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Enhancing Services for Children, Families Involved in Child Welfare Florida Agency Gains Fresh Perspective on Systems Integration

This article appeared in the Aug/Sep print issue of PA TIMES.

David A. Sofferin, Jarrid Smith

In 2006, the Child Welfare League of America, in their 2009 National Fact Sheet, reported there were an estimated 905,000 children in the United States determined to be victims of abuse or neglect–a rate of 12.1 per 1,000 children. The CWLA’s Florida Children 2009 Fact Sheet estimated that in that same year 134,567 of Florida’s children were abused or neglected–a state rate of 33.5 per 1,000 children.

There are many risk factors for child abuse and neglect, including the presence of alcohol, drugs, mental health issues and domestic violence within the home. Florida’s state health and human services agency, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), recognized the value of integrated, seamless services for families to reduce the risk of abuse and neglect.

The Current State–National
The Child Welfare League of America, in their 2009 National Fact Sheet, reported on the strong linkage between children involved in the child welfare system and substance abuse, mental health, and domestic violence:

  • 85 percent of foster care youth are estimated to have an emotional disorder and/or substance abuse problem; 30 percent have severe behavioral, emotional, or developmental problems;
  • Three out of four youth in child welfare with the greatest level of need do not receive mental health care within 12 months after a child abuse and neglect investigation;
  • Parental addiction is a significant factor in child abuse and neglect;
  • The 2005 National Study on Child and Adolescent Well-Being found that among children who were in out-of-home care, 46.1 percent of their caregivers had a problem with alcohol and drugs; and
  • Of sheriffs responding to a 2007 National Association of Counties survey, 40 percent reported increases in domestic violence and child abuse due to parental drug use in the past year.

The Current State–Florida
Florida’s state health and human services agency, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), encompasses many programs, including: child welfare, substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence and economic self-sufficiency. The Department recognizes that families it serves have multiple, complex needs.

The Child Welfare League of America’s Florida’s Children 2009 Report shows that in 2006, 134,567 children were substantiated or indicated as abused or neglected in Florida. The Department’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Plan 2011-2013 reports that only 55 percent of the adults receiving child welfare services required to participate in substance abuse treatment are receiving treatment.

Aligning With the Gubernatorial Fellowship Program
Florida’s Gubernatorial Fellowship Program is a non-partisan program that immerses students from public and private universities in key areas of state government. As fellows, participants fulfill roles of critical responsibility, interact closely with the state’s top leaders and employ their skills and abilities in a highly rewarding environment. Fellows lead important projects. They are expected to contribute immediately at a professional level and excel at handling each new challenge as it arises.

There has been a successful alliance between the need to enhance integration of services for children and families in the child welfare system with the resources of the Gubernatorial Fellowship Program. With a fresh set of eyes, the Department has a new perspective on the question at hand: “What works to enhance integration of services for children and their families involved in the child welfare system?”

The Role and Charge of the Gubernatorial Fellow
Department Gubernatorial Fellow, Jarrid Smith, was assigned to conduct a review of systems integration. This included conducting an assessment of the Department’s current status of systems integration as well as developing options and recommendations for system improvement. Smith chose to use his educational background in communications as the primary focus for this review.

Smith selected Deborah J. Barrett’s Strategic Employee Communication Model to assess and improve employee communications, as well as to create the right environment for change. Barrett’s article, “Change Communication: Using strategic employee communication to facilitate major change,” describes how to initiate the change process. According to Barrett, the first step is to form a Strategic Communications Team (SCT). This is a cross-sectional, multi-dimensional team designed to improve effective communication. Price and Chahal, in their article, “A strategic framework for change management,” describe the process of the SCT.
The team’s charge is to answer three basic questions:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to be?
  • How can we change?

Where are We Now?
The Department’s Gubernatorial Fellow conducted formal interviews and informal discussions with staff as well as contracted employees within the Department’s Substance Abuse, Mental Health, and Child Welfare Programs. The focus of these dialogues was to assess current communication practices. These exchanges revealed factors that strengthen, as well as opportunities to improve internal employee communication.

