Worker-Family Collaboration in a Dual-Professional Assessment Program
Family engagement has long been the foundation of social work practice (Biestek, 1957; Perlman, 1979). However, advances in technology and an emphasis on accountability have created tensions between the implementation of bureaucratic procedures and the importance of relationship-based practice (Parton, 2009; Ruch, 2005). In child welfare, client engagement is critical to assessment, service plan development, and treatment referrals. While trying to develop and maintain collaborative relationships with families, caseworkers must gather, share, and monitor information about their clients, account for their decisions, and coordinate services with other entities serving the family.
This study examines the worker-client relationship when another professional is brought into the initial assessment process. The Illinois Integrated Assessment Program is an assessment model in which child welfare caseworkers collaborate with licensed clinical screeners to conduct in-home, comprehensive family assessments within the first 45 days of the case. Subsequently, the caseworker continues engaging the family in implementing the service plan and bringing the case to an appropriate closure. The research questions addressed in the study are whether there are differences in the quality of worker-client relationship when another professional is involved, and what strategies were employed to develop and maintain positive relationships.
Cases were randomly assigned to have a screener involved in the initial assessment (treatment) or to have assessment conducted solely by a case worker (control). For the last 12 months of the study, caseworkers received an invitation to participate in a family collaboration survey developed by Yatchmenoff. Completed surveys were received for 191 cases, including 83 treatment cases. In addition to the survey, in-depth interviews were completed with 17 caseworkers selected at random and all 7 clinical screeners. The interviews were recorded, transcribed, coded, and analyzed using a grounded theory approach and Atlas.ti software.
The reliability of the 13-item collaboration measure was high (a=.94) with the average engagement score for the treatment and control cases near 46 points, indicating moderate positive collaboration. Results of a multi-level model showed no differences in level of engagement due to screener involvement (B=-.26, p=.88). An intraclass correlation of .075 suggests that the variance in collaboration scores is predominantly occurring at the case level. In the interviews, most workers reported that presence of a screener did not impede their relationship with clients. Several themes emerged related to engagement strategies, including establishing clarity of worker and screener roles, shared responsibilities for asking questions, and screeners' efforts to foster the worker-family sense of ownership and investment in the assessment and service provision.
Conclusions and implications:
Findings suggest that a dual-professional model of assessment did not negatively impact caseworkers’ relationships with families. Role clarity and intentional efforts to support family inclusion and investment in the process were key strategies for achieving and maintaining good family engagement. Given the need for cross-system collaboration and an emphasis on developing systems of care, this study has important implications for maintaining working relationships when families are served by multiple providers.