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Family-Centered Practice in Social Work 

January 2, 2024

Social workers employ various tools and techniques in the service of their clients and communities. One of the more widely used approaches involves the concept of family-centered practice.

Family-centered practice is based on the premise that the most effective way to support family development and well-being is by engaging with and empowering them. This approach has numerous advantages: It encourages greater participation from families in the service delivery process; it can help prevent child abuse and neglect; and it can lead to improved interpersonal family dynamics and more positive developmental and behavioral outcomes, among many other benefits. 

Widely applicable across a range of social work situations and settings, family-centered practice is essential for social workers who are already in the field as well as individuals seeking to become social workers

What Is Family-Centered Practice?

A significant proportion of social workers deal primarily with children and families, with roughly half of all social workers categorized as child, family and school social workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Consequently, family-centered practice is a mainstay in the field of social work. 

Broadly speaking, family-centered practice is an approach to working with families that focuses on enhancing their capacity to care for their children and meet their needs. It considers the family unit as essential to children’s safety and development. In the context of family-centered practice, the term “family” encompasses birth families; blended families; foster and adoptive families; and kinship, which can include relatives and, in some cases, close family friends.

Unlike other intervention models in which professionals are largely responsible for making decisions, this approach prioritizes families’ autonomy. Social workers applying a family-centered approach strive to empower families by providing them with the information and resources they need to support their children and themselves.  

Although often used in child welfare, the family-centered model can be applied across a wide range of other social work contexts, including health care; treatment for substance misuse; help with custody decisions; co-parenting education; discernment counseling; collaborative divorce team members; and addressing issues, from anxiety to bullying. Ultimately, the goal of this practice is to ensure the safety, stability and well-being of children and families. 

Principles of Family-Centered Practice

While a family-centered model can take many different forms depending on a child’s and their family’s needs, certain principles are intrinsic to this practice. Key elements include the following:

  • Social workers must actively engage with and empower families throughout the process, from needs assessment and goal setting to decision-making and support. 
  • Open communication and collaboration between families and providers are essential to establish mutual trust and respect.
  • Families exist within the context of a larger community and culture, and as such, cultural influences, such as race, ethnicity and religion, should be prioritized. 
  • Social workers provide relevant information to assist families in decision-making and connect them with appropriate resources and services in the community. 

What Does Family-Centered Practice Look Like?

The precise methodology of family-centered practice varies depending on the particular context in which it’s applied; some common elements exist, though. The process typically begins with an assessment of the issues family members face, along with an assessment of their strengths and resources. It also involves outlining the family’s goals and the responsibilities of both the family and the social worker, and laying out a plan to meet those goals, followed by ongoing evaluation to determine the effectiveness of interventions. 

Regardless of the issue it’s intended to address, a family-centered model should not only focus on the client’s treatment and well-being but also the relationship dynamics of the client’s family. For example, taking a family-centered approach to treating a client dealing with substance misuse issues might look something like this:

  • Parenting classes may be incorporated into the treatment plan, serving as a valuable tool to improve family functioning. 
  • Relapse prevention plans may include strategies to manage stressors for parents.
  • Treatment plans should also address the needs of children and may include screening for developmental delays, trauma, and social and emotional challenges. They often incorporate child and family therapy.

Benefits of Family-Centered Practice in Social Work 

A family-centered approach can have many benefits for both social workers and their clients, such as:

  • Establishing a collaborative relationship characterized by mutual trust and respect
  • Strengthening family functioning by focusing on solutions
  • Facilitating the reunification of families and positive permanency outcomes 
  • Decreasing the risk of child abuse and neglect
  • Improving child development outcomes

The exact benefits may vary depending on the context in which the family-centered model is used. In the case of substance misuse, for example, this approach can lead to increased treatment retention rates and reduced substance misuse rates. For clients coping with health care issues, a family-centered approach can reduce stress around diagnoses, improve communication with providers and minimize conflict.

Family-centered practice may also help deal with burnout and compassion fatigue among social workers by fostering a more positive relationship with clients and their families, one marked by shared accountability and responsibility.

Support Children and Families as a Social Worker 

Family-centered practice is among the most valuable tools social workers can use to help their clients and their families achieve their goals. This approach emphasizes participation and collaboration, empowering clients’ families to harness their strengths and function more effectively and ensuring that children are raised in healthy, stable environments.  

If you’re interested in helping children and families overcome life’s challenges, consider Virginia Commonwealth University’s Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) Program. With three options for completing the M.S.W. online program format — part-time, full-time and accelerated (for those with a Bachelor of Science in Social Work) — you can earn your degree at a pace that most closely suits your lifestyle. 

Find out how VCU can help you achieve your professional goals. 

Reviewed by Amy Kemter, D.S.W., LCSW.*

*Amy Kemter, D.S.W., LCSW, is a clinical social worker and professor of social work. She has a practice in San Antonio, Texas, specializing in the treatment of trauma and addiction disorders.