February 22, 2010

Program aims to minimize kids’ time in foster care

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- They call it the “Integrated Assessment Program,” but it boils down to figuring out how to begin to treat wounded families.

“Think of it like triage,” said Shari A. Selander, director of Child Welfare Programs for Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s School of Social Work.

“Once you know what someone needs, you can provide the best services possible for each individual case.”

Selander has overseen the assessment program, funded by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, in the state’s central and southern regions since its start-up in 2004. Simply put, she said, integrated assessment focuses on quickly gathering a broad range of information about children newly placed in foster care and the adults in their lives. That information helps build a service plan that aims to support what is good, mend what is broken and put the family back together again.

“If everyone receives what they need right from the start -- within the first 45 days of coming into the system -- children won’t have to spend any more time than is necessary in foster care,” Selander said.

“That also lessens the trauma that can result when a child is taken away from the family.”

SIUC trains screeners -- licensed clinical social workers or psychologists -- who serve 84 counties. (Northern Illinois University and the Chicago-based Erikson Institute and La Rabida Children’s Hospital handle service to the state’s remaining 18 counties.)

Along with DCFS caseworkers, screeners collect detailed information on the medical, emotional, educational, behavioral and developmental circumstances in each case. They also interview children and parents, step-parents, live-in partners or guardians to get a clear picture of how the family functions. In addition, they talk with foster parents or other assigned caregivers to get their perspectives. They strive to do it all in 45 days or less.

“You can’t wait until the service plan is in place and then decide what is needed -- you have to have the assessment up front,” Selander said. “That’s what makes this program unique.”

Getting these extensive assessments done on time has proved troublesome for many of the state’s screeners. A 2009 report by Chapin Hall, a policy research center at the University of Chicago charged with evaluating the program, noted the statewide rate of on-time completion in 2008 came in at just over 50 percent. That doesn’t hold true for downstate assessments.

“We provide a lot of support and training so that our people can complete them within the timeline,” Selander said.

“Since the program began, it has done 13,402 assessments statewide with SIUC completing 6,909 of those. We now have a 90 percent on-time record.”

The Chapin Hall report also noted that overall, assessment recommendations did not always end up in the service plans. Selander said downstate case workers tend to follow the recommendations of SIUC-trained screeners when writing their client service plans, but at times in rural areas it is harder to meet treatment needs than it is in larger cities and towns, which have more options.

“Part of what we do in such circumstances is look at what is available in the community and search for viable alternatives if what is needed isn’t there,” she said.

To ensure follow-through, Selander’s research team is reviewing a sampling of cases to see if children and their families actually receive the services detailed in the plan prepared for them.

“From the beginning, one of the goals of this program has been to identify service needs in different areas,” she said. “This project will help with that.”

As part of their 2009 program evaluation, Chapin Hall researchers interviewed caseworkers about their partnership with the screeners.

“Some caseworkers noted that they picked up valuable strategies or insights from having collaborated with and observed screeners, suggesting that this collaborative assessment process may have potential as a model for caseworker training or professional development,” they wrote.

Selander said she’s been told that federal officials are taking a close look at the program with an eye toward its potential as a model of comprehensive assessment for all states, and she points to a DCFS review by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services completed last summer that listed the program as a strength.

But to her, one of the program’s most important values is the help it provides to improve the quality of life for individual children and their families.

“School-age children brought into the foster-care system often lose not just their families, but their schools, their friends, their neighborhoods and their churches,” Selander said.

“An assessment done as early and as quickly as possible helps meet immediate and long-term needs with the least disruption possible. It can keep them from bouncing around from foster home to foster home, keep them in school, give them a shot at the graduation that will help them as adults. It’s like giving someone a second chance in life to find happiness and achieve success.”