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2004 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 9, No. 3
April 2004

Overcoming Barriers to Collaboration

Today, as North Carolina and other states strongly promote collaboration between Work First/TANF and child welfare, many agencies find that enhancing the working relationship of these programs can be difficult. Here we present suggestions for overcoming some of the most commonly cited barriers to collaboration.

Lack of Respect/Trust
As with child welfare interventions with families, successful collaborations between different programs in an agency require mutual trust and respect. That’s why, in many agencies, the biggest obstacle to collaboration between child welfare and Work First is the cultural divide that exists between the two programs.

The causes of this divide are uncertain. It may be due to a basic lack of contact between the programs: often the programs are located on separate floors or in separate buildings. Even when they are near each other, people can be too busy to really get to know one another. In some DSS’s, agency policy and culture may discourage people from developing relationships across program lines. Resentment over very real differences—in salary, parking, or other perks—can exacerbate the problem.

Whatever the cause, many folks on the Work First side believe that child welfare workers see themselves as better and more important than economic services workers. In the worst situations, this perceived lack of respect leads Work First workers to suspect a request to “collaborate” is really a ploy to get them to do the less desirable parts of some child welfare worker’s job.

Answers/Solutions: If an agency is to create true collaboration and the benefits it brings to families, it must address this issue and change “class” assumptions that exist in-house. Increasing the amount of direct, in-person contact workers from different programs have with each other is one approach. Agencies have done this through:

Regular, cross-program supervisory contact. This helps ensure that supervisors understand one another’s programs and have good relationships. From this basis they can develop protocols/strategies for information sharing, referral, cross-training, troubleshooting, etc. It also sets a precedent for collaboration that staff can imitate.

Involving Work First supervisors and staff in meetings. Involving Work First personnel in child welfare staffings helps build connections and opens lines of communication. Having them there at the table for child and family team meetings makes it easier for families to access the services they need in a more timely way. It gives everyone an opportunity to hear at the same time what the family thinks it needs and wants, and it gives the family a chance to ask questions of everyone.

Be prepared, however: getting Work First people to attend meetings may not be easy at first. Initially they may feel child welfare staff do not understand or value what economic services has to offer; they may also view attending child welfare meetings as additional work that does not benefit them. When inviting them to meetings, clearly express your belief that their presence will benefit families and the Work First workers themselves.

Joint visits. By giving workers from different programs the opportunity to see what they each have to offer families, joint visits go a long way toward building understanding and teamwork. They also demonstrate the agency’s concern for and desire to support the family in a very tangible way. For these reasons, every agency should consider using joint visits. It should be noted, however, that joint visits are not always possible. For example, many Work First programs lack the funds and staff needed to support this activity. Nor are joint visits appropriate for every family, especially when the investigative assessment response is being used.

Different Orientations/Mandates
At the end of the day, Work First and child welfare are in the same business—helping families and children. Yet it is also true that opportunities for conflict present themselves almost daily. Some of these are caused by differences in mandates. One supervisor expressed it this way: “Work First is charged with keeping people off the system. Child welfare wants the family to have the resources needed to provide for its children. At the same time, child welfare will sometimes say parents must stay home to be with the children. Obviously this conflicts with Work First’s desire to get them out and working.”

Differing practice models can also be a source of friction between the two programs: Work First and other economic services tend to be structured around a case management model, while many in child welfare approach their work from the perspective of the social work model (Kakuska & Hercik, 2002).

Answers/Solutions: When program goals seem to conflict, collaboration requires both parties to sit down and work out the problem. For example, it may be possible in some cases to allow activities on a family’s child welfare plan, such as parenting classes, to count toward the participation requirements of the Work First plan. Problems with differing practice models can often be overcome through clear communication of respect and by focusing on what families need, rather than on limitations of different departments (Kakuska & Hercik, 2002).

In the early phases of collaboration between Work First and child welfare people are often uncertain what they can ethically and legally share with workers in other programs within the same agency. This uncertainty can block the flow of useful information, leading to less effective responses to family needs.

Answer/Solution: We consulted representatives from the N.C. Attorney General’s office and the N.C. Division of Social Services about this matter, and they said that because they all work for the same agency, the employees of a county DSS can share most information with one another without violating confidentiality. This includes items such as names, addresses, collateral information, case histories from Work First, and a general overview of a family’s CPS history. The only qualifier to this is that child welfare programs can disclose case-specific information regarding a CPS matter only when there is a compelling need from the CPS perspective. Sharing information outside the agency is still prohibited.

Lack of Basic Information
A lack of basic information about how other programs work and what they have to offer undermines workers’ ability to support families and each other. Without this foundation, workers are more likely to make inappropriate or delayed referrals, or to fail to make referrals at all, inadvertently depriving families of the help they need.

Answer/Solution: Cross-training is an excellent way to ensure people in different programs understand each other’s roles enough to work together for the good of the client. For example, during a child welfare staff meeting, someone from Work First could present economic services scenarios and engage child welfare workers in a dialogue about their views of welfare. These discussions would educate workers about the different perspectives and challenges that Work First workers face and what their ultimate responsibilities are. A similar training could then be offered to Work First staff about child welfare.

Poor Information Flow
Sometimes one program will have detailed information about a family, but that information never makes it to another program working with the family. This lack of communication, which occurs by default rather than out of concern for confidentiality, can lead to inappropriate or insufficient interventions.

Answers/Solutions: To overcome this obstacle, agencies must develop strategies for sharing information within the agency, such as:

Intake protocols. Buncombe DSS has addressed this issue with a new agency policy requiring child welfare workers to see whether a family reported for suspected abuse/neglect is involved with another worker in another program within the agency. If the answer is yes, child welfare must make a collateral contact with that worker.

Coordinated case plans. Coordinating case plans for families served by both programs prevents families from being caught in the middle by conflicting demands. It also helps ensure agency professionals working with the family have a clear picture of its strengths, needs, and the services they are receiving.

Child and family team meetings. As mentioned elsewhere, this is an excellent strategy for making sure everyone is on the same page, preventing duplication and meeting the family’s needs in a more timely way.

In addition to the strategies mentioned here, it is also important to note that North Carolina has statewide strategies for enhancing collaboration between Work First and child welfare. To learn about two of these strategies, refer to the sidebar on the Multiple Response System and the article on FamilyNet.

References for this and other articles in this issue