Children's Voice September/October 2007

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Management Matters

A Team Approach

Social work traditionally has been a solo job, but the Massachusetts DSS decided to incorporate a new model that requires staff to work together.

By Jennifer Michael

Harry Spence moved into a leadership position in the child welfare field from a career in education and was immediately struck by the amount of "isolated responsibility" placed on social workers, most of them new to the workforce and new to the experiences of families and parenting.

"I was just really stunned by the kinds of extraordinarily imponderable decisions we ask social workers to make," recalls Spence, outgoing Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS) and formerly Deputy Chancellor for Operations for New York City Public Schools. "And we ask them to make those decisions on very limited evidence to predict the future about the most complex and entangled families in Massachusetts."

Spence came up with an idea that turned conventional wisdom in child welfare on its head. Instead of going solo, workers would operate in teams, sharing cases, making home visits together, participating in group supervision sessions, and sharing information and advice on all the cases in a unit.

With encouragement from Spence and funding support from the Marguerite Casey Foundation, DSS leaders searched child welfare literature for other teaming models to emulate. When they couldn't find any, they created their own vision that would fundamentally change how child welfare works across the Commonwealth. What began as a pilot program has now become permanent practice in eight area offices that oversee 25 teams. DSS hopes to eventually implement teaming in all 29 of its area offices.

Last year, the teaming program was recognized as one of the "Top 50 Government Innovations for 2006" by Harvard's Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, in cooperation with the Council for Excellence in Government. Since then, DSS has received many inquiries from states interested in teaming, and at least one state is following in Massachusetts's footsteps--New York child welfare leaders are now conducting teaming pilots in six counties.

With teaming in its fourth year in Massachusetts, DSS staff have much to share about developing and implementing their model, and they did so during a CWLA Competence on Call teleconference event last year. Teleconference participant Eleanor Dowd, a consultant and former Deputy DSS Commissioner, who worked as a leader in child welfare for 30 years, explained, "To my great surprise, after all these years, [teaming] has worked beautifullyOesupporting social workersOe, and families [feel] much better that this is more of a conversation, that they are more involved, and that they are really not being interrogated by the social workers."

How Teaming Works

Initially, the local Massachusetts DSS offices that piloted the teaming initiative were not without their struggles. They coped with time management, caseload, and workload issues; confusion and resistance among their peers; and other challenges. But they continued moving forward and, in most cases, realized the benefits of teaming far outweighed the complexities.

A preliminary report from the Marguerite Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs about the teaming initiative revealed, just as Spence had hoped, that workers experienced less stress and greater job satisfaction. Under the teaming initiative, the new mantra is, "It's not my case. It's our case." More hands on a case also means more opportunities to locate kin, establish services, and gain community support, which means cases can close more quickly. Families only have to tell their story once, they are more relaxed, and they better trust that the system is going to help them.

The team operating out of the DSS office in Lynn, Massachusetts, is described at length in the preliminary report about the pilot sites. The Lynn TAP Team (Team Approach to Partnering), as they call themselves, comprises a supervisor, four ongoing workers, and a family group conferencing coordinator.

The team shares information about its cases in formal weekly group supervision meetings, and members make service plan decisions as a group. The team specifically takes on cases in which parents need extra help--where extra eyes and hands can make a difference. Every worker on the team knows every family's story, and if one social worker is out of town or in court, another can stand in his or her place. When they first meet a family, they explain the team concept, introduce the unit's workers and supervisor, and leave behind their business card, which lists all team members' names and phone numbers so families have more than one person to call when they need help.

To support the Lynn office and the other area teams, DSS has provided coaches to help with planning and team building. Team members also participate in regular statewide "reflection sessions" to exchange practice ideas and concerns and receive technical assistance on team development, family-centered practice, and other relevant skills. Team supervisors meet monthly with each other and with coaching consultants to discuss progress and make plans.

Just as Spence had hoped, the teaming effort has helped reduce stress, at least for members of the Lynn TAP. Social worker Caryn Willa says in the report, "Maybe it's a little bit more work on the front endOebut in the long run, it's alleviating work, and it's alleviating stress, because you're really sharing the decision-making burden." She adds that families also benefit from the team's decisions: "The more heads you have, the better the solution you can come up with."

As for supervisors' opinions of the teaming structure, Lynn Supervisor and Team Leader Kimberly Wadsworth says, "As a teaming supervisor, I had to give up some of my control over the caseworkOe[but] I have learned to trust the workers in their decision-making process. I have seen them grow as a team, and we are making good decisions together."

Implementing and Managing Teams

A clear implementation plan is necessary when establishing staff teams. Developing this plan can be a four- to six-month process within field offices and the direct service office, Dowd advises, and must involve the people who will be involved in the teaming, as well as everyone else in the office.

"This is a totally different way of doing your job," she says. "The whole infrastructure of your public child welfare agencies are really built on a caseload or casework approach, so you have to have strong management support at the field office level, because there are no other systems in the organization that support the teaming initiative."

Many questions must be considered when adopting a teaming concept. One of the most important is what type of families will be referred to the team? Some teams may only want to work with protection cases, or repeat maltreatment cases, or only cases involving adolescents or severely mentally ill children.

How do you assign families to a team? Dowd suggests using a structured case assignment process because it allows the team to develop as a team, particularly in the beginning.

What decisions will the team be allowed to make? Will it make decisions about removing a child from her home or whether to reunify the child with her family? If not, the team should be able to make recommendations, and it must be clear to whom they will make those recommendations.

Before it begins operating, the team has to decide how it will operate together. Team members should discuss, for example, how they will handle conflict within the group and how they will interface with the rest of the office. Then they must learn how to work together and practice being a team.

"There has to be a clear understanding by the whole office and the management team that it takes time to develop a team," Dowd says. "They may need a little bit lower workload so they can have more time to talk and learn from each other."

It's important for teams to have a self-assessment or self-reflective process. In Massachusetts, staff used the Myers-Briggs instrument. "Social workers seem to love it," Dowd says. "They learn about themselves and their personalities."

In addition, team members need to be exposed to some kind of peer learning so they can learn from different teams and field offices. Supervisors and managers also need to meet regularly and learn from one another. These supervisors need to be trained how to conduct group supervision, versus individual supervision.

An inventory of computers and other technologies also has to be in place. Cell phones, PDAs, and other mobile devices keep lines of communication open for team members.

Lightening the Burden

Polly Masterson's experience as a child welfare team member is an example of how Massachusetts DSS's efforts to change practice have lessened workers' stress and isolation and provided improved services to families.

Masterson began working as an intern in the DSS South Central office two years ago. "My only experience as a social worker is as a teaming social worker," she said during CWLA's teleconference. "Decisions I make are done with the guidance of the team. The heavy burden is lightened when you have that support from the team, which is both emotional and physical."

During her first experience with removing a child from a home, she says was "prepared for the worst." But ultimately, with support from her team, the experience turned out not to be as bad as she originally anticipated, and the case progressed quickly with the team's help.

"As a new hire, it was important to me to feel I was not on my own," Masterson says. "For cases I have now that are not teamed, I automatically feel that I can rely on my team if the need arises."

For more information about Massachusetts's teaming effort, contact DSS Chief of Staff Mia Alvarado at 617/748-2360 or

Jennifer Michael is Editor-in-Chief of Children's Voice.

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