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Using Transparency to Build Trust

When parents start their cases, they often see caseplanners as another person out to harm them. As the Trauma Systems Therapy Handbook puts it, “Family members may have been violated by those in authority, and may have long histories of adversarial relationships with, for example, teachers, social service workers, court officers, police, or mental health clinicians.”

Transparency is one tool that you can use to build trust. Being clear about what you expect and what you’ll do – and following through – sends a signal of safety for parents whose lives have often been unpredictable, even terrifying. The more that you model predictability and safety, the more you help parents act predictable and provide safety to their children. 
TIPS for Transparency

Two of the Rise TIPS are especially useful for making expectations about visits clear from the beginning of the case:

A Time to Bond” can be reviewed during the Transition Meeting or the Parent-to-Parent Meeting.

At a time when so much new information is coming at parents, and their stress is high, this basic information may be the most that parents can take in.

Do’s and Don’ts of Visiting” provides more detailed information and can be read with parents as a follow-up. 

Be clear that you want parents to succeed. You can say, “I want to go over this with you so that your visits can go well from the start.” Or, “I want to make sure you have the information you need to get your children home.” 
A Caseplanner's Perspective


When I first meet with a parent, they are often at the lowest point in their lives. Most were trying hard to be good parents before they met us. The message our arrival sends is that they have failed. They are often angry, sad, lonely and disoriented.

I know I represent the system and wield power over my clients’ lives. To me, this is painful. My goal is to help families, but because the system has taken away their control, I often feel like I am doing the exact opposite. My ultimate goal is return power to them and bring humanity and respect into a relationship that is, unfortunately, lopsided.

What helps me most is being as honest and transparent as possible. That means giving parents all the information I have during every stage of the case.

A Chance to Troubleshoot

One of the most useful things to help parents understand where they are in the child welfare process is the court report I have to write. Many of my parents were in the system before I began working with them and typically they never knew what the case planner was going to say in court or what surprises they’d face when they arrived there.

In order to help build trust, every few weeks I review with them the service plan and progress and I tell them exactly what I would say in court based on their actions. This gives them a chance to share their view of the case and to regularly have the opportunity to troubleshoot issues with me before court.

I also ask parents what they think the court needs to see in my report and what they need to do in order for me to write a report that would move them toward reunification. Almost always the parents have clear ideas, and voicing those ideas, instead of being told what they have to do, seems to help them take those steps.

By speaking about the case regularly parents feel respected and “in the loop.” It also makes court less stressful. Over time this transparency has helped me build trust.

From ‘Noncompliance’…

By providing this consistency I was able to help one mother move from twice weekly supervised visits to trial discharge over the span of about five months after the case had been stagnant for a year. According to reports, this mom was often angry, sometimes rude. She had a substance abuse problem and was completely disengaged from her child.

You could tell by the tone of the previous caseplanner’s notes that the relationship was very negative and likely hostile. At every visit, mom made sure to explain to me how upset she was with the agency and how little she believed I could make a difference. I also learned that mom herself had been in foster care. She didn’t have anyone to vent to or trust.

…To Trust and Independence

I told her that I understood that she was upset, and that my goal was to be there for support. Still, her anger and outbursts continued. But as I worked openly with her—sharing what I would write in my report based on her actions, as well as what I wanted to write in my report in order to help her reunify—it was clear that she appreciated the honesty.

As she saw me report not only the challenges but also her successes she began to become more open to suggestions and she came to rely on me for support.

During those first five months, she called me a lot. But over time, she became more and more independent. By the end of our time together, she had met all mandates, taken extra steps to baby-proof her home, and developed a stronger bond with her adult family, potentially increasing her sources of support. I was proud of her, and I told her regularly.

I remember the look in her eyes when she told me she had enrolled herself in a preventive program that specialized in working with mothers with children under 5. She was so proud. She was no longer doing what the system was asking her to do. She was doing what she felt she needed to do to take care of her family.

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