2011 Jordan Institute
16, No. 2
Family-Centered CPS Intake
CPS intake is a big job. To do it well you must be able to manage intense, emotional calls and make critical decisions about child safety. You must be tactful, patient, and persistent, gathering information and guiding callers through the interview without being too controlling.
And, because you set the tone for the agency’s future work with the family being referred, you must do all this in a way that lays the foundation for family-centered practice and respectful partnership.
Principles of Partnership
Principle: Everyone desires respect. Calling DSS can be a difficult step, even for those who have done it before. Reporters may worry about many things: damaging their relationship with the family, possible reprisal by the family, or the impact of a CPS assessment on the children (Brittain & Hunt, 2004). Experienced intake workers understand the need to show appreciation for the caller’s concern and respect for their decision to ask for help on behalf of the family. Even if the allegations seem less than credible, family-centered intake staff strive to understand the caller’s perspective and motivations.
While establishing rapport with the caller, the intake worker must also maintain objectivity toward the family being reported. Rather than silently going along with what the caller says, the intake worker introduces the concept of respect for the family by asking strengths-based questions such as “What is good about the family?” and “How has this family handled problems in the past?” It takes great skill to discuss family strengths and protective capacities without losing caller buy-in.
Principle: Everyone needs to be heard. The most important skill the intake worker has is the ability to listen. Only by letting the reporter talk somewhat freely can the intake worker get a full sense of the concerns, motivations, and circumstances prompting the call. A skillful intake worker can gather a good deal of critical information just by listening and asking the occasional clarifying question, rather than mechanically completing the Structured Intake (DSS-1402) like a checklist.
Because callers seldom tell the story in chronological order, it can be necessary to repeat the sequence of events back to the caller to ensure you have it right. At some point during every call the intake worker must go back for missed information. It may even be necessary to ask for the caller’s cooperation in letting you direct the conversation so that you get all the information you need.
Filling in the gaps in the information is also a chance to explore the positive side of the family’s story. In a sense, the strengths-based questions built into North Carolina’s intake process are an opportunity for the intake worker to speak on behalf of the family—for the family’s perspective to be heard and considered.
Principle: Everyone has strengths. The DSS-1402 takes a strengths-based approach to both reporters and families. Some reporters bristle when asked, “Is there anything you can do to help the family?” Yet in the context of family-centered work, this question is really a way of validating the caller’s concern, compassion, and ability to make a difference. Intake workers sometimes preface the question by saying, “I can hear how worried you are about this child, and I can tell you really want things to get better.”
Asking callers to reflect on a family’s past successes, support system, and culture can cause them to see the family differently. They might even pause and wonder what part of the picture they are missing.
Of course, some callers focus only on what the family is doing wrong. That’s okay. In asking about strengths the intake worker has planted a seed and sent a clear message about the approach DSS takes with families.
Principle: Judgments can wait. CPS involvement is a serious, invasive process and a step not to be taken lightly. From the first moment of the call, DSS must make it clear there will be no rush to judgment. Even when callers become impatient, we have to engage and encourage them to continue the conversation until we know enough to make an informed decision.
Intake workers must also guard against judging callers unfairly. For example, one might be tempted to dismiss a caller who mentions a custody issue as trying to discredit one of the parents, but that would overlook the fact that a high-conflict divorce might involve child maltreatment (Karski, 1999). As one county DSS program manager stated, there are new and complex situations to be assessed every day. Few calls are clear-cut.
Principle: Partners share power. Sometimes reporters can be actively enlisted as partners in the shared goal of safety, well-being, and permanency for all children. Of course, for partnership to be more than a marketing concept, DSS must empower reporters to work jointly towards that shared goal. An important way to do this is consistent, timely, and respectful notification to reporters, and through public education efforts. For more on this, click here.
Families who are the subjects of reports are also partners in need of empowerment. Knowledge is power: if extended families don’t know about a member’s involvement with DSS, they are powerless to participate or intervene. That’s why it is critical to identify family and kin networks from the very first call by asking about non-resident parents, maternal and paternal relatives, and any possible tribal affiliation. Of course, federal legislation requires child welfare agencies to ask early and often about relatives (Fostering Connections) and tribal affiliation (Indian Child Welfare Act). If staff see these questions as merely another bureaucratic mandate, they may miss a simple, free, and powerful tool for case planning and permanency.
Principle: Partnership is a process. Even with our best efforts, in the real world partnerships are not created with every reporter and every call. It often takes time to build relationships with professionals and citizens, and to build the agency’s reputation in the community. True partnership happens as community members see DSS reaching out to explain their policies, communicate their decisions, and embody a family-centered philosophy.
It also takes time to build effective partnerships with families. We all carry implicit biases that can make us jump to conclusions about certain people or situations. Intake is the first chance to identify and gently challenge the bias that a reporter or worker might bring to a referral. Part of the intake process is recognizing that DSS doesn’t have all the answers, and must rely on the community and on families themselves to fill in the blanks and devise the best solutions to their challenges.