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On Campus

Working Together to Help Families Stay Together

By Stephanie Tripp

The investigator bears tremendous responsibility as he makes his way up the cracked cement steps to his next appointment. With the tidbits of information received from a neighborhood referral and the soon-to-be completed interview with the family in question, the Child Protective Services (CPS) investigator has a few hours to determine the immediate risk and 30 days to decide if (1) the accusation of abuse should be dropped, (2) the case should be monitored for a few months, (3) the family should be referred to Intensive Family Preservation Services where the family would receive three months of intensive intervention, or (4) the child should be removed from the home.

This scenario is business as usual for a CPS investigator. However, when Elaine Walton approached the administrators of Lucas County Children Services in Ohio with a proposal to do some experimental research, they jumped at the chance to test a different form of intervention. Two years later, she left Ohio State University to join the faculty of BYU’s School of Social Work, and she was delighted to find a similar interest in experimental research among the administrators of the Utah County Division of Child and Family Services.

Walton’s research merges two separate programs: the CPS investigation and Intensive Family Preservation Services (IFPS). Together, representatives from each of these departments work as a team with a family for five to 20 hours a week to evaluate the family’s strengths, resources, and needs. The representatives also investigate allegations of abuse or neglect within the 30-day period after a referral.

“We try to intervene in a way that is user friendly,” Walton says. “In addition to the investigation, there is somebody being a friend to the family and saying to them, ‘I can see there are circumstances that make your life very stressful. What kind of support will help you so that your children will not be at risk?'”

With this intensive support, the CPS investigator and the IFPS caseworker together help the family develop a treatment plan.

This treatment plan is usually made up of both hard and soft services, Walton says. Hard services are the primary needs of the family including food, transportation, or a place to live; soft services include teaching skills like parenting, home management, anger management, assertiveness, communication, or budgeting.

Walton says in some cases the caseworkers help the family identify its goals and values through such activities as making a family flag or a family motto.

“We are trying to do for them what their own parents didn’t do in giving them some modeling and guidance,” Walton says.

During this four-week period, the CPS and IFPS caseworkers also help the family connect with a network of additional resources, both formal and informal, which will remain in place long after the caseworkers have discontinued their involvement with the family.

Formal resources include family therapy or instructional classes on parenting or communication; however, Walton stresses the importance of including informal resources such as extended family, neighbors, teachers, or religious leaders. “These are the people who really care the most about the family. They are usually pleased to join an organized support network, and they will always be there for the family, even after funding for formal support runs out,” she says.

In addition to strengthening the family through a network of resources, the intensive involvement of the team of caseworkers with the family during the 30-day evaluation period provides for a better decision-making process. The caseworkers become intimately acquainted with the family and are better able to identify the strengths and resources of the family as well as the potential risks, she says.

“If the decision is to remove a child, the caseworkers feel comfortable with that decision because they have exhausted the alternatives,” Walton says. “If the decision is to leave the child in the home, they are comfortable with that decision because they are aware of the dynamics, strengths, limitations, and resources of the environment.”

Walton completed the Ohio study during a nine-month period in 1993; it was reported at the Eighth Annual Empowering Family Conference in December 1994 and was published in Child Welfare. She studied 134 families–69 in an experimental group and 65 in a control group–and was pleased with the program’s effect on the families in the experimental group.

“Fewer children were removed from the families in the experimental group, and when a case was opened, it was open for a shorter period of time. Also, in the experimental group, it was more likely that the child would remain at home because the investigators felt they had a better handle on what the family was capable of,” she says.

Walton says the overall intensive intervention was appreciated by the study participants. “Five of the parents made comments like, ‘The caseworkers saved our family,'” she says.

With a $190,000 grant from the Utah State Legislature, a similar experimental program is now being implemented in Utah County by four teams, each composed of a CPS investigator and an IFPS caseworker. Walton projects the data collecting and interviewing will be completed by June 1998.

In both the Ohio and Utah County studies, Walton has noticed a benefit of the program in addition to the benefits experienced by the families. She notes that CPS investigators normally have the highest rate of turnover of any state employee; however, those associated with this experiment reported that they enjoy their jobs.

“Being an investigator is a thankless job, and with this program, the investigators say it is nice for them to feel like they’re doing something for the family instead of just pointing the finger and removing the children,” Walton says.

As successful as the program has proved to be, it is a radical departure from routine Child Protective Services primarily because it is an expensive program. “Normally, CPS investigators have caseloads of 15 to 20 families. Budget constraints make it difficult for administrators to limit caseloads to two or three families so that caseworkers can be more intensively involved with those families,” she says.

Walton contends, however, that ultimately, the program will pay for itself in reduced costs for foster care and other children’s services.

She also feels strongly about the program because of its compatibility with the LDS culture. “I am glad to be here at BYU because the program fits so well with our values as LDS people. We could all do a better job in strengthening our families and that is what this program is all about.”