National Technical Assistance and Evaluation Center for Systems of Care.
Challenges and Strategies in Following an Individualized, Strengths-Based Approach
The experiences of the nine grant communities involved in the Improving Child Welfare Outcomes Through Systems of Care initiative provide useful information to administrators and stakeholders nationwide for implementing an individualized, strengths-based approach.
1. Agency Culture and Characteristics of Families Involved with Child Protective Services
Challenges. Grant communities reported that it often is challenging for agencies to move from a pathology-based model to an individualized, strengths-based approach given the potentially severe threats to children's safety and risk factors, such as physical or sexual abuse or addiction, that are present in some families. An additional complicating factor is that the majority of families involved with child protective services do not seek services voluntarily and often are viewed as resistant or non-compliant, which interferes with the establishment of a working alliance between the caseworker and the family.
Strategies. Despite these challenges, supervisors interviewed in several grant communities reported that there is a greater focus now (compared to past years) on identifying strengths in families. They also reported a greater emphasis on identifying non-traditional services and supports for families.
Strategies used by grant communities to overcome challenges related to agency culture and characteristics of families involved with child protective services include:
- Training-All grant communities provide training on strengths-based approaches and cultural competency to staff from all child-serving agencies, with emphasis on practical application. Training formats range from traditional conferences to more informal case discussions. For example, New York discusses case scenarios at monthly network meetings as part of systems of care development.1 North Dakota provides parent coordinator training entitled "We Are All Related," which emphasizes the strengths of the family and the culture.
- Collaboration with Other Agencies-Most grant communities are using collaboration and networking with other agencies and faith-based organizations to support strengths-based approaches. For example, Colorado provided material for sermons to be given by clergy at area churches on community acknowledgment of and response to child welfare issues. Collaboration is key to influencing existing and potential partners to adopt an individualized and strengths-based approach with children and families, and can foster creative identification and expansion of informal supports to help families. Networking also helps to engage partners in a system approach and abandon the categorical model in which services are delivered in isolation.
- Assessment Tool-Several grant communities (California, Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, and Oregon) have implemented strengths-based assessments of children and families involved with child welfare to identify needs and match services to those needs. For example, the Colorado Division of Children, Youth, and Families' assessment tool, Family Social History and Assessment Summary, specifically asks for a description of the family's strengths. Using a structured intake tool, the North Carolina Department of Social Services begins the process of gathering information about family strengths at the first contact with the reporter by including questions about what the family does well.
2. Child Welfare Staff Turnover
Challenges. Child welfare staff turnover is identified frequently by child welfare supervisors and grantee project directors as one of the greatest obstacles to implementing and sustaining an individualized, strengths-based approach. The child welfare field often is characterized by high staff turnover, which can lead to low staff morale, excessive workloads for those who remain, and most importantly, feelings of rejection and insignificance by the child or family. A particular challenge for strengths-based care cited by grantees is orienting new staff to the systems of care philosophy, values, and practices, which can be time consuming and frustrating when it must be done repeatedly as new staff members are hired.
Strategies. Strategies to promote an individualized, strengths-based approach amidst high rates of turnover include ongoing training, not only for caseworkers, but also for supervisory staff, policy- and decision-makers, and community partners. Comprehensive training is viewed as an important factor in fostering shared responsibility for child welfare as well as shared commitment to managing, supervising, and working with peers from a strengths-based approach. Shared responsibility can alleviate the sense of isolation and being overwhelmed among caseworkers which in turn can contribute to less staff turnover.
- Training for Child Welfare Supervisors-At the State level, the North Carolina Department of Social Services has developed several trainings for child welfare supervisors to allow for exploration and identification of their own strengths and to encourage strengths-based supervision of caseworkers. Strengths-based supervision can contribute to a more positive work environment that is characterized by decreased staff turnover and increased job satisfaction.
- North Carolina and Nevada offer ongoing training on family-centered child and family team meetings and facilitation skills for all child welfare staff. Also, to encourage agencies to practice for and participate in child and family teams, North Carolina developed a collaborative child and family team curriculum that is used to train staff across agencies. Studies show that child welfare staff have an increased commitment to their work when they participate in training that leads to greater competencies (Zlotnik, DePanfilis, Daining, & Lane, 2005).
