“The Golden Rule” Can Be a Compass for Navigating Family Engagement
The child welfare system has decades of established principles and practices that help guide how we engage with families. In an effort to get staff to adhere to a set core values during family engagement, jurisdictions from across the country have instilled guiding principles. These values and principles are vital, but what if we use “The Golden Rule” to push them along?
“The Golden Rule” is a universal, moral principle of treating others as you like to be treated yourself. Imagine living in a world that consists of us all loving, respecting, and collaborating with others in the same manner that we treat ourselves. You can read more about its components by clicking on “The Golden Rule” In this industry, there is an assumption that staff who have a degree in social work will enhance engagement with families. But unfortunately, this may not be the case. Working with families should be viewed as a service job, and a social worker is a community worker, someone who is invested in improving their community. In order to do that, one must engage with each family with the view of looking into oneself. Follow me briefly… If I walked into a home that is in disarray, with holes in walls, wires hanging, broken glass from windows, and toddlers are present, my first thought may be: “I have to get these kids out of this house.” However, if someone walked into my home and the scenario was the same, I would want them to communicate the safety hazards to me before they take action. I’d want them to support me in getting what I need to make my home safe. I’d want them to say, “Here are some resources for you to keep you and your children safe.”
As we engage in this work with families, we need to understand the definition of family. There are different variants of this definition, but my favorite encompasses multiple variants. We must first understand that all families are uniquely different and they have different capabilities. For example, I have a work family, I have a college family, I have family that I grew up with, and I have a biological family. I remember growing up watching sitcoms such as Family Matters, Mama Flora’s Family, A Different World, and Golden Girls. All of these sitcoms were based on family but they all had a different perspective of what families are. On the sitcom Family Matters, the family used positive reinforcement but on the Golden Girls show, their family used dark humor to get them from day to day. It is vital in our work to understand that families have different norms, values, strengths, and habits. Like snowflakes they all look different.
While professionalism is important we must always remember that we are public servants. As community stewards, we must strive to treat families with the same love, compassion, and care that we would display for ourselves and our families. In child welfare, there have been several debates about whether or not staff should have an advanced degree in social work or a different degree that is related to human services work. I would argue that the type of degree does not matter as much as having the servant mentality and understanding that helping families is truly about improving the communities in which we reside. We are humans meeting with other humans that are in their most vulnerable and difficult times. These vulnerable circumstances can cause stress for families, particularly when being greeted by a government official that is there to discuss their barriers. Imagine what it would be like if public servants and government officials used elements of “The Golden Rule” to greet families. It would build a level of trust and readiness for support because the family and providers alike would have an understanding that all of their interactions are based on care and compassion and that the intention is to work together and treat each other like family.
There are so many pressures when serving others. There are expectations with practice, policy, statutes, and a society that makes the visualization of “The Golden Rule”, blurry. Checklists and guidance are important for establishing expectations for managing child welfare duties. However, implementing “The Golden Rule” will ensure that families are being served as community members. Case files do not begin to tell the story about who families really are. Think about your own family: Who is the family comedian? Which family member is flexible? Who is the natural “go-to person” when facing a problem? How many countless memories do you have with your family? What if the family member who is naturally the ”go-to person” encounters a difficult time in their life, – how would you want them to be greeted by a community servant? Would you want them to feel judged? Would you want them to go through a complex system while having anxiety about how things will end? When we look into the eyes of families, we should be looking into our own eyes.
It is our duty as community servers to support and help each family with “The Golden Rule”. Treating families as if they were our own family will set a tone for supporting our community one family at a time. All of us strive to create communities that are equitable, fulfilling, and healed. There are other factors that make that difficult; however, our role in this equation is to honor “The Golden Rule” and support families in attaining their goals. We must hold true to being community servers and let this rule guide practices and policies.
When I think about my own family and what makes us special, I am reminded of the resilience that we have and the love that we have for one another. We never give up on each other nor do we expect failure. What if that was the basis of service for each family we interface with in our work. Meeting people where they are and supporting their personal goals is vital. Often times we unintentionally set goals for families that align with what we expect for them. However, we should be supporting them with what their goals and expectations are for themselves. Here is a weird but logical example… I can’t sing! I can’t hold a tune in a bucket! However, I love to sing and enjoy karaoke. My support system knows without a doubt that I can’t sing but if I am feeling down or need an outlet they’ll call me up and take me to karaoke. As I sing (sounding horrible of course) I look in the crowd and see them all singing with me and cheering for me. At that moment I feel like I am performing at the Grammys and my support system is there watching proudly in the audience. This example illustrates how they support me and allow me to work through my struggles with a strategy that works for me, as opposed to them giving me a strategy that fulfils their priorities or needs. We must be that supportive audience for the families we serve. We have to sing along with them, clap when necessary, wave our hands, and tell them at the end of the show, how proud we are of them.
Santana Jones (she/her) is an Associate Policy Analyst at the Center for Innovation in Population Health at the University of Kentucky. Her work focuses on quality improvement and system reform efforts in child welfare jurisdictions. Jones has a specific expertise in applying safety science to improve the safety, reliability, and effectiveness of organizations. Jones has over 9 years of child welfare experience. Before coming to the Center, Jones served as Systems Transformation Manager within South Carolina Department of Social Services (SCDSS). During her time with SCDSS, Jones worked in foster care, intake, and within past four years with child fatalities.