Beyond Tokenism: Creating an Organizational Culture that Values Family Partners in Western Australia

For just under two years, The Family Inclusion Network of Western Australia (FIN WA) has been working with family partners to provide emotional support to parents going through a child welfare case. These parents with lived experience work alongside social workers who are trained to advocate for parents at official child welfare meetings and provide emotional support to parents. 

Jaquie Mayne and Debbie Henderson, Community Development Officer and Executive Officer of FIN WA, discuss the importance of clearly defining family partners’ roles and including family partners in all phases of decision-making. 

Q: You’ve been working with family partners for just under two years in FIN WA. What have you learned?

MAYNE: Organizational culture and readiness is vital. 

A lot of peer workers talk about feeling marginal and not really included as equal partners in the work. We are aware of how easy it can be to go along and make decisions and then say, “Whoops. We better ask the parent’s opinion.” So we want to be really aware that we’re not being tokenistic. 

There are also times when staff may want family partners to come in and help them get families to do what they want them to do. But the family partner’s role is to open up understanding between families and professionals and to provide families with information and options. 

A lot of what we learned about organizational culture comes from peer work in mental health spaces, where they’re a lot further ahead than we are in child protection peer work.I also attended a presentation by Grace Zeng, a lecturer at Curtin University, that was very useful in thinking about the continuum that organizations fall along, from recovery-oriented environments where peers are included/adopted thru to clinically oriented organizations where peers may be more easily co-opted/used to collude if agencies have not done a lot of talking and thinking about how and why they are employing peer workers. 

It’s hard work to adjust how we make decisions. It’s hard work to be open to hearing challenges or suggestions to do things differently or to hear what our work might look like from another perspective.   It can also be uncomfortable to raise issues that we are worried about in working with peers along with the benefits peer work may bring.  There needs to be organizational safety to have difficult conversations.

We all need to keep engaging with and being open to each other. Great value can be gained from reciprocal learning between family partners, other staff and families themselves.  

HENDERSON: One of our family partners worked across mental health and drug and alcohol peer work spaces, and she keeps us honest. She says, “You’re getting it right,” or “Hang on, you didn’t do x, y or z.” She’s our gauge. 

Outside our organization, we’ve begun to see that contracts for funding have now started to talk about having projects co-designed by people with lived experience. 

Jaquie and I keep pushing that idea and challenging agencies to ensure that that is what is being implemented, because it’s deep heavy work that you have to engage in. We’ve had some foster care agencies come to us who want us to partner with them. Some have come and gone.

But one of them has been on a journey with us for a good year. It feels very genuine. They’re really trying to get it. 

Q: What specific steps can organizations take to avoid co-opting family partners or being tokenistic?

MAYNE: It’s key for organizations to have clear job descriptions and role clarity.

Right from the beginning, before we started training family partners, we were having the conversation about where family partners fit, and preparing existing workers to have them around the table. What would be unique about their job descriptions? What would it look like to be in meetings with department professionals, social worker advocates and family partners? Part of the training for family partners was then helping them understand the structure of organization, and how they fit as part of the team. 

We also had other staff members involved in some of the training of family partners so that they could get to know the family partners, understand their strengths and where they best fit as individuals. We’re lucky to be small enough to be able to learn a lot quickly through trial and error. There’s been a lot of, “Let’s give it a try.”

To support family partners in their work, organizations also need to define the advocacy model they employ and its implications, such as whether it’s an adversarial or relational model. Good support and supervision are also vital, otherwise peers are at risk of being co-opted or burnt out.

In addition, at Fin WA we are aware of not providing ‘pop-up’ story-telling by people with lived experience of the child protection system. 

A potential danger in relying on only hearing personal stories is that people can think, “That would never happen in our office,” or “Things have changed since that happened,” etc.  It can also keep family partners marginalized, patronized or stuck in a narrow role and be only able to speak or contribute around that experience.  We want the process of training, supervision and working to be one of integration, healing and deeper understanding of their experiences, and where they are able to contribute in a variety of ways to sector reform. 

Back to top