We’ve written about professional boundaries several times from the perspective of how to maintain your own boundaries when working so closely with families. Here’s a twist…how do you manage boundary issues when you see them happening between a colleague and a family? Let’s consider an example.
Alexis has been working with Enzi’s family for almost a year and began the journey with them just after Enzi was adopted from another country. Alexis has been there for the family through some very emotional times and bonded quickly with Enzi’s mother because Alexis had also experienced an international adoption with her daughter. Because of Enzi’s complicated medical and developmental needs, it was challenging for the family to find a sitter they trusted. As Enzi’s service coordinator, you have also known him and his family since he came home. On a visit with Alexis and Enzi’s mother, you hear them talking about weekend plans and realize that they are scheduling when Alexis will arrive to babysit Enzi so that his parents can go to a neighborhood picnic. You aren’t sure how to handle the situation in the moment. What do you do?
Getting Too Close
It’s definitely possible that EI professionals can get too close to families while working together, especially when they have something so important in common. We care deeply about the children and families we support. As the service coordinator, an important part of your responsibility with each family is to monitor how services are provided, and how boundaries are maintained is part of that. As a service provider, it is a critical and often challenging part of your responsibilities to know where to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Do you think Alexis crossed the line?
Getting too close poses several troublesome possibilities:
What if Enzi’s parents end up having a concern about the service they receive from Alexis? How comfortable will they be with addressing this with her or you after they’ve gotten too close?
What if something happens to Enzi while Alexis is babysitting? What impact could that have on the family? On Enzi’s services?
What happens to Alexis’s ability to remain professionally objective? Can she really do that when she is too close?
When A Colleague Crosses the Line
Sure, we can and should be friendly and supportive, but stepping in and doing things like babysitting, bringing our own children to a visit for peer interaction, or joining families on weekend outings means we are getting too close and could jeopardize the intervention relationship. It also means that we aren’t helping the family access resources within their own networks that will continue with them long after they leave our programs. Crossing that line changes the relationship, even with the best of intentions.
Repercussions for the Provider
Once Alexis becomes a friend who babysits, she is likely to lose her objectivity and could begin pushing her own agenda on the family. She also may be putting herself in the difficult position of having to accept or refuse other requests – to babysit again, to get groceries on the way to the visit (yes, this happened to me), to watch the child while the parent runs a quick errand during a visit. Entering an emotional, personal relationship will also make it difficult for her and the parent to discuss potentially challenging issues, such as disagreements about intervention strategies, equipment needs, service frequency, or transition options.
Repercussions for the Family
From the parent’s perspective, Enzi’s family may have been very grateful to have a babysitter they trusted. However, had something happened to Enzi while Alexis was alone with him, it could have been very uncomfortable for them. They would then be faced with handling that situation knowing that they would be seeing Alexis again on the next intervention visit (versus firing a sitter they never have to see again). Enzi’s parents could be faced with backing out of that relationship which is difficult for everyone. If they eventually wanted or needed to change providers or services, having a personal relationship with Alexis could make it very difficult for them to get what Enzi needs, if that “it” isn’t Alexis.
What Should You Do?
As the service coordinator, you aren’t your providers’ keeper, but you are there to protect the family’s rights. It’s a difficult situation but in this case, you must address the issue with the family and with Alexis. Even if you aren’t a service coordinator, you regularly consult with colleagues and could be in the same situation. I’d love to know how YOU would really handle this situation.
Would you address it immediately with Alexis and the family, or would you talk to Alexis after the visit first? What would you do?