Social Work with Involuntary Clients

Definition, skills for engagement, and approaches to practice with involuntary clients


This page has three sections:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Material

Definition (Wilkinson, Smith & Gallaher, 2010; Smith, 2020; Trotter, Rooney and Rooney, 2020)


“Involuntary clients” are people whose involvement with social workers is mandated by law, including families in the child protection system, users of mental health services, people with disabilities, older people such as those with dementia, young people who fail to attend school and people in the criminal justice system. One can consider two categories of involuntary clients: mandated clients (who must work with a practitioner because of a legal mandate or court order) and non-voluntary clients (who have contact with helping professionals through pressure from agencies, referral sources, other persons, family members, and outside events). Trotter et al. (2020) suggests these two groups lie on a continuum between voluntary and involuntary clients. Mandated clients, e.g. child protection and criminal justice clients, are at or close to the involuntary end while non-voluntary clients tend more towards the voluntary end of this continuum.


The Problem (De Jong & Berg, 2001; Smith, 2020)


Involuntary clients result from the political and professional ideologies, structures, and practices that construct certain people as “involuntary’. Social workers find themselves in a position of power, of having to insist on certain things happening because of the requirements of the law. The usual social work practices of engagement, active listening, and showing empathy before moving to problem assessment and intervention often do not work with involuntary clients. Because of this, social work with involuntary clients is messy work: going with the flow, working from cues, adapting responses to changing circumstance, and, foremost, building relationships. It is more of an art than a science—relational and constantly “in the making’. Workers need to recognise the common humanity of the other, regardless of what label has been attached to them.


The Engagement Process (Jacobsen, 2013; Smith, 2020)


Jacobsen discusses the engagement process. There are four dimensions of engagement:

  • Receptivity—how open clients are to receiving help in their life and also whether or not the clients recognize a problem and a need for change

  • Expectancy—the clients’ perceptions of whether they will benefit from treatment

  • Investment—clients’ preparedness to take responsibility for their treatment

  • Working relationship—Feelings of fair exchange and open communication between clients and therapists.

Challenges to engagement can come from

  • Resistance and reluctance, i.e. preferring not to be engaged in the process and hostility towards change respectively.

  • Mistrust—clients lack trust in the treatment often because of past experiences with authority or agencies.

Motivation is a key predictor of client engagement—a higher level of motivation coincides with a higher level of personal commitment to treatment and positive treatment outcomes. Support networks (significant other, family, and friends) increase motivation.


Jacobsen suggests engagement can be enhanced when workers establish a relationship with the client (e.g. identify with the client’s situation, develop a partnership) and use a client-centered approach. Smith agrees with this, albeit using different terms. Smith suggests a starting point to engaging involuntary clients is recognition, i.e. demonstrating the basic qualities of being helpful, being respectful and being human. Recognition is then supported by building trust, which must be a central component in the relationship between client and worker. Involuntary clients are often deeply mistrustful, and workers have to recognise this and overcome this barrier to engaging. Smith stresses that both recognition and trust build over time and require workers to pick up and act on client cues and client expertise. It might mean setting aside bureaucratic timelines. It might mean acknowledging and/or apologising when things go wrong.


Practice Approach


Jacobsen (2013) suggests a number of the skills used by social workers in other contexts may be appropriate when working with involuntary clients.

  1. The motivational interviewing stages—precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and relapse—are likely to be followed by involuntary clients, at least in part, and motivational interviewing guidelines may be appropriate.

  2. The stages of group development and the accompany social work skills employed by social workers to guide groups to an outcome may be relevant.

  3. Cognitive behaviour techniques are being used by some social workers.

De Jong and Berg (2001) offer a broad, general approach to firstly engage clients and then to continue to work with them.

  1. Treat clients as the people who are most knowledgeable about their own lives, experiences and perceptions—ask clients what they perceive the social worker/agency expects to change and what clients think about these expectations. This puts clients in charge. At this stage, the social worker should affirm clients’ strengths and successes—something often unexpected by the client.

  2. Rather than tell clients what to do, find out what clients think will be helpful in the situation. This suggests the social worker believes clients are able to solve their own problems, i.e. they are given authority to act in a way they find comfortable. As part of this, endeavour to find out what is important for clients as this drives people to act in certain ways.

Trotter, Rooney and Rooney (2020) suggest increasing evidence now exists around the effectiveness of direct practice skills with involuntary clients. These skills include

  • starting where the client is,

  • social worker–client shared understandings about purpose,

  • problem solving based on client’s goals,

  • modelling by social workers of behaviours they are seeking in their clients,

  • focus on strengths rather than deficits,

  • careful and respectful challenging of irrational or anti-social thinking, and

  • client–social worker relationships characterised by empathy and appropriate boundary setting.

Trotter (2006) offers four principles for effective practice with involuntary clients.


1. Role clarification Help clients understand the role of the worker and the role of the client, e.g. discuss authority and how it might be used, the dual role of the worker as helper and (investigator, the aims of the intervention from both client’s and worker’s perspectives. In other words, “What are we here for?” More specifically, discuss:

  • The purpose of your intervention.

  • Your dual role as helper/investigator.

  • The client’s expectations of you.

  • Your authority and how it can be used.

  • Negotiable and non-negotiable areas.

  • Confidentiality (or who can know).

