Key Resource: Building Bridge Spaces

The best outcomes for the children we care about are made possible by the trusting relationships we build with families.

A ‘bridge space’ is a space for establishing the relationships and trust that create the conditions for shared care. Bridge spaces bring together the child, their family, and their carer, and are convened and supported by the Family Link Worker.

Defining Bridge Spaces

Importantly, bridge spaces are not Care Teams or ‘case conferences’; they are a place for informal connection opportunities that build the relationship between carers, family and community, and children. We know that the strength of those relationships is crucial for achieving positive outcomes for children in care, including faster, safer and more sustainable reunification with their families. Bridge spaces should focus on building relationships, not on making decisions.

Families with children involved in the child protection system can have a lot going on and building relationships can be tense, needing patience and support. For many carers, it can be confronting to think about the relationship building work that’s involved in building bridge spaces. The ‘Our Way Home’ model has been designed to support carers to do this work in structured and deliberate ways with the support of Team Leaders and Family Link Workers as well as a range tools and resources (see the last page of this practice guide for more information).

Building trust takes time, and the relationships needed to make shared care possible won’t be created overnight. But with time, commitment, creativity and resilience, we know that we can build relationships that will enable better outcomes for the children we work with.

The principles guiding us in this work are:

Setting up a Bridge Space

In the ‘Our Way Home’ model, building bridge spaces that bring together carers and family is an expectation for every child we work with.

Building relationships always takes time, especially in complex contexts where families might have a lot going on and carers might have had negative experiences with families who were struggling. A bridge space might not be able to take the form of regular, in-person meetings straight away, and a carer may need to build up a trusting relationship with family members slowly over time.

It’s the Family Link Worker’s role to facilitate connections and to gain agreement from all parties before kicking off a bridge space, and Aboriginal Practice Leads and Team Leaders can support by helping carers to identify family who‘d like to be involved, make new connections, and build trust over time, with the aim of creating the conditions for genuinely shared care.

These conversations happen separately at first, with the Child, the Family and the Carer, then checking in with the Department over the process to ensure their buy in and approval. Whilst the conversations are separate, and each party will need a slightly different approach, they have a similar structure to start with:

A bridge-building conversation

There may be times when children don't feel comfortable about a bridge space. If this happens, they can always say 'no' or 'not now' to a bridge space, and it’s crucial that the Parkerville team let children know they can do this and respect their choice when they do. When a child says ‘no’ or ‘not now’ to a bridge space, they should be supported to explore why they don't feel ready, and given the opportunity to revisit this in the future if things change.

You can find out more about what Building Bridges looks like for different people involved in the Building Bridge Spaces Practice Guide.

Rhythms towards restoration

There is no step-by-step formula for building relationships, especially in complex and emotionally charged circumstances - but the work of building bridge spaces does have a rhythm to it that can guide carers in connecting and developing trust:

Reach out

Families have often had negative experiences in the care system, and we need to show that we want their input. It’s up to us to reach out and start to plan for connection, which might include doing the work to find out who and where a child’s family and community are.

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Plan a safe connection

Building trusting relationships takes time, and carers, families and children need to feel safe in a bridge space for that trust to be possible. You may need to start with phone or video calls, or choose a safe, neutral location, before a visit to the home is possible. Depending on the context, it might also be necessary to connect with a child’s family without them present to begin with. Staying safe while always moving towards more connection should be your priority.

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Start with the human stuff

When we connect with our own families, we don’t jump straight to talking about our hopes for the future or our conflicts or grievances. To build relationships, it’s important to start with the human stuff and try to understand what’s going on in someone else’s life.

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Keep shared care the centre

Bridge spaces are about building relationships, not making decisions, and your conversations should focus on building the trust needed for shared care. This might include understanding both the child and the family’s hopes for the future, having honest conversations about risks and how to mitigate them, and even understanding what other support families might need to overcome the challenges they’re facing.

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Plan for more connection

Wherever possible, our aim should always be to create more and deeper connection with families over time, and this goes for carers as well as children. As you build more trusting relationships, think about whether you could safely increase the level of connection, for example, by connecting more frequently or by moving from a neutral space into the home.

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This cycle won’t always go smoothly - we will often run into challenges or face breakdowns of communication partway through. A core part of the Our Way Home model is our commitment to always circle back and reach out again, because we know that staying resilient and building relationships with families over time is what gets the best results for the children we work with.

Building Bridge Spaces Practice Guide

Practice Guide

Practice Guide

A how-to guide for the Parkerville team