On cross-system collaboration in child welfare practice in Massachusetts

Often, child welfare work with intellectually disabled clients involves collaboration with disability service systems such as the Department of Developmental Services, Vocational Rehabilitation and the like. Different state social service agencies often have different cultures and different theoretical frameworks or paradigms that drive the ways in which they function. An analysis of some of the philosophical (as well as practical) characteristics of each system illuminates the potential issues that might make collaboration difficult. Getting to know how other systems “think” and approach their work with clients is an important part of successful case practice when acting as a liaison with these systems.

The following provides commentary on systems for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as one example.

First, the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities employs a holistic model designed to enhance the quality of life for individuals with these diagnoses with the goal of self-determination and participation in community-based life. This is evidenced by the wide range of services offered to individuals, including service coordination, community support, residential support, facility support, individual support, community day support, employment support, family support, and respite care. In contrast, the child welfare system has a more limited mandate to offer services that are specific to the prevention, intervention, treatment of issues related to abuse and neglect in the short term. Further, the treatment model employed by child welfare systems may at times be prescriptive and confrontational in nature. This philosophical “culture clash” between the intellectual and developmental disabilities and child welfare systems might inhibit collaboration.

Second, the obligation to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are child welfare involved might vary between the systems. For example, clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities are usually lifelong consumers of the system if they are connected to it, provided they meet the eligibility criteria for such services. Some services might be provided directly by state authorities, whereas others are provided via contract with public or private-sector programs. The fact remains, however, that once eligibility status has been determined, ongoing services are usually ensured for life. A case management model is then employed to enhance and coordinate services. In contrast, clients of the child welfare system receive services from public or private agencies that provide temporary and episodic interventions. A lack of awareness of intellectual and developmental disabilities and child welfare case managers and clinicians of each system’s mandated obligations and responsibilities can result in frustration and confusion when making referrals across systems.

Third, the lexicons of both systems vary according to their history, core values, and professional beliefs. For example, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, the intellectual and developmental disabilities system is organized to support community inclusion within the guise of a human rights framework, which encourages personal choice, independence, and dignity (Trent, 1995). In marked contrast, the child welfare system often works with court-mandated or involuntary clients. In this context, child welfare might be thought of as including, at times, “tough love” techniques designed to interrupt entrenched denial systems concerning behavior and consequences. A potential result of these conflicting values can range from misunderstandings and confusion in service provision to a deep distrust between the systems.

How can cross-system collaboration be best supported?

Child welfare workers can engage in five basic processes that will facilitate cross-system collaboration toward the goal of positive client outcomes. First, workers can engage in conversations about the service paradigm in which they function to build “cross-cultural” competency (i.e., the differences that might arise in collaboration between agencies that focus on fostering self-determination vs. child safety as a primary goal, for example. Second, workers can determine the role of each agency in supporting the client in question (i.e., lifelong responsibility vs. treatment episode). Third, by gaining an understanding of the different treatment cultures in which various workers practice, including types of services offered, more effective collaboration platforms can be created. Fourth, workers will need to negotiate information-sharing approaches that respect the needs of their clients and the requirements of all agency types involved. Finally, workers have the opportunity to think outside of the box in “starting where the client is” to create responsive intervention approaches that will foster client well-being in the long run.

Adapted from:

Slayter, E. and Steenrod, S. (2009). Addressing alcohol and drug addiction among people with mental retardation*: A need for cross-system collaboration. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions. 9(1), 71-90.

*Note: At the time of this publication, the term “mental retardation” was the accepted diagnostic terminology for what is now known as intellectual disability.

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