Module #9

Supporting and Engaging Families Effectively

This module focuses on equipping you to connect and engage with family members families of minors in meaningful ways.  You will learn specific strategies for investing families, as well as promising practices for maintaining long-term engagement and support.  

Why Families are Important

It is critically important for successful employment outcomes of youth that you actively engage both the youth you are targeted to serve AND their family as partners in the counseling, career preparation and employment process.  Evidence has clearly shown that engaged and invested family members in the transition planning and vocational rehabilitation process are predictors of post-school success.  The PROMISE research demonstration conducted collaboratively by the US Department of Education, Social Security Administration, US Department of Health and Human Services, and US Department of Labor, also recognized the valued and critical role and family engagement—requiring it as part of the national research demonstration to support the post-school adult employment, education and economic success of youth who received Supplemental Security Income.  Lessons learned from PROMISE regarding family engagement practices and strategies have been integrated into this module and excerpted with permission from the NYS PROMISE Case Management Field Guide1

With the new youth-focused priority of the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act comes a need for workforce development systems to re-engineer how they equip and engage family memebers of youth being served — especially those under age 18.

Historically some human service sectors have taken more of a directive approach to services and supports—the practitioner making most of the decisions and seen as the “expert” and the person and family being served seen as the receiver of the information and in a more passive role. In recent years, research on motivational interviewing and solution-focused case management has shown that when the individuals and/or families receiving services are viewed as partners, they are much more engaged in the process and more long-term and meaningful changes take place.  

1 NYS PROMISE. (2018). NYS PROMISE case management field guide v. 3.0.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University

Family-Centered Principles

The human service profession has come to realize that in providing services to youth, you can’t view the youth apart from the family—especially minors. A family-centered approach is one that values the strengths of the family and establishes a partnership between the helping professional and the family. The family is viewed as the most knowledgeable about the youth. They have seen the youth develop over time, and hold a wealth of information about the youth’s strengths and needs. Therefore, they should be integrally involved in all decision-making.

Core principles of family-centered case management:

  • Focusing on family strengths 

  • Respecting family diversity and values 

  • Encouraging family decision-making and empowerment 

  • Communicating with families in an open and collaborative fashion 

  • Recognizing the value of informal support systems 


2 Bailey, D. B., Raspa, M., & Fox, L. C. (2012). What is the future of family outcomes and family-centered services? Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 31(4), 216-223.

Brokering Family Partnerships

When you are working with families as partners it is important to highlight the unique resources and wisdom that they bring to the relationship. Family members are able to provide information and stories about the youth’s strengths and challenges over time and in a variety of contexts. In order to maintain family stability, parents have often utilized a variety of approaches to deal with any functional implications of the youth’s disability. These past attempts to address problems and concerns can be a powerful source of information for you regarding potential future interventions. Family members can also give insight into the natural resources that already exist within the youth’s life. 

Essential Facets of Family Partnerships

There are several critical features that are important when brokering relationships with families that will often deepen both the relationship and investment in their youth.   

Elevate family voices in the process — making sure to balance with the youth's voice.

1. To feel heard and understood. Many family members of high-risk youth have had negative experiences with professionals in the past, and they don’t always trust that you have their best interest in mind. When encountering a family for the first time, try to demonstrate with both verbal and non-verbal communication that you are interested in listening to their story. Open-ended questions are helpful in facilitating conversations with the family. 

Examples for encouraging dialogue: 

  • “Tell me more about your child.” 

  • “I would love to hear more about your own experiences in the work force.” 

  • “What are your greatest dreams for your child?” 

  • “What have been the biggest challenges you have faced as a single mother?” 

Support families in accesssing information and resources.

2. Assistance in accessing information and resources.  There are a variety of reasons that families lack adequate information and resources for their family. Some families have difficulty reading and/or don’t have access to the Internet and other reading material. They may be isolated and are unaware of local community agencies. Some parents have had negative experiences with school and other institutions and lack the trust necessary to form direct relationships. At times, parents “don’t know what they don’t know”, because they are not familiar with the vocational rehabilitation and/or special education process or with other aspects of parenting a child with a disability and they don’t realize that there is information available that can help them.  