3. Time Constraints
Challenges. Among the biggest challenges faced by child welfare staff is the issue of time constraints, due in large part to sizeable caseloads, which limit the time caseworkers can spend with families. The lack of time has several effects that conflict with the principle of strengths-based, individualized care. It often prevents child and family team meetings from being scheduled as frequently as may be necessary. Also, limited time can require team meetings to be held in the child welfare office, rather than in a community setting, because there is not enough time for caseworkers to effectively plan for or travel to a family-friendly location. As a consequence, family members and their informal supports are less likely to participate. The child welfare office setting can emphasize the power differential between the caseworker and the family. Additionally, the less time caseworkers and supervisors have, the more likely it is for children and families in the child welfare system to have "cookie cutter" case plans that are not individually tailored.
Strategies. Several grant communities (California, Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, and Oregon) rely on policies, mandates, and protocols that have been developed to help ensure that child and family team meetings take place as intended. By having a formalized structure that requires child and family participation and input, child welfare workers are more apt to prioritize child and family meetings among competing demands on their time. Policies mandating child and family input ensure the child and family guide development of the case plan; otherwise, the process ultimately can be more costly in terms of staff time and resources. The Kansas child welfare agency has mandated time frames within which family meetings must take place and differ depending on the stage of the case. Systems of care project leaders reported that it is useful for collaborative members and child welfare staff to share success stories to help caseworkers and supervisors understand how and why taking extra time to use an individualized, strengths-based approach with families is worthwhile. Grant communities reported that this internal marketing to achieve staff buy-in is facilitated by discussion of individual cases at staff meetings and highlighting how a strengths-based approach has contributed to better service outcomes. When child welfare workers hear about successful cases, the probability is greater that individualized, strengths-based practice will become institutionalized as a permanent part of the child welfare infrastructure.
4. Lack of Services and Access to Services
Challenges. Many of the grant communities, particularly the rural ones, reported that a lack of services poses a major challenge to creating individualized service plans. For example, if there is only one parenting class offered in the area, the parent of an infant and the parent of an adolescent do not receive parenting education tailored to their individual needs. Also, if fewer services are available, families frequently are forced to wait longer for needed services. Lack of transportation is also a challenge to accessing services.
Strategies. To help child welfare workers learn more about existing services and develop non-traditional and community (natural) supports, some grantee communities have created child welfare positions specifically to identify community services, develop collaborative relationships, and educate other child welfare staff about resources.
- The Oregon Department of Human Services employs a resource developer, and one county in North Carolina developed a community social worker position.
- One North Carolina community also engages "family partner" organizations. These local community-based organizations help recruit parent and youth volunteers and mentors for child welfare child and family teams, provide facilities for child and family team meetings to be held in the community rather than at the child welfare office, and identify and recruit informal and non-traditional supports for families.
- Pennsylvania established an extensive network of natural supports to which caseworkers can help families connect. A system of care outreach coordinator worked with faith-based organizations and created a faith-based subcommittee that involves a wide variety of religious denominations and organizations. This subcommittee has been successful in implementing several activities, such as starting a summer camp program.
- New York holds ongoing meetings of child protective services supervisors, staff, and community-based service providers so the child and family will have access to a broad array of individualized services. During service planning meetings, caseworkers are provided with resource referrals that address specific needs of children and families.
National Technical Assistance and Evaluation Center for Systems of Care Collaborative Member Survey Findings
Currently, the extent to which systems of care collaborative members agree that systems of care activities have been effective in increasing individualized, strengths-based approaches is mixed, with differences evident among grant communities. On a scale of 1 to 5, where higher is stronger agreement, the average scores of collaborative members across all nine grant communities ranged from 3.3 (neutral) to 4.4 (agree) and the median across grant communities was 3.8. Collaborative members will be surveyed again toward the end of the initiative to determine if perceptions change over time.
-Systems of Care Collaborative Survey Data, Fall/Winter 2006/2007
1 Improving Child Welfare Outcomes Through Systems of Care grantees are indicated by State name. View demonstration site names. back