February 17, 2019

This month OPEN caught up with the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare’s youth consultant, Brittany, to learn more about client experience, and how we can meaningfully include children, young people and families in service delivery. Brittany is currently studying a Masters of Social Work and shared her insights based on her lived experience of the out of homecare system and as a child and family welfare practitioner.

What does it mean to be meaningfully included when working with or engaging with a case manager or service?

Whenever I think about inclusion from a young person’s perspective, I am reminded of the many workers who made assumptions about what I could do and what I was capable of, before getting to know me and my interests.

“When it came to education for example, the workers didn’t ask about what mattered to me, but assumed that I wasn’t interested and that I would likely drop out. Little did they realise, that education was actually really important to me and getting expelled had a huge impact on my life. Instead of providing support to be reintroduced into the education system, I was left without much direction or a clear set of achievable goals to work towards.”

Brittany reinforced the importance of taking the time to build relationships with clients, working with them to achieve their goals and importantly believing in their ability to achieve them.

What are your thoughts on the terms ‘clients’ and ‘service users’? What’s your preference?

Brittany explained, “This is a tricky one, because the terms like ‘clients’ are so heavily ingrained in our language as case workers and practitioners that we use them without thinking twice. In my current role, we’re encouraged to refer to clients as ‘participants’ which to me is much more collaborative and empowering, reinforcing that we are working with not for.

When I was growing up I had workers who would refer to me as their ‘client’ even if we were out in the community attending appointments. This made me feel like we were only spending time together because it was their job rather than because we had built a relationship and were working together to achieve our goals. Even the small things like wearing a lanyard when attending visits with clients can make young people uncomfortable, removing the personal connection you might share with your case worker.

I think the most important thing is to ask your ‘client’ or ‘service user’ what they’re most comfortable with, being open and honest about the terms you’re using and why. How would you feel if you were in their shoes?

What are some common pitfalls that you’ve observed when it comes to engaging clients and how can they be avoided?

Some of the main shortcomings when it comes to engaging clients included:

  • “Not respecting confidentiality by having open conversations about clients in public spaces.
  • Making assumptions about what clients know and what they are able to achieve.
  • Talking about clients in front of them or not including them in the conversation. Young people need to be able to have a say in their future and can shed some great insights if you’re willing to listen.
  • Not getting to know clients well enough – this takes time and more than one home visit or interaction.”

Brittany reflected, “from my personal experience, it wasn’t until I had a case worker who really invested time in me and getting to know my capabilities that I felt truly supported. With an understanding of my personality and the things I like to do, she could then suggest activities or encourage me to go for certain opportunities. For example, I used to have a lot of anxiety when it came to catching trains, but when I had to find a way to get to TAFE, my caseworker spent the time mapping out bus routes so I wouldn’t have to take them. That was a great way to reduce my anxiety while still getting me to class!”

Brittany also emphasised the importance of being transparent about when you will next see your client. Explaining “it may not seem important, but this is something that case workers often miss. As caseworkers we have the power to become really important figures in people’s lives and if we disappear after developing a connection, this can be a huge source of anxiety.

When I was growing up, my case worker felt like one of the only people who I could trust and who was looking out for me. When she got promoted she was very honest about this and we put strategies in place to make sure I still felt supported.”

Are there different approaches you would recommend for including the perspectives of young people rather than adults?

“Engaging young people from the beginning of the planning process will help to build a relationship and make sure that they’re equally committed to the solution. Sometimes young people are engaged by services in secretive ways including being asked to ‘come to lunch to share your experience’ rather than being more direct about the purposes of the engagement. Young people will know if you’re working to tick a box or to meet a quota. It’s most important that they know the engagement is because you care and that it will have positive implications for the young person, not just a gift card and pat on the back.

Another thing to be wary of is not always contacting the same young people, particularly when designing new projects or gaining insights into a service. It’s often the young people that appear to be the most difficult to engage whose voices we’re missing and who might have great insights into the conversation. When I first started public speaking, I hated it and it still makes me nervous, but with practice and support I’ve gained a lot of confidence and been fortunate to be linked with mentors at Melbourne University who encouraged me to do my masters’ degree.

On a positive note, there are so many organisations now who are really supportive and trying to engage young people in mutually beneficial ways!”

OPEN would like to say a big thank you to Brittany for her time sharing these insights and providing guidance for practitioners working with children, young people and families.

Be sure to stay connected with OPEN to gain more insights from the field and to learn more about evidence informed practice.

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