Frontline Initiative Working with Families

DSPs working in community support settings:
Lessons from the field


Ric Swierat serves as the Executive Director of the Arc of Westchester, New York.

The direct service profession has gone through significant changes over the last decade. There has been a shift from institutional-type group homes and sheltered day programs to community-based services. This is a huge success for the people we support and their families. However, this shift is also presenting new challenges for Direct Support Professionals (DSPs). 

One challenge is that we no longer have supervisors observing the direct contact between the DSP and the person receiving services. Direct support is provided in private homes and/or community settings. It is provided outside of group living environments. This is particularly true of those DSPs who provide family support. 

The role of the DSP is evolving as service settings change and these new support environments are creating challenges for DSPs. I asked DSPs responsible for in-home and respite programs about their experiences with families and the people they support. I have also considered my own conversations with families who are receiving services. There are a number of themes that have surfaced —

  • DSPs feel isolated from peers

  • DSPs and families disagree on best support strategies

  • DSPs face challenges with communication between families and DSPs

  • DSPs recognize a family’s unique culture

  • DSPs understand family dynamics

Based on these themes, I have identified some of the skill sets that the DSPs highlighted. Let’s look at these skills within the context of the NADSP Code of Ethics.

NADSP Code of Ethics

Integrity and Responsibility 

As a DSP, I will support the mission and vitality of my profession to assist people in leading sel-fdirected lives and to foster a spirit of partnership with the people I support, other professionals, and the community.

  • Open and positive communications as a cornerstone of building relationships: 

The most skillful and successful DSP understands that he or she is entering a private home and private lives. Therefore, it is important to begin with appropriate steps. This involves creating an expectation of open and honest communications with the family. Each DSP provided stories about this. They work closely with families to develop a plan of support together.


As a DSP, I will… recognize the importance of relationships and proactively facilitate relationships between the people I support, their family and friends.

  • Navigating personal relationships and recognizing family strengths: 

Families may make different decisions than the DSP as a way to minimize conflict. This means they may allow for the wrong dietary intake. Families may change medication routines. They may make choices that may be different than DSPs. The skilled DSP recognizes that families most often do the best they can, just as DSPs most often do the best they can. Families may enjoy learning new strategies from DSPs just as DSPs can learn from the families they work with. 


 As a DSP, I will respect the human dignity and uniqueness of the people I support. I will recognize each person I support as valuable and help others understand their value.

  • Being sensitive to the unique needs of the individual and family: 

A big part of this job is relationships. I heard this from many of the interviews. Remember to step back. Understand the family dynamics. The successful DSP starts with getting to know the person and the family. 

This arena of work and supervision is still evolving. DSPs work in community settings, supporting families and individuals in their homes. There are often new challenging interactions to face. DSPs need the support and training to manage these situations. Talk to a DSP who you believe is successful in his or her work. Ask that person about the lessons that she or he has learned. From DSPs, we will learn what training and support they need.