Parent review feedback summary

  • Parent reviewers are overall supportive of person-centered language, and want it seen implemented across all areas of child welfare so that service providers can interact appropriately and respectfully with the communities they serve.
  • Person-centered language makes parents experiencing the child welfare system feel human and respected. Parent reviewers think parents would be more receptive and cooperative if addressed in this way. One reviewer shared their experience as, “you’re always defined by what you have or are dealing with which makes it hard to believe anything else when you’re literally in this situation.”
  • Parent reviewers want child welfare systems to know that doing this work requires an assessment of why the language being used is harmful. Additionally, they want to see person-centered language be a culture shift across the system.

What is the intervention?

Value-laden language is influenced by personal experience, opinion, and bias. Interrogating the language we use can reveal these biases, which then creates opportunities to address them. Changing value-laden language allows us to shift our mindset about people and conditions, see with a different lens, and show up with less judgment and more empathy. Families can then be seen and supported rather than judged and disregarded. 

Instead, use language which leads with a person’s humanity and strengths. For example, person-first language emphasizes these using terms such as “living with diabetes” rather than “diabetic,” or “having a felony record,” rather than, “felon.” Strengths-based language might mean using “resourceful” instead of “manipulative” in describing behavior.

Labels or adjectives used to describe or define a person often do so in a deficit-based way. Rather, a condition, disorder, disease, or disability is only part of a whole person. Use language to reflect this.

What makes it a Bright Spot?

Because the safety and integrity of families are constantly at stake in child welfare, leaders and workers must constantly act to address personal bias. When bias is exposed in language, it creates opportunities to shift behavior. Person-centered language can generate more person-centered responses, which could improve the experience of children and families engaged in the child welfare system. 

What steps can you take?

  • Conduct a language audit. Wherever language exists in your work, spoken or written, look for loaded terms and implicit bias. What assumptions exist within the terms used? Does the language match the values of your organization? For example, must “stable” housing always mean “independent” housing when we know we all need help from others in our lives? Or, is “urban” used to mean “Black?” 
  • Replace loaded words. Words and phrases such as “appropriate,” “good parenting,” “available for adoption” or even the word, “family” can elicit positive or negative (yet biased) connotation depending on your experience. 
  • Start small. Approach it as a team and begin with one meeting or case review or agency policy. 
    • To address spoken language, start during one case consultation, at staff or board meeting, face-to-face with families, with foster parents, in a supervision meeting, or at a staff training. 
    • To address written language, start on public agency materials, on client forms, in training manuals, written in case notes, or policy and procedure manuals. 
  • See behaviors as pain-based. In child welfare, many pain-based behaviors are labeled with words which assign intent and/or describe effects on others rather than the experience of the individual, words such as “disruptive,” “non-compliant”, or “manipulative.” Behaviors described using these terms may also be described as pain-based, or natural responses to pain and trauma so might be replaced with, “exploring,” “struggling,” or “seeking to get needs met.” This may change the way you interpret a behavior and prompt a more generous, empathetic response. 


These downloadable resources may help provide additional context and information about this family-approved resource for systems change.

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