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2007 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 13, No. 1
December 2007

Overcoming Common Barriers to CFTs

Since 2002, public child welfare agencies participating in North Carolina’s Multiple Response System reform effort have been meeting regularly to talk about their work. Child and family team meetings (CFTs) have come up a lot during these get-togethers.

That’s been a good thing. This discussion allowed North Carolina to refine its policy and practice with regard to CFTs. It also expanded our understanding of the problems agencies face implementing child and family team meetings and how to overcome them.

Drawing from what we have learned so far, we offer the following suggestions for overcoming five common barriers to successful child and family team meetings.

1. The Meeting Is Not Really a CFT
In North Carolina, a meeting is not a true child welfare CFT meeting if:

  • The child welfare agency has already decided what the outcome of the meeting must be
  • There is no opportunity for the family to help create and shape the case plan
  • The meeting is being held to achieve the agency’s goals, not the family’s goals

This is clear in policy, yet we know some meetings are called CFTs even when one or more of the above is true.

This is not to say that agencies should never hold meetings with families where the family does not have a choice to make. In the world of child welfare there are times when such meetings are necessary. But they are not CFTs.

Mislabeling meetings can create problems for agencies and families. If they come prepared for one kind of meeting and get something else, family members and others may feel they are being subjected to a “bait and switch.” This can leave them confused, resistant, or distrustful of DSS. These reactions are a far cry from the increased family engagement and positive working relationships with families and community partners that research tells us is possible with real CFTs (Duke, 2006).

Possible Solutions
Use a Simple Diagnostic Test. As you are preparing for a meeting, ask: does the family have options? Is the meeting being held to achieve the family’s goals? If the answer to either of these questions is no, it’s not a CFT.

Attend a True CFT. Supervisors and others who are skeptical should have the opportunity to be present at a meeting where North Carolina’s CFT model is followed faithfully. This will give them an opportunity to see the process and how it benefits the child, family, and social worker.

Attend Training. In partnership with the Division of Social Services, the NC Family-Centered Meetings Project at NC State University offers a variety of training courses to help agencies develop successful CFT programs. To learn more, visit <www.ncswlearn.org>.

2. Insufficient Use of Facilitators
Some child welfare agencies in North Carolina report they have difficulty following the policy that requires the use of CFT meeting facilitators whenever a family’s level of risk is considered “high” or “intensive.”

This can be a problem. In meetings without a facilitator the CFT process can easily become unproductive, hostile, or otherwise break down, which is not helpful to families or the agency. This is especially true when the family’s child welfare worker ends up having to facilitate his or her own meeting. Though workers try to be as neutral as possible, it is hard to do. Families can have a hard time believing the process is not biased.

Lack of funding to hire facilitators is the reason most agencies give for not following this part of CFT policy.

Possible Solutions
Creative Funding. Some agencies have overcome this barrier by convincing county commissioners to provide additional funding for the hiring of facilitators. Others, like Catawba County DSS, have been able to hire facilitators by converting existing staff positions into facilitator positions.

Develop Resources Inside the Agency. Some agencies train a number of supervisors and workers from a variety of program areas in facilitation. These people then make themselves available to facilitate CFT meetings, with the understanding that they will not facilitate a meeting for which they or one of their subordinates is responsible. Billy Poindexter, a facilitator with Catawba County DSS, says this strategy has worked well for his agency: “If you train the process well and emphasize the value of the process, not the person, someone from any area of the agency can follow the model and be neutral.”

3. Insufficient Prep Time
As the article on prep time indicates, time spent in preparation for CFT meetings is a sound investment: research shows a strong connection between preparation and the success of CFT meetings. Unfortunately, time is often a scarce commodity in the world of child welfare.

Symptoms of Insufficient Preparation

  • Low attendance and poor participation from those who do come to meetings
  • People are unclear on the purpose of the meeting
  • People are surprised to see someone at the meeting—they had no idea that person was invited
  • Meetings are consistently chaotic—indicates someone (i.e., the social worker) has not been talking to someone else enough or clearly enough about the meeting

Causes
Insufficient preparation sometimes occurs because there’s not enough time to do the job right—it’s that simple. But supervisors and agency administrators may also play a role. Supervisors, in particular, have tremendous influence on the quality of CFT preparation: unless they set clear expectations with regard to the quality of CFTs and send the message that preparation is a valuable use of workers’ time, it is likely to take a back seat to other things.

Possible Solutions
Supervisor Interventions. Supervisors can help by consistently asking about and emphasizing CFT meeting prep.

Referral Form. Developing a consistent referral process can help an agency be more consistent about preparation. A referral form helps you get an idea of who’s coming, risk of volatility, etc. For a sample referral form, go to <www.practicenotes.org/cftrefer.pdf>.

Use TALS. The NC Family-Centered Meetings Project also offers something called the TALS program (Technical Assistance and Learning Support). Through TALS, DSS employees involved in CFTs and people identified by DSS agencies as facilitators can request or participate in a variety of activities designed to support CFTs, including specialized training at or near your agency. TALS is free to NC county DSS agencies. To learn more, contact Jenny King, TALS Coordinator (919/326-7463, jlking4@ncsu.edu).

4. Problems with Community Partners
Two of the most common complaints about CFT meetings from DSS agencies is that (a) they can’t get community partners to come to CFT meetings and (b) they can’t get community partners to participate fully once they are there. Since the purpose of a CFT is to get the best thinking of families and service providers to develop service plans that work, this can be a serious barrier to success.

Possible Solutions
Education and Outreach. In part, community partners fail to participate in CFTs to the extent that we’d like because they do not understand the purpose of these meetings and what is expected of them.

Agencies can address this by explaining why we are using this strategy and how it benefits families, children, and the agencies involved with them. Be sure to dispel misconceptions, such as the unfounded concern that meetings require participants to divulge confidential information.

Be Clear about Benefits. Explain to community partners how attending and participating in CFTs will benefit them. For example, explain to school personnel how the meeting and the plan that comes out of it will result in kids coming to school ready to learn.

5. Can’t Find or Involve Family Supporters
The CFT process is founded in part on the idea that a broad, comprehensive circle of support is more likely to keep the child and family safe. In light of this, failure to find or involve family supporters (extended family, friends, people from church, etc.) is a significant barrier to CFT success.

Possible Solutions
Adequate Prep Time. If you only give families one chance to name who they’d like to invite to a meeting they think will be embarrassing and scary, they won’t name many. To overcome this barrier, workers need to make sure families understand the CFT process and have time to consider who to invite as a supporter.

Encourage Realistic Expectations. Families often say, “I don’t have anybody.” Some don’t—isolation of families is a common problem among families served by child welfare. If a family truly doesn’t have anyone, we must help them create that network.

But often families can’t name a supporter because they have exalted ideas of what a support person is. If a family is having trouble, ask: who do you call when you get angry or upset? That’s their support person.

Calm Fears. Sometimes families are reluctant to name someone because they fear this will invite DSS scrutiny of their friends and supporters. Reassurance and direct experience are the best way to allay these fears.

Conclusion
Although we are ahead of many states in terms of our use of child and family team meetings, North Carolina is still learning to apply this strategy. If we continue to work to overcome these and other barriers and follow NC’s child welfare CFT model, word of our successes will spread. In time, more and more people—inside and outside our agencies—will begin to see just how much family-centered meetings have to offer.

 

References for this and other articles in this issue