in the planning, is less likely to see the importance of the services or recognize the impact on their child. A client included in the process and given some agency over the way a plan is implemented is far more likely to engage in meaningful change and growth, likely resulting in better safety and well-being outcomes for kids.

Recognize and name the trauma. Simply being involved in the child welfare system, having someone knock on your door, intruding into your life and talking about abuse and neglect, is trauma. Everything a family has been through, everything a cultural group or specific community has endured, and each individual’s experiences create a unique trauma history for everyone we work with. Use that as a lens to inform the development of the case plan and implementation of those services. If we aren’t aware of the presence of trauma, both inflicted by past experiences and by our present involvement, we run the risk of not addressing the fundamental issues for a family and implementing services that are inadequate for meeting their needs.

Listen to youth, include their voice. No matter their age, build rapport and connection and truly listen to youth. There is incredible skill involved in learning to do this well, and the approaches and strategies for doing this with kids will vary significantly, but on the most basic level, make sure their voice is heard. Utilize tools like Three Houses/Lodges from the Signs of Safety Framework to learn from kids what their experiences have been and what their best hopes for their future are. Include their voice in all stages of the case, revisit this regularly, and let it inform how you continue your work with the entire family.

Give choice, where possible. Self-determination is one of the social work values, and even in a realm of social work that is mandated and not voluntary, there are ways to allow clients to make decisions and feel in control of the choices they make and their ability to navigate a path out of the system altogether. From small things like choosing between options in service providers to larger things like having input in which relative they believe is the best option for their child to be placed with, we see better outcomes all around when individuals have some control or agency over their own lives and futures.

Concurrent planning is crucial. Reunification and family preservation are always the primary goals of child protection involvement in the state of Minnesota, if it can be done safely, but in the event that it’s not achievable, youth shouldn’t be waiting on the system to scramble to come up with a plan for them. Identifying areas of need and implementing services for the entire family system (birth parents, youth, foster/adoptive family, extended family, tribe, etc.) should always be centered around keeping the family together. Approaching this work with a dual focus, specifically working toward reunification while identifying a permanency plan in case it’s needed, sets the entire family up for the best possible outcome, whether reunification is successful or not.

Active efforts are best practice. I work exclusively on cases that fall under the Indian Child Welfare Act, thus I’m held to a higher standard when working with families and implementing case planning services. Again, it’s not about making a list of tasks and telling a client to go do them, it’s about doing things with clients, advocating for the child’s best interests and assisting with breaking down barriers. Active efforts guidelines outline ways that the child welfare system should be actively assisting a family involved in the system, and anyone that has gone to social work school in the last decade would find it impossible to disagree with me when I say that active efforts are simply best practice. You don’t have to be working on an ICWA case to provide active efforts. Consider what you would want for a member of your own family if they were involved in the system, and use that to frame the work you do with the families on your caseload.

Make culture and community the centerpiece. How does culture impact the safety and well-being of the child, and how can we utilize culture to strengthen the family system? Consider the entire family system in your implementation efforts. It’s not just about providing services to the alleged offender of the maltreatment, but rather about providing support and services to the entire family to strengthen the family system and build upon the strengths of the individuals making up that system. Doing this without considering culture or community of origin means you haven’t truly based your work around that specific family, and you’re at risk of being one of those workers implementing “cookie cutter” plans. Identify culturally specific agencies or programming, utilize tribal resources and recommendations and include faith or community leaders in every aspect of the implementation of the plan, and you’ll undoubtedly see more buy-in from the parents and more successful outcomes for youth. All of these things aid in minimizing the risk of maltreatment reoccurrence and increase the protective factors around kids.

Connection is critical. We know that youth in the system do significantly better in all measurable areas, if they have even one consistent, loving and caring adult in their lives. This brings me right back to the first point I addressed; relationships are key. We can create and implement the most comprehensive case plan, with the highest quality culturally specific programming in place, and if we don’t include efforts to maintain critical connections for youth, we have failed them entirely. Specific effort must be made to ensure that youth not only have ongoing relationships with their parents, but with all of their identified family. This includes siblings, prior caregivers, current caregivers, school staff, cultural leaders, tribal members, and anyone else that a youth identifies as a person of importance. After all, it’s simply not possible for a kid to have too many people loving them.

It’s a process, not a one-and-done sort of thing. We can’t just create a list of required services and tell the client to complete it. “Checking the box” so to speak, on a list of services does not equate to increased safety and well-being. Even more simply, services do not equal safety. We are looking for observable and demonstrable change in behavior, and that requires consistent monitoring and assessment. It’s a fluid process. Case plans can and should be revised throughout the time a child protection case is open. Workers should be communicating regularly with service providers, and consulting with team members (supervisors, tribal representatives, guardian’s ad litem, family, etc.) to consider progress toward achieving goals, and considering the appropriateness and necessity of a service continuing. Ground your work in the fundamental goals of the child welfare system: Safety, Permanency, Well-being. If what you’re doing, or requiring a family to do, doesn’t speak directly to one of these goals, I would challenge that it’s not the role of the child welfare system, and that it’s time to reassess whether that service needs to be part of the plan to be implemented.

The Minnesota Child Welfare Practice Framework is a set of competencies that have been created to assist child welfare professionals in defining and demonstrating their knowledge, skills, and understanding across a number of different practice areas. Refer to pages 10-11 of the Practice Framework to review all competencies related to Implementing Child Welfare Services, and consider ways to develop your own knowledge and skills.

If you have discovered other resources for developing competencies in Implementing Child Welfare Services, please share! Email us at, or connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.