Principle 1: Services will make building strong relationships with residents a high priority

Caravan park muralPart 2 of a series of posts based on nine principles for supporting permanent residents of caravan parks which are relevant to a range of other contexts. The first post introduced the context and listed the nine principles.

Building a trusting relationship with adults and children can take a while. It is worth being patient. Caravan parks are unique environments to work in. They are families’ homes and backyards, and we are guests. Settling into caravan park life as a worker took some months but now everyone knows me, the manager, the cleaner, the maintenance guys, the residents. I am part of the place and I have found my niche and my own working style. It has been a gentle engagement [1, p. 52].

Building strong relationships with residents is central to successful work in caravan parks. Without the active engagement of residents, support services are unlikely to succeed. Marginalised residents of caravan parks are frequently mistrustful of service providers, and building relationships can be a slow process. Although building relationships with residents is not the goal in itself, it is a vital foundation for ongoing work. Staff need to be skilled at building relationships and have the time for engaging residents and building strong, trusting relationships. When residents have had negative experiences of government or non-government agencies, they can be slow to trust service providers and be fearful of service providers coming into their homes or backyards and seeing things that could otherwise be kept out of sight (e.g. drug use, child protection issues). Residents can be fearful that staff will report them to child welfare authorities or implement other unwanted interventions. Agency managers and funding bodies thus need to recognise the importance of allowing time to build relationships with residents.

It took some time to gain the trust of the Smith family, and Julie in particular. Pain and disappointment caused by the people you love and are meant to trust had been a recurrent theme in Julie’s life. She had been neglected by her mother, who abused substances until her death 6 years ago, and was sexually assaulted by a man at three years of age while under her mother’s care. She had been betrayed by “friends” and mistreated and discriminated against by physicians and law enforcement officials to name just a few. Why would I be any different?
Family support worker.

Strong relationships allow staff to gain the trust of residents, broach sensitive issues and build partnerships with residents assisting them to achieve their goals.

Implications for practice include the following:

Staff will treat residents with respect and dignity

In order to build strong relationships, residents need to know that they will be treated with respect and dignity. Staff should recognise residents as experts in their own lives and demonstrate unconditional positive regard.

Staff will be open, upfront and honest with residents

Forum participants spoke about the importance of being open, up-front and honest with residents (and park managers). Staff need to be clear about issues such as the levels and type of support they can and cannot provide, limits to confidentiality (including mandatory reporting of child abuse) and any expectations they have. Even when making child protection notifications a number of participants believed it could be helpful to tell the parents involved.

A community worker was supporting a single dad and his 12-year-old daughter but had concerns about the impact the father’s drinking had on his care of his daughter. There was a possibility he was physically assaulting her and there were reports she was having a relationship with an adult male living in the park. After making a notification, the worker spoke to the father about her concerns and told him she had made a report. Although the father denied that accusation and was angry, he eventually appreciated the honesty and, after a few weeks, was willing for the worker to maintain contact with them. While the relationship with the father continued to be uneasy, progress was made and he allowed the staff member to work closely with his daughter.
Community worker

Services will be inclusive

Residents have often experienced social exclusion, so programs need to ensure that they are inclusive. Practices that make it clear that everybody is welcome include having visual clues (e.g. leaflets incorporating Aboriginal colours or images), employing diverse staff (having a male worker in a playgroup can encourage fathers to participate), using inclusive language and actively encouraging participation by marginalised groups.

Staff will avoid being judgemental and making assumptions

Although staff often need to make judgements (e.g. in relation to child protection) forum participants spoke about the dangers of being judgemental and making assumptions. When working in caravan parks, staff are working in people’s back yards and need to be aware of their biases and assumptions so that they do not impose their values and beliefs on residents.

A park, which had a poor reputation and very few facilities, was closing. When discussing other alternatives, a resident asked “Where could I find another park like this one?” While the conditions were poor he appreciated the sense of community he found there. It had been easy for the staff to assume that nobody would want to live in the park.
Community worker

Staff will be reliable and consistent

In order to build trusting relationships, residents need to know that staff can be relied upon and will do what they say they will do. Forum participants also emphasised the importance of consistency in staffing, programming and routine. Relationships are much harder to build when there are frequent changes in staff, times or availability.

Because they are held out in the open, when it is raining, we are not able to run our children’s programs. Rather than just ringing to cancel, we try to visit the park to let residents know we aren’t coming and to drop of some colouring-in sheets for the children.
Children’s worker

Staff will listen carefully to residents

In order to ensure that residents are treated as experts of their own lives, staff need to listen very carefully. Research evidence suggests that families are more likely to become, and remain, engaged when they feel heard [2]. By asking lots of questions and exploring what has and has not worked for the people involved, it is possible to individualise and personalise responses.

Staff will be given the time they need to engage and build relationships with residents

There is often significant fear and mistrust of services amongst residents and relationships can take a long time to develop. Agency managers and funding bodies need to recognise the importance of engagement and that building relationships takes time. Having the time to be seen around the park, to chat to residents and managers, and to socialise with residents (particularly when food is involved) can form important foundations for future work. If premature, intervention can undermine the process of engagement and even encourage the family to move to another park.

We focus on establishing relationships with our families. Taking the time to develop real rapport and establish trust enables us to better engage carers around issues of concern as they arise. This is a slow and at times painful process, but has seen the greatest successes! At time it requires extreme patience and tolerance to maintain rapport with clients living in difficulty, and exposing children to less than ideal circumstances. [3, p. 34]

Staff will provide practical assistance

Providing concrete, practical assistance helps in building relationships with residents by demonstrating that staff understand their needs, and are willing and able to help. Practical assistance could include transport to appointments, providing emergency relief, addressing problems with Centrelink payments, help in applying for housing, collecting their belongings from storage or assisting them to negotiate with park management. Ideally services will have access to brokerage funds so that they can pay for services or resources when needed.

When the children are not enrolled in school, I offer assistance in obtaining the necessary forms and information. I usually carry an enrolment kit in my boot. Even the children who won’t be in the park for long usually are keen to go to school once some of the obstacles are removed. Some obstacles are the lack of money for uniforms, books, lunch box and school bag. Often in the move things have been lost, damaged or left behind in a hasty move. I’m able to buy these things with my petty cash. [4, p. 35]

If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. 9 principles for supporting families and communities
  2. Supporting residents of caravan parks
  3. Playgroups as a foundation for working with hard to reach families
  4. “I try and make it feel more like a home” – families living in caravan parks
  5. Families with children living in caravan parks
  6. It beats living in a tent (a survey of caravan park residents in 2005)

  References

  1. Dandy, K., Mental health in the park, in Supporting residents of caravan parks: Principles of promising practice, G. Stuart, Editor. 2007, Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle: Newcastle.
  2. Berry, M., Critical Questions that Engage Families – Keynote Speech, in Their Lives, Our Work: Critical questions for practice in child, youth and family services National Symposium,. 2005: Melbourne.
  3. Mobile Playscheme Team, Save the Children Qld, Working with children on caravan parks, in Supporting residents of caravan parks: Principles of promising practice, G. Stuart, Editor. 2007, Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle: Newcastle.
  4. Verrall, C., Working with primary school-age children in caravan parks, in Supporting residents of caravan parks: Principles of promising practice, G. Stuart, Editor. 2007, Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle: Newcastle.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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