Potential sources of information and resources:

  • School staff working with the youth 

  • Medical and mental health providers 

  • Community groups focusing on specific disabilities 

  • Local Parent Network  

  • Local library 

  • On-line resources 

Help families build their capacity to maneuver the vocational rehabilitation and transition planning processes effectively.

3. Help build family capacity and knowledge.  Help the parent become more confident in understanding and participating in the special education process. For example:

  • Find out if the parent has any questions or concerns about the special education process. 

  • Review the IEP or 504 plan with the parent and make sure that they understand the child’s classification and supports that the child is receiving. 

  • Refer the parents to the regional Parent Training Center if more information and training is needed on the special education process. 

  • Find out what method of communication the parent is most comfortable with (phone, e-mail, text, etc.) and make this information available to school staff. 

  • Offer to attend school meetings and sit next to the parent at the meeting.

Keep a future-oriented look.

4. Engage the parent in discussions about the child’s future.  Establishing a future-oriented outlook for the youth and balancing the expectations of both the youth and their family is important.

  • Inquire about the hopes and dreams of the parent and the youth. 

  • Help the parent access information and participate in discussions about the child’s living, earning and learning goals for the future. 

  • Make sure the parent knows what kind of diploma track their child is on so that there is time to revise the plan in order to better prepare for the future if necessary. 

Research shows that parents become more engaged when they feel valued and are consulted about the needs of their child.

5. Recognize and validate the parent for his/her strengths.  Each member of the family brings a unique contribution to the planning table.  Part of effective engagement is identifying what those unique contributors are and leveraging them to the benefit of the youth.

Active listening is your best tool.

6. Spend less time talking and more time listening.  Try spending about 20% of your meeting or phone call talking and 80% listening. This can be accomplished through the use of open ended questions that encourage the parent or youth to talk openly. 


Family Dynamics

Each family has a unique way of interacting and making important decisions. Some of these dynamics may be impacted by the family’s culture, and some may be unique to that particular family system. It is helpful to understand how decisions are made and how power is shared within the family so that you can support self-determination. Sometimes this information can be gathered from observations. For example, a mother may frequently tell you that she needs to talk with her husband first before making a decision. Another good way to clarify family dynamics is to ask some direct questions. For example, ask “How are decisions made within your family?” or “Who do we need to include in the decision-making process as we prepare for the future?” In some cases, family members who are involved in decision-making live in other countries and there is a need to allow time for family members to contact one another before the final decision is made. What is the primary language of the family?  of the youth?  If you do not speak that primary language, would the family/youth like the assistance of a translator during case management? 


Immigration and Cultural Diversity in Families

While most youth applying for vocational rehabilitation services are documented U.S. citizens, some non-applicants as well as some family members may not be and this can complicate the process of both investing families in the vocational rehabilitation process and connecting families with community resources. It is helpful to have some knowledge about the different types of citizenship status and the impact that this status may have on obtaining benefits and resources for the family.

Immigration-Related Terms

Undocumented immigrant- Term constructed by the Department of Homeland Security as an official category to identify immigrants who have entered the country illegally.

Child of an immigrant family- Child who has at least one foreign-born parent.

Mixed-status immigrant family- Family composed of a mixture of undocumented immigrants, documented immigrants, and U.S. citizens. 

First generation immigrant child- Child born outside of the country in which they are living. 

Second generation immigrant child- Child born in the country to a foreign-born parent.

Refugee- Someone who has been forced to flee his/her own country because of persecution, war, or violence and has or seeks legal residence in another country.

Immigrant Visa- Allows individuals to live and work in the U.S.

Green Card- Permanent resident card or Form I-551; Gives individual official immigration status in the U.S. ; Issued through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS); Once issued, valid for 10 years.

Naturalized Citizen- An individual who was not born in the U.S., but who obtained citizenship later. 

