By: Natalie D. Pope, PhD, LCSW, and Jennifer B. Hadden, MSW
When first starting out, making a home visit to see a client can be an intimidating and even frightening experience for social workers. Yet, in many areas of practice, the majority of client contact is “in the field,” which typically means seeing a client someplace other than your office. Certainly for social workers practicing in the field of public child welfare (e.g., child protective services, family preservation, foster care, adoption), visiting clients in their home is the norm, rather than the exception.
Many benefits exist to seeing clients in their homes, particularly when working in child welfare. First, as social workers, we give special attention to our clients’ environment and how this affects their functioning and well-being. Observing clients’ living situations (conditions of the home, safety concerns, status of neighborhood and community, and so forth) can provide valuable and relevant information for assessment and case planning. Second, working with clients in their homes enables the social worker to “meet the clients where they are” and to potentially reduce the power differential inherent in work with mandated clients. Third, interventions delivered in the home, rather than in an office, might be easier for clients to implement, since the home is where problems often occur. Finally, service barriers such as limited transportation and scheduling conflicts can be avoided with home-based services (Collins, Jordan, & Coleman, 2010).
Despite the benefits of seeing clients in their homes, there are some inherent challenges and things to keep in mind when interviewing parents and children in their home.
Building Rapport to Get in the Door
Upon first contact with a client, social workers are often met with some barriers. The worker’s ability to gain entry into the home is often indicative of resistance to or compliance with intervention. Here are some suggestions for a first meeting in a client’s home:
1. Knock with authority, but not in a threatening way. It should be audible, but not deafening. Sometimes you must knock a few times before the client will answer. Try to refrain from “peeking” in windows, unless you are concerned for the potential safety of children in the home after repeatedly unanswered knocks.
2. Introduce yourself using your first and last name, and agency representation. You may need to repeat your first name a few times to allow the client to identify you not only as an agency representative, but also a person. When possible, smile. You might say something like, “Our agency received a call from someone concerned about your children. I would like to discuss that concern with you.”
3. Prior to asking to be invited into a client’s home, it is sometimes necessary to allow the client to process the idea of agency intervention. You may have to ask more than once.
4. Once in the home, ask the client’s permission to be seated and follow his or her instruction on where to sit. You may ask to move at some point during the visit, once rapport has been established.
5. Observe obvious rules in the home (shoes by the door or feet off the furniture, for example). You might explain to clients that you are a guest and ask them to advise you if you are breaking any of the house rules.
When interviewing a client in an office setting, the social worker has some control over the environment. This is not the case when seeing clients at home. Ideal physical conditions for an interview include comfortable seating and room temperature, freedom from distraction, ample space to move around, and a sanitary location (Hepworth, Rooney, Rooney, Strom-Gottfried, & Larsen, 2010). Some tips for making your surroundings as conducive as possible include:
1. If you have a great deal of paperwork to process with the client, it may be beneficial to be seated at a dining table during a portion of your visit.
2. Politely ask the client to turn off the television or radio so both of you can concentrate on the interview.
3. When visiting a home with young children, take a bag with coloring books and crayons, puzzles, and small toys. These items can be purchased cheaply but are invaluable to keeping young children occupied. You might even consider carrying animal crackers and juice boxes to help pacify cranky kids.