Strengths of Communications
The individuals who were interviewed provided the following strengths about the Department’s communication practices:

  • Co-locating Child Welfare and Substance Abuse and Mental Health staff members;
  • Having common work experiences;
  • Conducting cross-program integration meetings; and
  • Maintaining current and relevant working agreements.

Smith reported that the most open employee dialogue occurred during the Department’s Leadership Forums. These forums provide employees with the opportunity to discuss the Department’s vision and mission and how those ideals compare to real practice. These forums continue to provide an opportunity for the cascading vision discussions with employees at all levels of the Department.

Areas in Need of Improvement–Communications
Feedback from the Fellow’s interviews and discussions helped identify areas in need of improvement–what gets in the way of effective communication.
These areas included:

  • Lack of knowledge about available services for families through Department contracts;
  • Need for consistent membership in service planning teams. Inconsistent attendance was attributed to staff turnover as well as a lack of consistent representation at these meetings;
  • Insufficient information about each program office and how the resources of each program may assist families.

Where Do We Want to Be?
Vision Statement For System Integration. The Department’s goal is to deliver services to children and their families involved in Florida’s child welfare system in a seamless and integrated manner. Greater access to behavioral health services and supports can reduce child abuse and neglect and help families recover.

Vision Statement On Communications. Smith offered relevant information on system integration. According to Porras and Hoffner’s journal article, “Common behavior changes in successful organization development efforts,” several factors are crucial to change management. These include: open communication; information flow; teamwork and collaboration; change management; and strategic management. Burnes, in the book, “Managing Change,” described organizational change as participative and consultative. Change is an ongoing process.

How Can We Change and How are We Changing?
Based on this assessment, Smith recommended that the Department:
Form a Strategic Communication Team (SCT) to:

  • Continue assessing the Department’s current communication practices through additional interviews, discussions, or surveys;
  • Address communication improvement gaps;
  • Design and implement the change communication program;
  • Serve as change ambassadors;
  • Create a sub-team of SCT on system integration; and
  • Continue and expand the Department’s Leadership Forums. These activities emphasize cascading visioning work, or infusing the Department’s vision and mission throughout all levels of our employees.

Currently, the Department has several of these recommendations underway. The Department has been assessing internal and external communications by:

  • Conducting Leadership Forums. These have provided a platform to launch the cascading vision and strategy discussions with various level leaders and managers;
  • Holding Community Meetings in all 20 Department operational areas across Florida. These community conversations have served as a way to inform communities about our prior year performance, to recognize community leaders, to listen to issues and recommendations from members of our communities;
  • Test piloting a local leadership team in the Department’s Northwest Region – One Leadership Team. This group is similar to SCT. Its purpose is to promote networking between the supervisors of various programs as well as to share best practices; and
  • Compiling feedback from these three activities for consideration of inclusion in the Department’s strategic plan.

The Department welcomes these recommendations. Our planned activities include:

  • Pilot testing a Strategic Communications Team (SCT);
  • Supplementing Smith’s communications assessment with feedback from the Department’s ongoing activities–the Leadership Forums, and Community Meetings, as well as the One Leadership Team;
  • Inviting the Department’s Certified Manager Program (CPM) students to continue this assessment as practical work for their management program; and
  • Learning more about the Department’s One Leadership Team.

State governments, now more than ever, are fiscally stretched to the limit. Nationally, they are facing budget shortfalls, increasing food stamp rates, and rising unemployment. Implementation of cost-neutral activities, such as the establishment of a Strategic Communication Team, is smart business practice. While we lack in resources in many areas, we are rich in human resources. With a stable, mature workforce we have untapped skills, knowledge, and abilities within our organizations.

With a fresh set of eyes, the Department has gained a new perspective on the question at hand, “What works to enhance integration of services for children and their families involved in the child welfare system?” Strategic Communication Teams provide a way to share the message of system integration throughout the Department.

Ultimately, when we are able to wrap our arms around our families and make them whole with one seamless system of supports and services–then we have done our job.

David A. Sofferin is the assistant secretary for Substance Abuse and Mental Health for Florida’s Department of Children and Families. Email: [email protected]

Jarrid Smith served as a Gubernatorial Fellow assigned to the Department’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Program. He is currently completing his studies at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL. Email: [email protected]

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