The Role of Training and Technical Assistance in The Promotion of More Effective Services for Children

Douglas W. Nelson

Annie E. Casey Foundation

Over the past decade, critical reflection on the state of human services has given rise to a growing consensus on both what's wrong with the way services are provided to at-risk families and children and the essential elements of a system of practice that presumably would work much better. It has, for example, become common among reform-minded analysts to use the descriptions ''fragmented,'' "reactive," "categorical," "inaccessible," "arbitrary," and "unrelated to actual needs" as a means of explaining the failure of existing helping systems to have their hoped-for impact on outcomes for at-risk children and their parents. At the same time, confidence has grown dramatically in the ability of "preventive," "flexible," "family-centered," "collaborative," "intensive," and "individualized" services to make a real difference in the lives and prospects of those who benefit from them.

This widening agreement has emerged from two primary streams of analysis: first, logical critique of the mismatch between the typical characteristics of families in need and the characteristics of mainstream service system responses and, second, an empirical assessment of the attributes common to various programs and services that appear to work. Taken together, these two modes of evaluation have fostered a fairly distinct image of where children and family services ought to be going. The challenge that remains (and increasingly preoccupies the advocates of change) is the strategic challenge of how to get there.

Obviously central to this challenge is the issue of training. If routine provider-client interactions are really to become more voluntary, discretionary, collaborative, and family-centered, then future front-line workers will need both basic academic and in-service training that enables mastery of the core skills implicit in this "new" practice.



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Effective Services for Young Children: Report of a Workshop The Role of Training and Technical Assistance in The Promotion of More Effective Services for Children Douglas W. Nelson Annie E. Casey Foundation Over the past decade, critical reflection on the state of human services has given rise to a growing consensus on both what's wrong with the way services are provided to at-risk families and children and the essential elements of a system of practice that presumably would work much better. It has, for example, become common among reform-minded analysts to use the descriptions ''fragmented,'' "reactive," "categorical," "inaccessible," "arbitrary," and "unrelated to actual needs" as a means of explaining the failure of existing helping systems to have their hoped-for impact on outcomes for at-risk children and their parents. At the same time, confidence has grown dramatically in the ability of "preventive," "flexible," "family-centered," "collaborative," "intensive," and "individualized" services to make a real difference in the lives and prospects of those who benefit from them. This widening agreement has emerged from two primary streams of analysis: first, logical critique of the mismatch between the typical characteristics of families in need and the characteristics of mainstream service system responses and, second, an empirical assessment of the attributes common to various programs and services that appear to work. Taken together, these two modes of evaluation have fostered a fairly distinct image of where children and family services ought to be going. The challenge that remains (and increasingly preoccupies the advocates of change) is the strategic challenge of how to get there. Obviously central to this challenge is the issue of training. If routine provider-client interactions are really to become more voluntary, discretionary, collaborative, and family-centered, then future front-line workers will need both basic academic and in-service training that enables mastery of the core skills implicit in this "new" practice.

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Effective Services for Young Children: Report of a Workshop In practical terms, this need implies substantial change for both social work education and the kind of in-service training made available to public-and voluntary-sector workers. In each setting, much greater emphasis will have to be accorded to the family context in assessing and addressing problem issues; to communication and relational skills that encourage mutuality, trust, and equality between provider and client; and to the diagnostic and resources knowledge that can enable workers to assume broader individual responsibility for identifying and addressing the diverse and changing range of issues that actual families experience. These subject areas will need to become more central—not only in the curricula of social work schools and in formal orientations of new workers, but also in the ongoing supervisory and evaluation systems that serve as a de facto form of continuing training to front-line professionals. Even more crucial, perhaps, may be the need to create a decentralized and program-based network of training resources to support the dissemination of reformed practice skills. The whole thrust of the new practice perspective is to diminish a priori, standardized, authority-driven, input-focused interventions in favor of ad hoc, situational, collaborative, and outcome-oriented interactions with clients. The skills implied by these new practice characteristics almost by definition resist reduction to the generalizability appropriate to textbooks or to the codification typical of practice manuals. Instead, they lend themselves far more readily to being taught through case illustrations, through observation of actual practice by experienced workers, and through constructive criticism of student work in actual service settings. Given all this, I think a fairly strong case can be made for envisioning exemplary service settings and programs as the critical institutional foundations upon which we should plan and build a capacity to educate and train a newly oriented cadre of front-line child and family workers. In concrete terms, this would mean a commitment to identify and fund (within states and communities) specific programs or agencies to serve as learning centers for the training or retraining of professionals. At least some of the workers in such designated lab programs would be supported to serve as faculty to less experienced observer-students, interns, or residents preparing to take service jobs in other agencies and programs. Faculty from learning center programs could also travel to provide periodic in-service training to workers in their own program settings through case consultation, evaluative observation, or more formal training events. The suggestion is hardly novel. Indeed, the role that Homebuilders program staff have played in orienting line workers in new family preservation programs around the country serves as a visible example of the model. The point here, however, is that the model needs to be more consciously and planfully developed and embraced as a core strategic component of all local