Remember, regardless of their immigration status, children who move to the U.S. from other countries have the right to a free public K-12 education. Schools are prohibited from requiring proof of citizenship or legal residence in order to enroll a child in school or provide services. In addition, the McKinney-Vento Act requires school districts to allow homeless children to enroll in public schools when they are unable to provide proof of residence or guardianship status. Some non-application Pre-ETS youth may fit into this category.


Impact of Citizenship Status on Family Engagement

Today in the United States it is estimated that there are approximately 16.6 million people who live in mixed-status families in which the family is composed of a mixture of undocumented immigrants, documented immigrants, and U.S. citizens.3 These families face a constant threat of separation and loss of family members to deportation. Over the past decade, the United States has become much more aggressive in the deportation of undocumented individuals. When a parent is deported, a child may be left with a single parent in the country or placed with another relative or caregiver. Between January and June of 2011, the United States deported more than 46,000 parents of children who are citizens, and more than 5,000 of these children were placed in foster care.4

Barriers Faced By Students from Mixed-Status Families

  • Language barriers
  • Missing records
  • Increased mobility in family
  • Difficulty trusting and forming relationships
  • Detachment-- not knowing if and when family memebers will be deported
  • Lack of family advocate, parents not engaged in school
  • Economic stress, parents paid "under the table" at minimal salaries
  • Multiple family members living in close quarters
  • Lack of access to healthcare and other resources

Parents who are not documented immigrants often face significant parenting challenges.5 They are unable to obtain a social security number and legally access employment, so they are often working under the table in jobs where they earn 14-24% less than their peers who are documented. In order to provide for their family, many need to work long hours that prevent them from spending time with their children. In addition, they are unable to obtain a driver’s license, which can significantly hinder school involvement and their ability to access resources within the community. A large number of undocumented immigrants drive without a license, but this puts them at risk for heavy fines and/or deportation. 

Due to the constant daily fear of deportation, many mixed-status families attempt to avoid law enforcement and judicial officials in order to avoid drawing attention to their undocumented status.6 Their children often learn to mimic some of this behavior, and become hyper-vigilant within their environment. Research on children of mixed-status families reveals that they worry about standing out in school, and are more hesitant to contribute in class and draw attention to themselves. They may also be wary about making new friends and sharing personal information about themselves for fear of revealing information about the undocumented status of family members. In addition, they can feel somewhat detached from school because they don’t know how long they are going to be in the United States and are more focused on getting a job and saving money than on engaging in school. Since their parents have fears about the school discovering the existence of undocumented family members, they are less likely to be in communication with the school and reinforce academic engagement with their child.

3 Enriquez, L. E. (2015). Multigenerational punishment: Shared experiences of undocumented immigration status within mixed-status families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77, 939-953.

4 Rogerson, S. (2012). Unintended and unavoidable: The failure to protect rule and its consequences for undocumented parents and their children. Family Court Review, 50 (4), 580-593.

5 Enriquez, L. E. (2015). Multigenerational punishment: Shared experiences of undocumented immigration status
within mixed-status families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77, 939 - 953.
6 Cavanagh, C., & Cauffman, E. (2015). The land of the free: Undocumented families in the juvenile justice system. Law and Human Behavior, 152 - 161.

Transfer of Rights

As part of the developmental and transition process of working with youth younger than age 18, you should be engaged with other critical stakeholders in each youth’s life (such as service providers, school staff and parents) to begin a conversation about the transfer or rights that takes place when the youth turns 18. The transfer of rights automatically moves from parents and guardians to the youth when the child turns 18 unless a judge deems the youth incompetent or making decisions or unable to provide consent.. Guardianship is a legal process, governed by individual state law, by which the court appoints someone (a guardian) the power to make decisions over another (a ward or respondent).  In most states, there are 2 main types of guardianship:

  1. Guardianship to the person: The guardian assumes the legal rights and powers to make everyday decisions for the adult (where to live, where to receive education, work decisions, healthcare, etc.). 

  2. Guardianship to the property or estate: The guardian assumes the responsibility for the management of all or some of the adult’s funds and property. 

This conversation needs to elevate the voice of the youth and their preferences and interests regarding continuing engagement and investment of the parents, guardians and/or family members in the rehabilitation process.