Building Families Through Meaningful Case Planning

Building Families Through Meaningful Case Planning

March 5, 2014 | Crystal Shackleford, MSW, Riverside Department of Public Social Services

crystal_shackleford

Crystal Shackleford is an assistant regional manager for the County of Riverside Department of Public Social Services, Children’s Services Division. She has been dedicated to the field of child welfare for more than 17 years, working in field investigations, forensic interviewing, supervision, field instruction, training, and management.

Crystal Shackleford is an assistant regional manager for the County of Riverside Department of Public Social Services, Children’s Services Division. She has been dedicated to the field of child welfare for more than 17 years, working in field investigations, forensic interviewing, supervision, field instruction, training, and management.

As an assistant manager in child welfare, I have the opportunity to participate in referrals and case staffings and to handle a variety of complaints. When I dive into a case review, I am concerned with a few key items: the social worker treating the clients with respect and engaging the family in working toward a safe outcome, well-documented assessments throughout the life of the case, and a case plan that is designed with and for the family to succeed.

Imagine a case with a 1-year-old child who has been in out-of-home care since birth due to mom’s long-term drug history and mental instability; both mom and baby tested positive for methamphetamines at the time of birth. This is a mom who is desperate to get back her child. However, parents often have a hard time admitting their weaknesses and the dangers to which they have exposed their children. Even after allegations have been made and found true in court, a parent may still be too overwhelmed to take responsibility for a variety of reasons that run very deep. In this case, it is abundantly clear how much mom loves her baby and the idea of having a normal life with him. In her mind, all she needs to do is comply by completing drug treatment and testing clean—that is what she has heard from other people who have been through this. She is expecting a set of checkboxes, not thinking about the deeper layer that needs to be reached in order to truly achieve sobriety and a healthy lifestyle that is safe for her child.

If we did a case review, we might discover a “checkbox” case plan that relies heavily on the services mom needs to attend. You know that type of plan: The objectives are worded to reveal just what certificates of completion need to be obtained (e.g., “Stay free from illegal substances—attend and complete a drug treatment program and consistently test clean.”). Instead, envision a plan that focuses on the initial safety factors that brought this family to our attention matched with the priority needs in the Structured Decision Making® (SDM) family strengths and needs assessment: substance abuse, mental health, and meeting the child’s needs. We find objectives targeted at each, such as, “Mom agrees to remain sober from any controlled substances by: testing negative for controlled substances, making a list of at least three things learned to help maintain sobriety, and identifying people who will support her in her sobriety and whom she authorizes to contact the treatment center or social worker if they are concerned about her sobriety. Mom agrees to demonstrate that she can manage her emotions and consistently make good decisions and provide stability for herself and her child. Mom agrees to demonstrate during visits that she will positively interact with her son and respond to his needs. Mom agrees to demonstrate positive actions toward meeting his needs such as: soothing him when he is upset and redirecting him when he is in danger or doing something inappropriate.” This plan exists in real life.

In this plan, the worker has built on mom’s strengths, namely her desire to be with her child. The worker engaged her in developing the case plan, which is customized it to reflect and be deeply meaningful to her story. This case plan goes on to identify the services the department can help provide that will move mom forward in making the behavior changes identified as the objectives. All of the above point toward the larger goal of returning the child home. The objectives are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-limited.

But how did the worker know to develop such a plan? How can we help ensure all social workers in child welfare have the ability to provide such case planning? Thankfully, we have a tool that helps. Karen Martin, a friend of mine through the world of child welfare training, was in Riverside County one day and asked me to look at something on which she was working. She knew I shared her passion for strengthening families through best practice. She introduced me to her rough draft of a tool that would address each safety factor identified in the SDM® safety assessment and provide solution-focused questions, probes, behavioral change wording, and ideas for how to get creative in the confines of the California case management computer system. I instantly thought her vision to strengthen case plans for families and deepen the practice of social workers (in a practical way that was easy to reference) was an exciting endeavor. As usual, I was in awe of her fearless gumption to pursue the creation of something so complex! When the concept was introduced to our executive leadership team, they also saw it as an asset for practice and asked to try it when it was ready. With Karen’s vast experience in child welfare and brilliant network of colleagues and mentors who helped her shape this product, the Children’s Research Center published the Case Plan Field Tool.

Riverside County has introduced this tool to our social workers and supervisors. We are cultivating a non-mandated, organic rollout approach that utilizes self-identified social worker and supervisor champions who have chosen to use the tool and truly believe in its value. As they have success with the tool, the word and practice is spreading, and each champion is available to coach his/her peers as they pick up the practice. This is an exciting time, but it is also tinged with sadness. We recently lost our dear friend, Karen, to a valiant battle with cancer. The best way we can honor her is to continue to impart a passion for best practice to child welfare staff. She gave us a gift in the form of the Case Plan Field Tool, which is a practical means to do so.

Crystal Shackleford will present more on this topic in May at NCCD’s Conference on Children, Youth, and Families.