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Effective Services for Young Children: Report of a Workshop and state efforts to expand genuinely family-centered responses to the needs of children. Furthermore, the model ought not be conceived simply as a marginal supplement to academic training or as a stopgap remedy to the deficiencies in current social work curricula. Rather, program-based training ought to be recognized as a primary and durable vehicle for conveying the values, knowledge, and skills essential to a new kind of service provision. Regardless of the merits of the specific notions advanced above, there can be little debate about the fundamental importance of worker training. Ultimately, the quality of any family service reform will be conditioned by the skills and values of those who provide help to children and their parents. Having granted this, however, there is also a strong need to put the issue of provider training in context. It is important to emphasize that, although inadequate worker training may contribute to fragmented, discontinuous, coercive, and partial service delivery systems, it did not cause these system defects; it does not explain them; nor would providing the best practice training possible remedy them. The fact is that the nature of most current worker-client interactions is a product, not of worker values or skills, but rather the fiscal, statutory, political, informational, and organizational environments in which child and family service systems operate and evolve. It is the categorical nature of funding streams and bureaucratic organization that really dictates that most interactions with multiproblem families will be partial, uncoordinated, or inaccessibly complex. It is the input-based information systems, process-based accountability systems, and divergent eligibility requirements that virtually guarantee that the best-intended efforts to serve families will simply not be flexible enough, family-centered enough, intense enough, timely enough, or tailored enough to achieve their intended objectives. In sum, it is probably fair to conclude, as Lisbeth Schorr has written, "that all the major attributes of effective services are fundamentally at odds with the dominant ways that most large institutions and systems are funded and the way they . . . ensure accountability, quality, and equity." This straightforward assessment actually points up the most critical training and technical assistance challenge confronting the effort to expand and institutionalize effective services for children. Put simply, it is the need for a level of fiscal, organizational, political, and management expertise sufficient to enable proponents of more effective services to create institutional and policy environments in which those very services can survive and expand. The regrettable reality is that most state and local managers of child and family services have precious little of this kind of expertise. On the whole, they lack familiarity with the origin, interplay, and intricacies of the funding streams that powerfully influence the amount and kind of services available. By and large, they are unprepared to design and develop out-

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Effective Services for Young Children: Report of a Workshop come measures and accountability systems that would foster more tailored goal setting and greater worker discretion at the point of delivery. Finally, it must also be observed that most current child services policy makers are relatively untrained in the arts of public education and political organization—arts that are critical to creating a more appropriate set of public expectations for services to at-risk children. The question that all this obviously raises is how do we bring these crucial skills, abilities, and interests more fully into the movement for better services to children and families. A short-run answer probably lies in increasing the cadre of national consultants who are able to provide fiscal, organizational, legal, and automation (management information systems) assistance in support of state and local efforts to expand service initiatives that work. The Clark Foundation-supported technical assistance forum illustrates one attempt to cultivate and coordinate this kind of capacity on a national level. A strong case, however, can be made that a far larger and more generalized national technical capacity is already urgently needed. In the long run, though, the paramount goal has to be creating greater fiscal, organizational, and political management capacity at the state and the community levels. Real knowledge and experience in how to impact the larger environments in which services are delivered has to become a more prominent part of the skills repertoire of child advocates, child service administrators, and even front-line practitioners. Given this, it probably makes sense to specify building local capacity as a more explicit objective of any existing or future national technical assistance strategy in these areas. Perhaps even more important, some consideration ought to be given to revising the conventional conceptions of the qualifications and credentials that are most relevant in the recruitment of administrative and policy-level staff within child serving organizations. In some instances, experience in the manipulation of state-local funding ratios may contribute to building intensive, community-based services to youth far more than the most thorough knowledge of the stages of adolescent development. In the end, this whole argument has implications for basic education and training in social work and social policy. At the very least, it suggests that we need to be more aggressive in emphasizing how economic, political, and organizational contexts powerfully determine the social work that is actually practiced and the social policy that is actually implemented. That knowledge, by itself, would go a long way to more fully empowering future professionals to more fully empower the families they will serve.