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2003 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 9, No. 1
October 2003

The Multiple Response System: Challenges and Rewards for Supervisors

If you work in child welfare in North Carolina, the Multiple Response System is coming your way. MRS, which began in ten counties in August 2002, expanded to 41 additional counties this fall. By 2005, the seven strategies of MRS will be the standard for doing business in children’s services throughout the state. That’s a good thing: MRS is designed to make our child welfare system more family-centered, consistent, and effective.

But if you are a child welfare supervisor in a county department of social services, much of the responsibility for ensuring that people understand and correctly implement MRS will fall to you. To help you with this task, Practice Notes talked with supervisors from some of the MRS pilot counties. We asked them what implementing this effort was really like and what they would say to supervisors who want to make the transition to MRS as smoothly as possible. Here are some of the most significant challenges they think you are likely to face, along with their suggestions for overcoming them.

Bringing Agency Staff on Board
MRS supervisors all emphasized that staff buy-in is essential to the success of this reform effort. To create ownership supervisors and administrators should:

Involve Staff from Day One. Staff can participate in site visits to other counties and in planning meetings. (Less hierarchical agencies will have an easier time including staff in this way.) As you prepare for implementation, ask staff to self-select their involvement. Have honest discussions about who would be best suited to applying different MRS strategies.

Help Staff Make the Shift. Those who are not “on board” with MRS can spread negative attitudes among their coworkers and members of the community. It’s clear why the shift to family-centered practice is difficult for some people. As one supervisor put it, “It’s hard to go from firing questions at families to engaging them in conversation, listening in a respectful way, and looking for strengths.” She said the NC Division of Social Services’ training Cornerstone III: Partners In Change was helpful to many of her workers. If supervisors see people struggling they should discuss the issue with them without minimizing their concerns. Ask them to talk with peers implementing MRS to see if their concerns are justified. It is easier to argue with ideas that come from “higher ups” than with the real-world experiences of colleagues.

Be Straightforward. Be honest with staff about anticipated changes. For example, to be family-friendly, some people will have to work at times (evenings, weekends) that are best for families. Agencies may need to update policies about flexible hours and on-call. Be open about challenges and ask workers to help you seek solutions.

Avoid Compartmentalization. Involve the whole agency, not just assessment workers. The people we spoke with urged new MRS supervisors to invite Work First and other agency staff to meetings and to do what they could to bring everyone together in the same building. Supervisors should routinely ask workers questions such as, “What is the involvement of Work First with this family?” which gets them used to thinking across program lines.

Think Training. Develop a plan for training everyone and orienting new workers. Make full use of the family-centered training provided by the Division prior to implementation. Cross-training is critical. Especially in smaller agencies, it is important to have investigators learn how to do family assessments, and vice-versa.

Public Education and Awareness
Counties say it is common for reporters and other community members to be confused about MRS during the early stages of implementation. For example, people frequently assume that “MRS” is shorthand for the family assessment response, though it is only one of MRS’s seven strategies.

To combat misunderstandings, supervisors say, start educating the community about MRS right away. Hold an informational stakeholders meeting for a broad array of community members. Know that one meeting or one communication blitz will not do the trick, however. Public education requires ongoing effort. One supervisor said, “It takes people a while to understand that with MRS, our focus is not on blame, but solutions.”

When working with law enforcement, sell them on the fact that prosecution of child abusers may be more successful under MRS, since this approach formally encourages coordination with law enforcement in response to serious maltreatment.

Reluctant Collaterals
Under MRS, agencies ask professionals who know the family well (i.e., “collaterals”) to meet with the family face-to-face, either as part of a family assessment or in a child and family team meeting. Initially, some professionals don’t want to do this. Reasons vary: some fear for their safety, others worry that being direct with the family will damage their relationship. Even when they participate, some professionals wait until the family has gone home to share information about the family. Child welfare supervisors and social workers should strongly encourage professionals to be an active part of child and family team meetings. This is a chance to help them understand what it means to be family-centered and to come together to serve the family. Explain clearly to professionals that the family deserves—and needs—to hear their concerns.

Changes in Supervisory Roles
Supervisors are among the first to feel the full impact of the changes MRS brings. Some have serious concerns about their own performance and credibility when they start overseeing workers in positions, such as family assessment, with which they themselves have little or no experience. Virtually all of them spend more time than ever before on tasks such as coaching and meeting with workers, monitoring caseloads, reporting data to the state, and, most time-consuming of all, facilitating child and family team meetings.

These added demands mean MRS supervisors have less time to do administrative things—such as producing reports and attending committee meetings—that their directors may have been depending on them to do. Some directors understand the new demands MRS places on supervisors and adjust their expectations accordingly; others do not.

Though they have been at it for more than a year, most MRS supervisors will tell you that they still find implementing MRS to be exhausting work. They are quick to add, however, that the stress of making the change is well worth it.

Worth the Effort
The supervisors we spoke with said that MRS’s family-centered strategies really do transform the dynamics in child welfare. When an agency conducts a family assessment, workers usually speak with the parents before they interview the children. As a result, families feel much more respected.

Even when an assessment concludes the family is “‘in need of services”—meaning they must accept services from the agency—parents are often quite willing to work with the agency. One supervisor explained, “Because we don’t substantiate or name a perpetrator, we don’t have to get over the hurdle of the parent’s anger because we sent her a letter saying that she neglected her child. Parents are just so much more willing to work with us.”

Better relationships with families means it is possible for agencies to assess child safety more effectively. Supervisors say that families share more information than they do in traditional investigations and, because they are less defensive and hostile, workers have more time to observe families in the home environment. Children, with their parents present, often discuss previously guarded family information with social workers. In one instance, while her mother watched, a child demonstrated for a social worker how her mother held a marijuana cigarette.

Families are not the only ones benefiting from MRS. Earlier, friendlier, engagement of families allows for services to be “front-loaded” during family assessment, which means that fewer families are in need of ongoing services after the assessment has been completed. Workers and supervisors report that families seem more cooperative and accepting of services when approached in a family-friendly way. One worker was even hugged after an initial visit with a family. Since MRS began, supervisors say more workers seem to enjoy coming to work.

Currently, all the data we have about MRS is anecdotal—quantitative evaluation data is not yet available. However, the experiences of other states using the family assessment approach and other MRS strategies suggest that this effort will truly improve outcomes for families and children. Missouri found that under its alternative response system children were made safer, sooner; children spent less time in foster care; needed services were delivered more quickly; and community resources were better used (Schene, 2001).

Transition Tips from MRS Supervisors
  • Be flexible. Change is constant, especially early on. You will almost certainly have to make a series of adjustments in the way teams work and how workers manage new dynamics in their caseloads.
  • Peer communication. Make sure staff can REALLY talk about MRS with other front-line workers.
  • Start slow. Don’t try to do everything at once.
  • Have people on your staff who serve as MRS “experts.”
  • Consult experienced counties. Meet formally and informally with MRS counties. Stay in touch through e-mail. Gather sample memorandums of understanding.
  • Always ask yourself: “Is this how I would want to be treated if this was happening to me?” This question will help you assess your interactions with families and with workers you supervise.

References for this and other articles in this issue