What is Graduated Disengagement?

If you’re just starting out in a career as a social worker, you may have heard the term graduated disengagement spoken by some of your co-workers. It’s the last step in the seven core helping principles practiced by social workers, and it’s designed to give clients the self-reliance to become functional members of society again after receiving help.

The Seven Core Principles of Social Work

The first step is engagement, which is simply the process of becoming familiar with a client and fostering an active relationship of support and advocacy. The role of advocate is actually a fundamental part of every step in the process. After becoming acquainted with a client, the social worker then begins an assessment of his or her needs as an individual. An assessment is also an opportunity to prepare the client for the stage of self-reliance when the social worker gradually becomes disengaged and checks on progress only periodically.

See: What is the History of the Social Work Profession?

After conducting a thorough assessment and writing down any observations or concerns, the social worker begins treatment planning with the client to discuss the best options for the situation. Treatment planning can take into consideration doctor’s visits, job interviews, drug rehabilitation, visits with children or any other activities that help the client get to the final stage of disengagement. Advocacy is especially important in this stage and the next one to ensure that the client has the proper motivation and necessary support to get through the process.

Implementation, Monitoring and Disengagement

After planning the treatment strategy, the social worker begins implementing the process with the client. This step can take a few weeks for some cases or several years for others. When there are children involved, they can end up in foster care for the remainder of their childhood, and the social worker will remain involved until the child becomes an adult. In these cases, the graduated disengagement phase can begin early and last until the child graduates from high school and leaves the foster care system.

By this point, the child will be ready to enter college or begin working full-time and taking care of himself. However, the therapy and monitoring phases can continue as long as necessary. These stages are the last two steps before gradually becoming disengaged, but monitoring doesn’t suddenly stop when the client stops receiving support from the case worker. Therapy and monitoring continue after disengagement, but the client is no longer dependent on the social care system.

Managing Risks

All of these steps in the process present their own sets of risks and opportunities, and social workers need to be protected against the risks of working with vulnerable people. There are malpractice and general liability risks involved in all the early stages of the process, and lawsuits against social workers often arise after the client has become disengaged with the system. Although most social workers do their job out of a sense of altruism, they’re still liable for mental and physical injuries suffered by the client. A person who receives help from a social worker may be advised by an attorney to file a lawsuit to receive compensation for an injury.

Social work is a noble profession, and it helps the most vulnerable people get acclimated to society. If you’re a social worker, you’ll become very familiar with the seven helping functions of social work, and as you work with clients, you’ll ultimately want to focus all your effort on their graduated disengagement.

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