Challenges within daily practice of a German social worker in family service

Bettina Strobel
Eichstätt (Germany)
Dipl.- Soz.Päd. (FH), Dipl.- Päd. (univ)
Family Assistance Case Worker


Sozialpädagogische Familienhilfe (SPFH) in Germany - Family Assistance Case Work


This paper deals with Family Assistance Case Work in Germany, its history and its development until today. I will also introduce different kinds of employment possibilities which are common in this field of social work.


The paper reflects my experiences as a Family Assistance Case Worker. Additionally it discusses the institutional framework and presents case examples.


1. Historical development and basis of the SPFH

A historical forerunner of the SPFH is the “settlement movement”, founded in the 1880s by young academics, which aimed at assisting families in poor neighbourhoods in New York.


Discussions in Germany on the situation of children separated from their parents in institutional care and on a reform of the youth assistance law (Jugendhilferecht) at the end of the 1960s gave incentives to initiate the SPFH. Concepts and implementations of this form of assistance first began in the former West Berlin in the 1970s. At the end of the decade the institutionalization of the SPFH, beginning on a small scale, started nationwide. In 1980, 10 % of the Youth Office districts (in cooperation with non-governmental agencies) offered SPFH, in comparison to 52 % in 1985. On January 1st, 1991 the new Child and Youth Assistance Law (Kinder- und Jugendhilfe Gesetz - KJHG) came into effect. In this law the SPFH is described as an important form of family assistance, subsequently the SPFH expanded rapidly.


The new KJHG replaced the former, more interventionist institutional approach towards child and youth neglect with a more preventive and family support oriented approach. In the law the SPFH is part of the “assistance for education”(Hilfe zur Erziehung) which offers different forms of institutional or more case-work-oriented help for families.


2. SPFH: Definition, Methods and Framework of Assistance

2.1 Definition

The KJHG describes the SPFH in the chapter of the “assistance for education” as a “help towards self help” as a means of counselling and working intensively with families on issues of educating their children, solving daily problems and conflicts between family members and  supporting their ability to deal with institutions.


The focus of this case-work based measure is on supporting and strengthening conventional or single parents in their parenting skills and ameliorating the whole family situation, including external family ties. The SPFH aims at a long-term positive change for these families and subsequently for the children in such families.


The concept of the SPFH includes an external institutional support mostly for the children (in the form of working with the schools, day care centers, kindergartens, organizing child therapy etc.) but also for the adults (for example in helping them to go to school or vocational training or to find an adequate job).A change in the overall family situation is seen as a chance to improve the development conditions for the children. To achieve this goal, the case worker has to work with the resources inside and outside of the family. Taking into account the family process and its interdependence with the social environment, the well being of parents and the quality of the environment is intensively linked with the chances for children to develop themselves positively. The overall outcome of an isolated perception of children on the other hand leads only to very limited results.


2.2 Methods and Concepts


Very different methods and concepts are being implemented in the SPFH. These aim at dealing with the usually complex family systems. In the literature on SPFH there are several varying means of working with families in such a context, mostly concentrating on counselling, on therapy, on treating the family as a system, on dealing with daily problems, and on empowering family members. In the daily work it is necessary, to deal with the family on very different levels, for example in the field of solving daily problems such as filling out forms for institutions or handling inner-family relationships and (often not satisfying) forms of communication or initiating networks, in order to help overcome social isolation. Social work with single persons, with groups and in the form of community organizing are useful approaches.


2.3 Framework of Assistance

A very important tool in the assistance process is the legally required “assistance plan” (Hilfeplan). The assistance plan is supposed to bring all participants in the assistance process (not only family members but also, for example, teachers) together on a frequent basis to reflect the situation of the family and find new goals to achieve for a set period of time. All participants can name goals and discuss the next assistance plan, whether they have been achieved or not.

The time framework differs in each case and can last from a few months in cases of short crisis interventions up to several years in dealing with structural family problems or with so called multi – problem  families.


3. The Family Assistance Case worker:

3.1 Institutional Framework

In general the responsible Youth Office chooses a family. The case worker can be an employee of the Youth Office, or of nongovernmental welfare agencies. The work contract can also be very different; for instance, many case workers in the field of SPFH are self employed which means they get only a working contract for each case. It is questionable, whether employees working in controlling agencies like Youth Offices, Social Welfare or Health Departments are in a good position to do the work, compared to social workers in nongovernmental agencies. Nevertheless, a good cooperation between the Youth Office and the case worker is essential, for example in questions of who is doing what und who is telling whom and who has the permission to give out certain information to another person or institution.

3.2 Demands on the profession and human qualifications   

Family assistance case workers should be in general social workers, psychologists or educators. In cases of very complex family systems the case worker should be additionally qualified or should have much experience. Apart from job qualification the case worker should be in his personality equipped with capabilities such as being able to relate to people


Patiently and reliably. The case worker should also be able to reflect himself critically and to withstand stress. A good mixture of reflective, analytical, emotional and relationship-oriented capabilities is also important.

3.3 Professional Work and Work quality:

The work quality, besides good working and human qualifications, is influenced by other factors, especially the framework of working conditions. The standards of these conditions vary from Youth Office to Youth Office.


It depends on:

  • what work qualifications are obligatory (how much money is the Youth Office ready to pay?)

