Family and Children's
22, No. 2
How One NC Agency Supports Child Welfare Decision Making
A Conversation with Rowan County's Lisa Berger
Like people in other fields, when child welfare professionals get together they like to "talk shop." Typically the conversation centers around the question: how do you do things in your agency? Hearing how others tackle the same kinds of problems is a great way to think about our practice--and how it might be improved.
With this in mind, Practice Notes reached out to Rowan County Department of Social Services' Lisa Berger to talk decision making in her agency. The Child Welfare Program Administrator for her agency, Ms. Berger has 19 years experience in child welfare, most of it spent supervising a team of CPS investigators/assessors.
How has decision making changed in your time in child welfare?
I think over time we've become more family-driven. We're more mindful of respecting parental rights in our decision making, while keeping safety of the child at the forefront.
SDM has come along since you began. How did that change things?
SDM tools do help give us a snapshot of future risk for families, for children. They help us drill down to get to the root of what the family's issues are so that we can develop a better service plan if there is a finding of abuse or neglect or services needed.
Has the use of CFTs changed the way you or your agency make decisions?
The changes we've seen have been excellent. CFTs give the family choices and an opportunity to share partnership. It helps them to feel more a part of defining what's best for their family and what will meet their needs. CFTs help them see DSS isn't controlling everything about their life and their home, that they have input. It's a way for us to acknowledge that they're the experts on their own family.
What's the hardest part of making child welfare decisions?
From a CPS perspective, I think it is maintaining objectivity while gathering all the facts. We've got to keep in mind that the report is just an allegation until proven otherwise.
Outside influences can be another challenge. Living in a small community, people know one another and talk about situations. They don't always understand what we do. We're not law enforcement. Our goal is to determine minimally sufficient levels of care. We've got to ensure the decisions we make are based on facts, policy, and best practice instead of being influenced by the emotion around us.
Is anxiety around decisions ever a problem?
In our agency we have an open door policy. People can come in and feel they can freely talk about anxiety they're having. We have good communication between our staff and strive to be trauma-informed in our work. Our Peer Review process helps workers understand the decisions they make are supported. It's an agency decision.
Anything else you'd like to say about decision making in child welfare?
We need to make sure we're not taking the allegations lightly, and yet we're not rushing. We've got to be thorough and feel confident in our decisions, because our decisions can affect people for a lifetime.
What structures or procedures does Rowan County DSS have in place to support child welfare decisions?
Staffings. We rely a lot on staffings, which are one-on-one meetings between a supervisor and the social worker carrying the case. These start as soon as the case is assigned. In CPS assessments, staffings help ensure it's joint, two-level decision making between the supervisor and the worker. We certainly put a lot of stock in our social work staff and their child welfare decision-making, but there is constant oversight throughout the life of the case.
Peer Review. When the supervisor and social worker are stuck on a case or when they feel it needs to move to in-home family services or permanency planning, we use Peer Review. This is a panel that meets weekly to provide staff a place to seek peer guidance or suggestions. Every week workers sign up if they want to present a case. Panel members change, but different social workers from every child welfare service area sign up to be on the panel. These reviews last anywhere from one to three hours, depending on how many cases are discussed.
Our attorney usually attends the first part to learn about any petitions that may need to be filed. As Program Administrator I attend as well, but I don't normally participate unless asked because I want them to work among themselves. I think many agencies use a similar process, though the terms they use may be different (e.g., joint staffings, peer staffings).
Third Party Review. This is a kind of alternative to Peer Review. It's not needed often, but if there comes a time when there's a disagreement or the supervisor or the social worker are not on the same page as far as what a decision should be, then they discuss the case with me. It is fairly rare. Our social workers and supervisors have good communication amongst themselves, they work well together. If there's disagreement, it's often about the level of severity in cases, such as whether a case should be considered improper discipline vs. physical abuse.