Consider the stress of having to deal with one of these issues within your family:

- You're an overwhelmed step-parent taking primary responsibility for a child with complex behavioural and health issues.

- You're a single parent whose children display significant behavioural issues after spending time with their other parent.

- You need therapy for past experiences you haven't dealt with.

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- Your partner is very controlling of the rest of the family.

- You and your children are couch surfing because you can't afford a rental property and there is no social housing available.

- You have a child with ADHD – and your partner also has ADHD, leaving most of the parenting, household and life workload to you.

- Your young child has been hospitalised with severe anxiety.

- Your child is so violent they cannot be on their own at school and must have you with them at all times.

- Your family has experienced intergenerational physical and/or sexual abuse.

- You're a grandparent raising your grandchildren who have been traumatised by earlier events in their lives and the relationship between you and your own child has broken down.

- You don't know how to budget.

- Your child has few language skills by the time they are due to start school.

- You can't make sound decisions and can be triggered by the slightest thing like tone of voice or a colour because of past trauma in your life.

- You're addicted to alcohol or drugs.

- You have older children who are not toilet trained.

- You don't know how to praise or play with your children.

Now consider what it would be like to have two or more of these scenarios happening within your family. That's the reality for families in Jigsaw Whanganui's social work programme.

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"With some families it's like we're scraping the layers of ice off the windscreen, little bit by little bit. Or sometimes it's more like it just needs a little squeegee. But the family are still always the ones in the driver's seat and we're alongside them."

Vanya Teki's car windscreen analogy draws swift agreement from Jigsaw Whanganui's practice manager Gael Clark and colleague Sandy Dunlop.

They are part of a six-person team delivering social work with a difference in Whanganui and the surrounding region, providing intensive home-based support for families under stress.

"Some people think we go and have cups of tea with the people we visit," Gael says, prompting roars of laughter from Vanya and Sandy.

"There's no time for that – it's damn hard work.

"Visiting families in their home week after week is unique. There's a huge range of things we work with them on – parenting skills, family violence, alcohol and drugs, health, ASD [autism spectrum disorder] and ADHD.

"Some people say they want to become a social worker to help people. We don't see our role as helping people. It's about bringing hope."

The flexibility of the Jigsaw model, compared with traditional social work, means there's more continuity of care and the ability to do some preventative work which doesn't fall within the scope of most other social work roles.

Sandy, whose experience includes psychiatric social work, said that role was more about supporting the family and building a bridge to the patient in hospital. She started out with the Department of Social Welfare where the focus, as it remains with government agencies that have taken over from that department, was on applying the relevant act.

Vanya's background is in social work in the health sector.

"Being family centred is more difficult when you're just seeing the patient," Vanya says.

"The medical model is based on accountability. Based in a hospital, they are doing more brokerage-type social work because of the necessity of discharge. At Jigsaw we have the luxury of time as home-based social workers where we look at a holistic approach."

The organisation uses the terms "family" and "whānau" in the broadest possible sense. They may be working with single parents or couples and their children or several generations of an extended family. About 15 per cent are "kin carers", such as grandparents raising grandchildren.

Atea Rongo-Raea explains how Jigsaw can work with a grandparent raising a grandchild. (Photo staged)
Atea Rongo-Raea explains how Jigsaw can work with a grandparent raising a grandchild. (Photo staged)

They are families with complex needs, and often intergenerational trauma, from all walks of life. Many of the children have learning difficulties or are considered to be on the autism spectrum and their caregivers need parenting strategies and support.

Establishing trust is the first step for the social workers. Often this is the first reliable relationship a family has had so the Jigsaw team has to be "utterly dependable".

It can take two or three visits to get a picture of what's happened in their lives and the challenges a family is facing. The social worker then draws up a plan with the family and tasks for the family and social worker are allocated.

"When we get family harm cases through from the police, I will make a cold call which gets all sorts of reactions to start with," Vanya said.

"Their guard goes down as I talk to them as it's transparent and we have the skills to talk to them."

Vanya says much of their work is hearing the family's stories and unravelling the story as it goes, reflecting back a lot of what the family is saying and drawing things out.

"A lot of our conversations are following up on what we said the week before," Vanya said.

"Often I'll give them a strategy and the next week they'll say they tried it and it didn't work so then I'll remind them about consistency and they'll say they tried it twice and it still didn't work. So I'll remind them about consistency again."

"Families love it when you remember what you said to them the week before," Sandy says.

Jigsaw's involvement with a family can last from several months to several years.

"We are supporting healthy interpersonal relationships and forming attachment between the child and the parent which is pivotal for children to thrive," Gael said.

It's often simple things like how to talk to them, listen to them and set appropriate structures in the home.

Atea Rongo-Raea travels to the Waimarino area once a week to work alongside whānau.
Atea Rongo-Raea travels to the Waimarino area once a week to work alongside whānau.

Jigsaw receives about 200 referrals a year to its social work service. About half of the families are referred through various health services where a problem with a child has been identified. There are some self-referrals.

For just less than half of the referrals, the team does brief work with them which involves linking them to services, giving advice or putting them on a parenting programme. Just over half are more intensive.

The referrals are called "requests for service" and require input from the families. They are asked to assess themselves against statements about concerns/stresses they may be facing rather than the referrer filling it in, giving them investment in the process.

When a request for service comes in, Gael allocates a family to a social worker.

"I try to do a 'good match', knowing our team's strengths and the different resources they work with," she said.

Gael says the social workers restore dignity to the families by behaving with dignity.

"I go in as myself and I'm honest with them and start where they want to start," Sandy says.

The social workers say some of the behaviours they encounter within families are "horrible" or "really dumb".

The social workers model appropriate behaviours alongside families by doing activities with them.

"It's not a teacher role but a model role, facilitating role and co-ordinating role," Vanya said.

"We do a lot of facilitation of support and collaboration work with other organisations that have resources they need. We look at it through the eyes of the children's safety and needs and we make an assessment."

Measuring success is part of the plan they develop with the families.

They set goals with the families and review those regularly. At the end of the social worker's involvement, Jigsaw gets feedback from the family: are they better off, are the children better off and safer, have they made the changes they said they would?

There are varying degrees of success but the aim is to build safety and resilience in families.

"Some families make significant shifts; others make some shifts but it's significant for them," Vanya said.

"Success is about what the family says success looks like for them. Other agencies may meet them and say to us 'oh my goodness, that family' but the families have come a long way from where they were. Often you don't know the impact we have made until further down the track when a crisis hits them and they haven't gone back to previous types of behaviour."

The Jigsaw social work team also has a community focus, with a pivotal part of their role being participation in health and other networks. Most of their work has a health component.

They also "walk alongside" families in their interactions with other agencies such as Work and Income.

"It's about mana," Gael says.

"We see them as experts in their own lives. If you don't 'sit with' people, you don't understand the impact of their situation."