Implementing the SDM® System to Empower Caseworkers

Implementing the SDM® System to Empower Caseworkers

April 1, 2013 | Dr. Vicky Kelly, Director, Delaware Division of Family Services in the Department of Services for Children, Youth, and Families

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Dr. Vicky Kelly is the Director of the Delaware Division of Family Services in the Department of Services for Children, Youth, and Families. Prior to this appointment, she served as the Deputy Director for the Division of Child Mental Health. Prior to public service, she served as the clinical director for several multi-service private agencies. Dr.

Dr. Vicky Kelly is the Director of the Delaware Division of Family Services in the Department of Services for Children, Youth, and Families. Prior to this appointment, she served as the Deputy Director for the Division of Child Mental Health. Prior to public service, she served as the clinical director for several multi-service private agencies. Dr. Kelly has over 30 years of experience in child welfare and mental health as a clinician and program administrator. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology and master’s in health administration from Widener University. She received her MSW from Louisiana State University. Dr. Kelly has been an adjunct professor at the Institute for Clinical Psychology at Widener University. She is a nationally recognized trainer and consultant in trauma and attachment.

When I came in as director of the Division of Family Services about a year and a half ago, plans were in place to implement the Structured Decision Making (SDM)® system at the child abuse report hotline. That decision was based on findings by national consultants indicating a higher-than-normal percentage of cases accepted for investigation in Delaware. Given the significant trend of an increasing volume of reports, we needed a way to make valid and reliable decisions in order to use our limited resources most effectively. I was very active in the implementation of the SDM® system at the report line, which turned out to be a very informative experience that helped shape my vision for the agency.

Because we had done very little toward bringing current best-practice approaches into our agency, I realized our success on the federal measures was due almost exclusively to the knowledge and experience of many seasoned staff. This made me nervous, as a number of administrators and supervisors are or will soon be eligible for retirement, making transfer of knowledge critical. Also, as part of my orientation, I spent many days riding along with caseworkers as they made home visits. I was awed by the number and complexity of issues workers faced in various situations. One worker truly amazed me by her skillful negotiation of a service plan with a parent who had a serious mental illness; then she diffused a family argument at another home. I was praising her skill and dedication on the way back to the office when she said something that stunned me: We should probably just start hiring paralegals, since more and more all she does is follow court orders developed by the many attorneys in a case. She went on to share her frustration about how little her opinions as a child welfare professional are regarded in the increasingly legalistic world in which we do this work.

I was saddened to learn that this was a common feeling among our staff, who felt demoralized and disempowered as child welfare professionals. Following this experience, I spent many days sitting in court observing dockets of child welfare cases. While some workers were excellent at testifying, too many workers seemed easily intimidated by the legal process and were unable to articulate their rationales for actions taken. When workers struggled to articulate their rationales, their credibility as witnesses was diminished, which allowed the opinions of others to stand unchallenged. This process was eroding the sense of our staff’s professionalism and ability to significantly affect the direction of their cases.

All of these experiences helped galvanize my commitment to bring evidence-based and best-practice approaches to our workforce. The SDM system provides state-of-the-art tools for safety and risk assessment, along with decision trees grounded in research. I believe that utilizing these tools helps workers better articulate the rationale for their actions and, in so doing, helps them reclaim and better assert their expertise as child welfare professionals.

I also know that evidence-based tools are most effective in the hands of skillful staff. Our staff come from varied backgrounds, and previously we lacked a practice model, instead relying on more of a policy-driven system. Consequently, by implementing the safety-organized practice (SOP) model, we are providing training and coaching in fundamental practice skills such as family engagement. These enhanced skills help workers elicit more comprehensive information from all family members.

This improved engagement, coupled with more comprehensive information, supports better plans, interventions, and, ultimately, outcomes.

This work is supported by the Department of Services to Children, Youth, and Their Families; the Jessie Ball duPont Fund; and the Longwood Foundation.