Abstract: So Much Potential: Harnessing Collective Impact for Innovative Cross-Systems Collaborations Serving Vulnerable Youth (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

So Much Potential: Harnessing Collective Impact for Innovative Cross-Systems Collaborations Serving Vulnerable Youth

Friday, January 18, 2019: 10:45 AM
Union Square 18 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Annette Semanchin Jones, PhD, Assistant Professor, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY
Annahita Ball, PhD, Assistant Professor, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY
Elizabeth Bowen, PhD, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY
Background and Purpose: Children who experience homelessness and maltreatment are at greater risk for poor educational outcomes, including absenteeism, dropout, and reduced access to post-secondary education. These negative outcomes are, in part, a reflection of the failure of multiple systems—education, child welfare, and housing and social services. Although it is well understood that vulnerable youth frequently experience multiple challenges, these systems often operate in isolation. Ultimately, cross-systems youth (i.e., youth who experience homelessness, child welfare involvement, and educational difficulty) suffer due to lack of continuity and stability in their school and home lives, as well as in service provision. The Collective Impact framework (Katia & Kramer, 2011), an innovative framework for practice, highlights elements of effective cross-system collaboration (i.e., common agenda, shared measurement system, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and a “backbone organization”), but there have been no studies of these elements in collaborations serving cross-systems youth. This study used the Collective Impact framework to explore service providers’ perspectives of the key components of cross-systems collaboration that influence educational outcomes for cross-systems youth.

Methods: Providers (N = 35) from each of the systems of interest (e.g., school social workers, child welfare case workers, homeless services staff) participated in focus groups and interviews. A semi-structured interview guide was developed, including questions based on Collective Impact, as well as open-ended questions to uncover other factors that influence educational outcomes.  Three researchers, each with expertise in one of the primary service systems of interest, coded the first four transcripts independently. After coding each transcript independently, the researchers met to discuss the codes and reach consensus. The researchers coded the remaining transcripts independently and met to discuss codes and emerging patterns, which were organized into higher-order themes and sub-themes.

Results: Service providers believed that improved cross-systems collaboration could benefit educational outcomes for youth, yet they frequently experienced barriers to effective collaboration in each of the five domains of the Collective Impact framework.  Providers discussed inflexible agency policy, differing agency priorities, difficulty sharing data, and overloaded caseloads and classrooms as barriers to collaboration and improved youth outcomes. Examples of successful cross-system collaboration were largely congruent with the five key factors in the framework, including initiatives that developed a common agenda, had consistent communication and data-sharing, and had one person or agency to broker services across systems and serve as a single point of contact for the youth, family, and providers.  

Conclusions: Findings highlight systemic and micro-level practice factors that appear to facilitate or inhibit cross-systems collaboration.  Policy implications include the importance of resources for backbone organizations that can facilitate communication and data sharing, as well as provisions for holding providers more accountable to youth outcomes.  Findings also highlight the importance of building trust and personal connections between service providers and being creative and flexible in order to brainstorm effective pathways to improving outcomes for vulnerable youth. Finally, these findings provide support for the Collective Impact framework and future research should continue to unpack these five elements of cross-systems collaboration across different populations and settings.