2. Pro-social modelling and reinforcement Reinforce and promote pro-social values, i.e. actions and values which support and care for others. Be clear about the values to promote and purposefully encourage those values through praise and other rewards. More specifically:

  • Identify behaviours/comments you wish to promote.

  • Reward/encourage the comments/behaviours you wish to promote.

  • Model the behaviour/comments you wish to promote.

  • Identify and discourage or confront comments/behaviours you wish to change.

  • Aim for four positives or rewards to every negative or confrontational comment.

3. Problem-solving Work in a collaborative problem-solving approach: work with the client’s definition of the problem, develop achievable goals which are the client’s rather than the worker’s (or at least collaboratively developed), and identifying strategies with the client to achieve the goals. In more detail:

  • Problem survey—list or identify any problems they may have; what would be different if everything was as you wanted? Write these down.

  • Problem ranking—which ones to work on.

  • Problem exploration—talk about how the problem began, when it began, what factors are preventing its solution, whether attempts have been made to solve the problem and how successful they have been.

  • Setting goals—define goals in specific terms and leave little room for different interpretations.

  • Developing a contract—a summary of client problems and goals written by the client.

  • Developing strategies/solutions—the solutions should be developed by the client and be specific and clear.

  • Ongoing monitoring—regularly review the model as a whole and the individual steps.

4. Relationship Use relationship skills—be optimistic, listen to clients, and do not be afraid to use humour and self-disclosure. For example:

  • Be open and honest.

  • Use empathy.

  • Challenge rationalisations.

  • Do not minimise.

  • Be non-blaming.

  • Be optimistic.

  • Articulate client and family members’ feelings and problems.

  • Use appropriate self-disclosure.

  • Use appropriate humour.

The Good Practice Guide (Wilkinson, Smith & Gallagher, 2010) was the result of a research project in Scotland that concluded in 2010 and explored “what works in engaging with involuntary clients”. The resource contains practical strategies when implementing the following seven areas. Only some of the strategies have been included below; the guide is available via the link in the supporting material that follows, or on request.


1. The social work relationship is vital for working with involuntary clients.

  • Giving practical assistance, e.g. advocacy, helping clients to fight for their rights.

  • Paying attention to what is positive in the client’s behaviour and celebrating all achievements.

  • Showing the client your humanity, e.g. by finding a common interest, revealing something about yourself, showing empathy or ‘going the extra mile’ in working with them.

2. Building trust is essential in engaging with involuntary clients.

  • Trust can be built by simple things: consistency; sticking to your word; being honest and upfront about the situation and why social work is involved; apologising if you or your organisation makes a mistake.

3. Working with involuntary clients takes time and persistence. Progress is often slow.

  • It is important to understand what the initial resistance is about and get beyond that. Many families have had bad experiences which leave them struggling to trust professionals.

  • Clients’ timescales might not fit with statutory or performance management requirements. It may help if you can be flexible and move at the client’s pace.

4. Clear communication is crucial for engagement with involuntary clients.

  • Engagement can be improved by making clear at every contact what the purpose of the intervention is, what the client has control over and what they do not, what is going to happen next and what the likely consequences will be.

  • It may help to stick to a simple, clear message, and repeat this consistently, e.g. “I’m here because we are worried about your safety. We need to make sure you are safe.”

5. Involuntary clients may be experiencing intense emotions.

  • Clients may be looking for someone to blame, or playing out scripts learned earlier in life.

  • It may help to consider what aspects of hostility are personal (responses to your own actions as a worker), and what aspects are not (e.g. anger at social services in general, or at previous workers).

6. What else might help clients?

  • Acknowledging their circumstances and understanding their histories.

  • Giving clients access to a complaints procedure which they could realistically use.

7. What else might help social workers?

  • Getting peer support e.g. through practitioners forums, from colleagues.

  • Avoiding falling into the routine, box-ticking mode.

Supporting Material

(available on request)

De Jong, P., & Berg, I. K. (2001). Co-constructing cooperation with mandated clients. Social Work, 46(4), 361-374.


Jacobsen, C. A. (2013). Social Workers Reflect on Engagement with Involuntary Clients. Retrieved from Sophia, the St. Catherine University repository website: https://sophia.stkate.edu/msw_papers/198


Smith, M. (2020). Recognising strategy and tactics in constructing and working with involuntary social work clients. Australian Social Work, 73(3), 321-333. doi: 10.1080/0312407X.2020.1717562


Trotter, C. (2006). Working with involuntary clients (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage


Trotter, C., Rooney, R., & Rooney G. D. (2020). Strategies for work with involuntary clients. Australian Social Work, 73(3), 263-266. doi: 10.1080/0312407X.2020.1745622


Wilkinson, H., Smith, M., & Gallagher, M.(2010). Good Practice Guide. Retrieved from http://www.socialwork.ed.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/62273/Good-Practice-Guide.pdfAustralian Social Work, 73(3), 263-266. doi: 10.1080/0312407X.2020.1745622


The Australian Social Work Journal devoted Volume 73, Issue 3 to working with involuntary clients. In addition to the articles by Smith and Trotter, Rooney and Rooney reference above, the other topics include:

  • Collaborative family work in youth justice

  • Crossover children: Examining initial criminal justice system contact among child protection-involved youth

  • Transforming into men who matter: Increasing empathy in domestic abuse treatment

  • Dealing with resistance: Working with involuntary clients in community-based drug treatment programs in China

  • Independent mental health advocacy: A model of social work advocacy?

  • Supervising social workers in involuntary contexts: Some considerations