Methods: Utilizing qualitative methods, the study was conducted in six county human service agencies in Northern California that varied with respect to service array, size, and client demographics. Focus group discussions involving 10-12 participants per county were conducted from January- March, 2019. Participants included FS workers, employment counselors, and external service providers representing behavioral health, housing and domestic violence services. Discussion topics included: 1) Assessment, 2) Service collaboration, 3) Client progress and 4) Program improvement. Focus groups were recorded, transcribed and coded in Dedoose using an inductive/deductive coding strategy.
Results: The central service dynamic of the FS program is relational and discretionary, requiring workers to develop a trusting relationship with clients in order to address barriers and unmet needs. Workers employ three major strategies during assessment and service delivery: 1) emotional labor requiring both emotional engagement and emotional management (e.g., responding with care and compassion while managing secondary trauma); 2) shared power highlighting client goal definition, selective worker disclosure, and meeting clients where they are, both emotionally and physically (e.g., homeless shelters, vans, community agencies); 3) appropriately structured practice (e.g., sequencing/pacing of client activities that is responsive to client readiness and priorities). Most focus group participants did not have an MSW degree, and varied in their degree of comfort with respect to client assessment; some felt they lacked the clinical training to respond appropriately to client disclosure of trauma, while many believed that practice knowledge and experience were sufficient. They noted further that service referrals were important, however, the care coordination process was laborious and sometimes disrupted the FS worker-client relationship. While participants were able to identify short-term client progress with respect to addressing client trauma and emotional needs, they noted it was more difficult to achieve longer-term effects on client economic self-sufficiency.
Conclusion & Implications: The FS program allows front-line workers substantial flexibility in engaging clients and delivering services, while demanding high levels of emotional labor. Implications for county human service agencies highlight the importance of emphasizing relational skills when hiring and training FS workers. Schools of social work can support public agencies by incorporating welfare-to-work services in HBSE curriculum and field placement options. Policy makers are called upon to address persistent material needs by expanding benefit types and levels as well as program time frames.