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DSS – Who Are They, and What Do We Do With Them? A Table Talk Wednesday Recap

Written by Julie Higginbotham, Senior Case Coordinator, Mecklenburg County CDSA

As we choose topics for our Table Talk Wednesday events, we look at our work from a variety of angles.  One of those has been teaming, and our last discussion looked more closely at how to branch out and include folks from the Department of Social Services, or DSS, who are involved when there has been an issue of abuse or neglect.  The discussion was facilitated by Lennie Latham, Program Supervisor and CBRS provider with UCP/Easter Seals, and Amy Gleason, Licensed Mental Health Clinician with the CDSA.  Several topics were explored, including many aspects of early intervention that are important to consider when helping to support children and families during times when things are more complex for everyone involved.  Here were some points that stood out during the conversation:

Who is supposed to be involved in our supports and services, especially when the child is placed in foster care?  This is a big question that has to be addressed with each case individually.  IDEA regulations state that, when biological parents are available and willing to participate, they are the identified parents and have the rights to make decisions related to our services, even if they are not living with the child.  DSS also always has the goal of reunification whenever possible.  The short answer is that we need to be supporting all caregivers in their routines, just like we do with other family situations where DSS is not involved.  This includes potentially having outcomes that address more than one location and situation, depending on where the child is spending time throughout the week and what the priorities are for the family.  Sometimes, situations aren’t yet safe for biological parents to be involved, so our focus stays with the foster family (kinship placements included).  Other times, we might need to be creative in how we make sure that we are including the parents when they don’t have control over where their child lives while they work on making their own situations more stable.  Children don’t have to be removed from their homes in order for DSS to become involved, but when they are, it’s our job to look at the bigger picture for the child and family to provide the most functional supports possible.

What is our role on the bigger team that includes IFSP supports?  Here in North Carolina, DSS assembles a group that covers a wide range of supports in these situations and is called the Child and Family Team, or CFT.  This includes the DSS social worker, the family, the foster family (if needed), attorneys, anyone else with a vested interest in the safety of the child and progress of the parents, and us.  Whenever possible, it’s important for us to participate in those CFT meetings because we can really get a lot of helpful information about the situation, but it also gives us the opportunity to take our supports for the family one step further.  These teams discuss both strengths and needs regarding each situation, and since early intervention focuses on strengths to address needs, we have the opportunity to point out specific things that we see happening that point us in the right direction to help work on the things that may need a bit more attention.  For example, when parents are willing to work with us to address their routines, or when we observe signs of bonding and attachment between the parents and the child, we need to be talking about those things during CFT meetings because they are important building blocks that can encourage parents to keep working toward improving their current situations.  We’ve talked about this before in terms of how it helps to build parents’ confidence and competence, not to mention how it can help to build a stronger rapport with families when they can see that we really do find strengths in every situation.

What do we do when the “natural environment” doesn’t seem so natural?  When DSS becomes involved in a family’s life, there are a lot of things that become much less natural about how the family gets to spend time together.  It’s easier to come up with ways to support a foster family in their routines, but what about the biological parents?  Perhaps they only get to see their children for supervised visits at the department, or maybe they get to see them at a local fast food restaurant where they get to play on the playground equipment together for their supervised visit for the week.  Maybe the parents are in a situation where they’re homeless – then what do we do?  Well, we have to get creative again in asking more about the priorities for the family.  We want to be clear about our role and discuss with DSS and the family how we can enhance the family’s visits with their children.  Perhaps the family doesn’t want us to be there to interfere with their time with their child – we aren’t there to take the child or children away from the parents to do therapy, just like we don’t do this in more natural home situations, but rather we want to be coaching the parent through learning new ways to support their children’s development in those natural routines of the moment.  We may even be able to work with DSS to see if we can meet before or after scheduled visitation time to allow for supports for the family without taking away one-on-one time that is important for maintaining the bond between children and their parents.  We have to be flexible and accommodating when needed, just like we are with other families we support.