  • the position of the case worker in the institution ( fully integrated, partly hired or self employed)

  • contact and position towards the Youth Office employees

  • possibilities for supervisory counselling

  • exchange of experiences with other case workers

  • institutional budget for SPFH

  • quality of evaluation of SPFH

For example a self-employed case worker:

has no social security and often lacks acceptable office capacities. The communication with his social worker in the Youth Office isdifficult, since the case worker has no backing in an institution. Such a person is also dependent on the Youth officer to get new case contracts in the future.


With regards to the assistance plan:

SPFH case workers are often challenged with complex family problems. To achieve good results it is necessary to set, supervise and regularly revise goals on a very detailed level. This implies the introduction of clear criteria to define and measure results.


4. Clients of SPFH:

4.1 Statistical Information on SPFH:


Recipients of SPFH rose nationwide yearly by an average of 12 %. In the year 2000, 31.200 families (75.000 children and youths) took part in SPFH cases. The average length of an SPFH case is 16 months. Single-parent families (mostly mothers) accounted for about 50 % of the measures compared to “classical” families including both father and mother. In 39 % of the cases the number of children is three.


In 66 % of the cases reasons for SPFH are difficulties in education, followed by development disturbances of a child or youth (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2000).

Sociologically the majority of the help recipients are low-income families with minor school degrees, unemployed and often welfare recipients.

4.2 Less Eligible Families That are Excluded


Families can apply for SPFH assistance in various life situations and family constellations. A precondition for the implementation of SPFH is the general readiness to cooperate with the case worker. Not eligible are families or family members with alcohol and/or drug problems who are not willing to seek treatment.


5. Major Functions of SPFH:

SPFH has - due to the varying family problems – different functions. The first three will be described with examples from personal experiences.


5.1 Help towards Self-help

Main Function is the use of tools (such as resource and empowerment oriented working) to increase the independence of the client family to conquer obstacles and problems.



A mother – apart from other problems - has great difficulties dealing with institutions and has a hard time understanding the meaning of forms to fill out. The family case worker is accompanying her to institutions like the Welfare Office, encouraging her to fill out the forms by herself and supervising the process. As a result, she becomes less afraid of bureaucracy and learns slowly to stand up for her rights. This leads to more self-esteem and more independence.


5.2 Control and Clearing Function

The main function is to find out whether the well-being of a child or its development is basically fulfilled in a family. To achieve this it is necessary to check out the resources and limits of the family members to learn. It is also important to observe the readiness for personal change and the degree of coping with pressures. For the case worker there is a delicate balance between supporting the family in their parental duties and observing critically the wellbeing of the children. Observations made by the SPFH case workers quite often initiate further action by the Youth Office.



A mother with her two-years-old child. Background: four children of this mother have already been taken away from her because of child neglect, and violent and often changing male partners. The function of the SPFH case worker is to find out, whether this mother is willing and capable to accept support and advice on issues of daily child care, also whether she is able to relate to her child in a nourishing manner. Some reports already indicate deficits in the child’s development and some tendencies of neglect. The case worker also observes during the first visits that the child is being put quiete often in a playpen.

5.3 Function to stabilize the family




A single mother, just divorced, has great problems in dealing with her three children between 10 and 16 years old. She contacts the Youth Office and reports massive quarrels and physical fights between family members. She also complains of a lack of respect by her children towards her authority as a mother. The function of the SPFH in this case is to support the mother in her role as a responsible head of the family and to strengthen her understanding for the needs of her children. On the other hand the children have to learn to respect their mother, to notice when she is under stress and to assist her in the daily work. In conversations reflecting observed daily patterns of behaviour, the SPFH is developing together with the family members new and more constructive ways to relate to each other.


Additional important functions of the SPFH:


5.4 Function to avoid child separation from the family:

In some cases the SPFH has the function – at least temporarily – to avoid concluding that children have to be placed into institutions or foster care due to massive problems in the family. With methods of intensive family-system interventions, the SPFH is trying to create a process that opens new resources, and finally makes it possible for the children to stay in the family. Separation from the family means for the majority of the children often traumatic situations and great hardship; it also means changing staff workers in institutions and not enough readiness or capacity to work with the parents.

5.5 Network Function

Creating social networks is aimed at overcoming social isolation of families through the establishment of new social relationships and contact with helpful services in the community. Network-building means, for example, to encourage families to become members of sporting clubs, to attend courses in the Peoples University (Volkshochschule) or to assist them to visit self-help groups such as those for single mothers.


5.6. Function of Reintegration

In cases where children or youths return back to their families it is the function of the SPFH case worker to prepare and assist this mostly difficult process. Quite often, problems that lead to the separation come up again and have to be dealt with.


6. Conclusion and critical remarks:


The SPFH has become an important field of social work in Germany since the beginning of the 1990s. Its main task is to support families in their parental duties and to ameliorate the whole family situation including strengthening of the family environment. The clients are mostly socially underprivileged families, single mothers and families with disproportionately many children.


The SPFH must face critical questions, especially on its closeness and intimacy in its daily work with families. Dangers arise from the loss of a necessary distance and independence that can lead to destructive coalition-building against institutions. Also, without being integrated into some form of reflecting team or supervision, the case worker easily becomes a single fighter, who loses contact with realities and can easily burn out. An other problem is the duty of the case worker to report to his employer or contractor, the Youth Office, which brings him into conflict with his clients if he loses the confidence which is so important for achieving positive results.


Critics also complain that the SPFH is a method to describe and solve problems in a family context which neglects the overall socio-economic influence on family functioning and disintegration. In this view the family is a mere a symptom carrier of much broader social problems.





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