The Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS) received 70,147 reports concerning potential abuse or neglect of a child in 2004. Social workers investigated and opened cases on over 22,000 of these reported abuses over the course of the year. Faced with such overwhelming caseloads, DSS workers are often required to decide quickly and in isolation whether to break up a family in the interest of the child's safety.
The traditional child welfare model assigns cases to individual workers, who then have primary responsibility to determine necessary services, ensure parental compliance, observe the child's well-being, and fill out all the requisite paperwork. They must do this all while remaining within legal and official bounds, not an easy task by any means. This isolation leads to intense emotional stress on the individual worker and inconsistent service across separate cases, as well as limited opportunities for learning by caseworkers.
The DSS Teaming Initiative was designed to address these challenges. In it, a unit of five social workers and a supervisor collectively own all 90 cases they cover, sharing workload based on schedule and expertise, and supervising each other. Each case has a primary case worker, but all workers in the team have access to information on all cases.
DSS began planning the initiative in the summer of 2003, and formally kicked the program off in March 2004 with 8 "first adopter" teams. After the success of this pilot, DSS decided that this integrated model of investigation, assessment and ongoing casework holds the most promise for replication. As of 2005, the initiative was serving 600 families-with approximately 1300 children, in seven different locations across the state, in urban, suburban, and rural sites-representing 3% of the agency's overall caseload.
The pilot sites included a broad sample of families involved with the DSS at different stages. Social workers working together on the teams represent a diversity of genders, ethnic/linguistic backgrounds, and experience levels, and have varying expertise in substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental health problems. Each member of a team takes a Myers-Briggs or other personality test, and the team uses this information to build a complementary approach to group decision-making.
The teaming method is new in the child welfare arena, but based on solid precedents; medical emergency workers dealing with trauma have been found to benefit markedly from teamwork, as have police officers and social welfare officers. Early findings show that workers in the DSS teaming program no longer felt intense isolation, and report less emotional stress. Interacting with a team instead of a single case worker also appears to promote more trusting relationships between client families and workers. More quantifiably, the length of involvement with families involved in a teaming unit is shorter than those managed by other units; the Attleboro office, the most effective implementation of the project, closed cases nearly three times faster than a typical non-teaming unit in its first year of the initiative.
Teaming, while still in the early stages of implementation in 2005, has the support of both the bottom and the top of the organization, from case workers to the administration. The problems of isolation and inconsistent service it addresses are pervasive, and the program could easily be adapted to fit the needs of other jurisdictions.
*This program was the winner of the special Annie E. Casey Innovations Award in Children and Family System Reform.