When should we be involving DSS in our supports?  This can seem like a tricky line to walk because of the nature of the situations that bring DSS into a family’s life.  DSS may require and submit recommendations to the court that the family work with us, and while we are a voluntary program that the family can refuse, it doesn’t mean that DSS won’t change the course of the case if they don’t participate in our services.  Sometimes, this gives us more time to build that relationship and help the family see what we have to offer, but other times, it is clear that the family is just letting us in the door because they have to, and they may not seem truly invested the way we think they should be.  While the identified parent on the IFSP has the final decision-making rights, we need to be including DSS on any evaluations, assessments, meetings, ongoing updates, and the transition process while there is an open case with the department because it’s their job to be involved and ensuring that all of the child’s needs are being met.  We want DSS to send children our way that may not have been referred by someone else, and showing them that early intervention is important and that they’re valued in our process is key.  Here in Mecklenburg County, we have a specialized team that works as a bridge between DSS and early intervention, and the more they can see what we do, the better they can understand what we do and utilize our supports more readily for children and families.

So, how do we engage families that don’t yet see the benefits of our supports?  We often talk about the “hook” for each family that makes that shift with families and really draws them into our process.  For families with DSS involvement, that moment can come in a variety of ways.  Sometimes, just showing that we really are there to look at strengths can be enough.  Other times, we have to look at the bigger picture – with all families, it’s not always just about the child’s development.  Perhaps the family’s priorities lie more with accessing resources and addressing daily crises, and whether or not the child is walking or talking just isn’t on their radar at the moment.  We talk often about how addressing the whole family is important – if the family doesn’t have a home or enough food to eat, then add the fact that DSS has become involved, imagine how they might see it if we are focusing on more isolated, clinical skills that may not be as important to the family at that time.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t work on ways to improve their routines, but we might need to take it a step further to make it more individualized.  After all, the family who has to leave the homeless shelter every day just might want their child to be able to walk to the bus stop to apply for assistance or jobs or to get to medical appointments instead of having to carry them.  We all know how just having a listening ear can make all the difference, and our job isn’t always to have answers – sometimes, it’s just to let parents process and figure things out for themselves while leaning on us a little to do it.

And the biggie…..Mandated Reporting.  This might seem like an easy one because it sounds pretty straightforward, but when those situations cross your path, it feels much more complicated.  The group only got to discuss this for a few moments due to the rolling conversation we had, but we wanted to shed a little more light on it here as a follow-up.  For starters, one person asked about who should be reporting concerns to DSS.  Each state has its own regulations regarding mandated reporting.  Here in North Carolina, we are all required as professionals to report any suspected abuse or neglect directly to DSS.  As service coordinators, part of our job is to facilitate communication with the team and help address issues that come up, particularly when there are potential safety concerns or other needs to be addressed by everyone.  However, if you feel that you have enough information about a potentially dangerous situation, while it’s always good to be informing the team of your concerns, you always need to be reporting directly to DSS to get help as quickly as possible.  This doesn’t mean that the team can’t support each other or make more than one report as needed, but it does mean that the responsibility lies with the person who has the most direct information to be discussing it with DSS.  If you ever have a question about whether or not the information you have constitutes a report to DSS, staff it with your supervisor and/or team members.  But the bottom line is, in North Carolina, if you suspect that a child is being abused or neglected, or if you think a child may have died from being mistreated, you must report what you know to the Department of Social Services in your county.  This is the law (N.C.G.S. § 7B-301).  Do not be afraid to report.  As long as you are acting in good faith, you cannot be held liable (N.C.G.S. §7B-309).

Clearly, families who have to have some kind of support from DSS when abuse or neglect is involved have a lot more going on besides developmental concerns.  As early interventionists, this adds a layer of complexity, but it shouldn’t ever take away from looking at the big picture of supporting children and families in their natural routines.  Teaming is key, as is joint planning with all caregivers involved and DSS, and each situation is unique and has to be addressed as such.  What questions have you had regarding DSS involvement or mandated reporting?  Leave us a comment – just remember to keep it general and confidential.   :)

Have you ever wondered, How Do They Come Up with These Outcomes?  If so, and you are part of the CDSA or provider network in Mecklenburg County, come join us on February 19, 2014 for another great conversation where we will explore how we are gathering information from families about their priorities to come up with functional, routines-based outcomes for IFSPs.  Not in the area?  No worries, we’ll post another recap two weeks after the event.  In the meantime, take a look at our previous summaries to find out more about how these discussions have been going so far.


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