Tell Me Your Story
“SDM assessments are only as good as the information you gather” is a phrase I have used in many training rooms to emphasize the importance of connecting with families and engaging them in the interviewing, assessment, and planning process. Most workers understand the “why” of SDM assessments—to increase consistency and accuracy in decision making, target scarce resources to higher risk families, identify appropriate interventions—but more often than not, we are asked, “how?” How do you ask families about sensitive topics such as child maltreatment, substance abuse, mental health, and domestic violence?
A recent training with the Tlingit and Haida Tribal TANF case managers in Juneau, Alaska, was no exception. As part of the SDM Family Prevention Services model, tribal TANF case managers assess families using an actuarial risk assessment to determine the likelihood that a family will have future child protection involvement. Those high risk families are then targeted with intense, short-term services in order to prevent future child maltreatment.
The “why” was clear, and throughout the training, workers cited startling statistics about the disproportionate rate of Tlingit and Haida children in care and the high percentage of native families receiving both economic assistance and child protective services. The “how” posed a challenge. The truth is, completing these assessments requires the Tribal TANF case managers to talk to families about topics beyond self-sufficiency, prior employment, and education history. In order to complete the assessment, a case manager needs to ask questions about the family’s history of child maltreatment, substance abuse, mental health, and domestic violence.
I was prepared this time. I provided all of the workers with an extensive list of solution-focused questions, interviewing techniques, open-ended question examples, and reflection statements. The sea of blank stares quickly informed me that I had not helped them figure out how to have these conversations with families.
A seasoned worker stood to her feet and proposed an uncomplicated solution. She suggested that the Tribal TANF case managers start these sensitive conversations by saying to families: “Tell me your story.” It was simple yet eloquent.
The SDM assessments are reliable and valid decision-support tools. We are confident in the ability to classify families based on the likelihood of future child maltreatment and then use that information to offer prevention services to those families most at risk. However, the assessments are only as good as the information gathered. The SDM assessments won’t assist in moving families forward unless we know where they have been and where they want to be.
Tribal TANF case managers, like child protection workers, adult protective services workers, juvenile justice workers, and others in the helping professions have the opportunity and the tools to influence the rest of the story.
Jennifer Cotter is a Senior Program Associate at NCCD.
I did enjoy this article and shared it with U28 staff (R6/TEX) before strting the ADM training.... As the saying goes.... "No one will care how much you know until they know how much you care." True listening skills are difficult to teach yet an essential part of the assessment process. TWK