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Social Worker Heartbeat

Sept. 2000

by Richard Bermack

What would it be like if social workers had the time to apply a more holistic approach to social work? What are some of the current programs that apply contemporary knowledge about what it takes to create a healthy family? For this issue of the Dragon we spoke to children's social workers in San Diego, where the Department of Health and Human Services is experimenting with several pilot projects.

The basic concept behind the projects is to look at social work more from a community standpoint than from an individualistic approach. The social worker is part of a team that includes other social workers and professionals such as probation officers and psychologists on one hand, and members of the community, including ministers, neighbors, teachers, and extended family members, on the other.

Family Unity Meetings-Community Collaborative Approach

Brian Polejes, an intake investigator, is a strong supporter of the concept behind family unity meetings. "We bring together the extended family and friends to problem solve and figure out what the family needs to keep the children safe with the family," he explains. "Rather than governmental outsiders dictating to the family what they need, the family comes up with a plan." By functioning as a facilitator, the social worker from the Family Unity unit mobilizes and empowers the family and the community. Through the process the participants become more invested in helping the family. "A lot of times the extended family agrees to help out in ways they never would have before," Polejes reports. "You can get friends and extended family agreeing to help out with baby sitting or helping out financially. I went to one meeting where the extended family actually agreed to take in children right there at the meeting. This mother was a chronic crack user for many years, and there was no way she could take care of the children. Her parents were aging, and they couldn't take care of the children. They literally needed extended family members to agree to take care of their kids, and they did. Extended family members can be hard to engage, but having everyone in the room at the same time makes a difference."

Many well-intentioned parents find themselves unable to cope with raising their children. The situation may not yet have reached a critical state where there is a danger to the children, but the parents need and want help. However, unless children's protective services begins legal action to possibly remove the child from the home, the help social workers can offer is limited. Unfortunately, the system makes it hardest to help these families who, in many cases, could benefit most from services. Many counties have programs for parents who aren't under court reunification programs, but workers have so many cases involving families in the system, for whom they are mandated by the court to provide services, that they don't have the time for parents in voluntary programs.

The collaborative approach is particularly useful in these cases. "My job is triage," Polejes explains. "A lot of the hotline calls are evaluated out, and we choose not to investigate. In this situation community collaboratives are very useful for correcting the problem and getting the family help before there is a substantiated case of neglect or abuse."

But setting up the family unity meeting is very time consuming. Once an emergency response worker convinces the family to participate and explains the process, the worker must prepare a list of all the family members, extended family members, and the others to be involved, including their phone numbers. The list is then given to a co-worker, who must contact all the members on the list and find a mutually acceptable meeting place in the community.

The family then meets for two to four hours, with the social worker facilitating a conversation about the strengths and weakness of the family and how they can use those strengths to address the concerns. The social worker leaves the room, and the family comes up with a plan. When the worker returns, the family members state what each is willing to contribute to the benefit of the children and the family.

Heartbeat Wraparound

Heartbeat Wraparound, also known as System of Care in some counties, is similar to the family unity meetings, but instead of a one-time meeting with family and community members, the family has an on-going support team that might include neighbors, aunts, uncles, and ministers, as well as social workers, juvenile probation workers, school counselors, and mental health workers.

According to social worker Susan Wingfield-Ritter, "The goal is to empower the family and non-professionals to create a mission statement, with the long-term goal of getting the child and family out of the system by meeting the goals of the family reunification or delinquency court plan."

"This is an optimal way to work," Wingfield-Ritter comments. "There is a lot of support for this approach among community organizations. But guess what, it creates more work for the social worker. And most workers just don't have the time. To do the program, they have to facilitate a meeting every month and visit with other family members. Then they have to take calls during the week from the aunts, the uncles, the neighbor, even the family's minister. It takes hours. I'm working with 21 families, and of those 21 families, three are Heartbeat Wraparound families. It can be a real time sink. We can only reach a very few families."