Children in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Child-Only Cases with Relative Caregivers. 4.4.2 Assessment of Child/Family Needs


Assessment, as used in this report, refers to a specific effort to identify the well-being and service needs of the child and family. Assessment might include using a tool to identify specific service needs, or could be a more general process of monitoring family dynamics and analyzing (or assessing) the need for support services. Assessment of child and family needs differs from intake and eligibility screening in that it is more definitive with a focus on identifying the well-being of the child and caregiver.

TANF System

Generally, a person's first interaction with the TANF program occurs at the point of application and eligibility determination. According to the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), states report collecting a great deal of assessment data (APHSA, 2000). All 50 states and the District of Columbia reported to the APHSA conducting client assessments in the following areas:

  • TANF eligibility,
  • Employment history,
  • Vocational skills and aptitudes,
  • Literacy levels and education,
  • Family strengths and supports,
  • Family needs and problems,
  • Child-care needs,
  • Transportation needs,
  • Substance abuse status,
  • Physical health/disabilities, and
  • Domestic violence.

However, these assessments focus on households that include a parent, with a primary interest on the adult and on identifying barriers to employment. With the work requirement removed from child-only relative caregiver cases, much of the "standard" assessment used by counties and states is no longer applicable.

None of the five states reported conducting any formal assessment of child-only relative caregiver cases at intake. Louisiana reported completing a Family Needs Assessment at the time of application for regular TANF cases, but stated that due to staff constraints and size of caseloads, it is not realistic to complete this assessment on child-only cases. The issue of staff time and caseload size is not uncommon. The report Screening and Assessment in TANF/Welfare-to-Work: Ten Important Questions TANF Agencies and Their Partners Should Consider (DHHS, 2001) concluded that a TANF staff's ability to screen and assess may be affected by the size of their individual caseloads. Although nationwide TANF caseloads have declined, these declines often mask high individual worker to caseload ratios.

"We are eligibility workers not social workers. Our focus is on economic eligibility."

Eligibility Worker, Maryland

This same report also notes that staff hired to perform eligibility functions are required to pay close attention to detail and understand the complex budgeting requirements needed to determine if a family is eligible for TANF. This skill set differs markedly from the skills required to conduct assessments of family dynamics and develop relationships with clients that foster trust and facilitate disclosure of family issues and service needs. Eligibility workers in several states confirmed this distinction. Financial workers in Washington State noted that "the eligibility assessment is primarily a black-and-white financial assessment." They stated that "this may seem cold; however, our primary focus is on financial need and eligibility." As a TANF eligibility worker in Maryland stated, "TANF staff are not trained social workers  they can only refer for services from an outdated resource list. A TANF financial worker in Washington stated that "the [TANF] maintenance worker has a minimal role in assessing the needs of the child."

Four of the five states visited conduct minimal assessments at the time of eligibility and during reassessment. Typically, case managers ensure that immunizations are up-to-date and confirm school attendance. The focus remains on the adult (e.g., caregiver) and the child is often not even present during the assessment. When the child is present, they may be hesitant to speak freely in front of their relative, particularly about issues related to parental unfitness or child maltreatment. As a social worker in Washington stated, "The problem with the assessment of these children is that the caregiver is with the child 90 percent of the time and there are topics that the child is not willing to discuss in front of their relative."

The State of Wisconsin is the exception to this pattern. Because child-only relative caregiver cases in some counties are managed from within the child welfare agency, initial and ongoing assessments of the child and family are conducted by a social worker. While this assessment is more in-depth than any assessment reported by other states, it is still not a formal well-being assessment of the child or the family.

Child Welfare System

Assessment is more intense when a child-only relative caregiver case is involved with the child welfare system. After CPS removes a child from their home, child welfare caseworkers conduct an in-depth assessment of the child's individual needs and family circumstances. CPS then uses this assessment to develop a permanency plan for the child. Additionally, many child welfare agencies have adopted the 2002 American Academy of Pediatric Guidelines, recommending initial and ongoing assessments to ensure that children's health and developmental needs are met.

"No one really knows what's going on with these kids unless there is a CPS worker involved."

Child Welfare Worker, Maryland

As a result, children linked to the child welfare system are receiving a much more thorough assessment of their service needs. A TANF worker in Oklahoma stated, "If CPS is involved, much more information is obtained. An evaluation of their well-being needs  educational, medical, emotional, and dental - is conducted and criminal background checks are run on the relative caregiver." A TANF eligibility worker in Washington agrees that "having the child placed through CPS does open up the door to many resources that the families where children were not placed through CPS do not have." A child welfare social worker in Washington points out that "our assessment is much different than one that would be done through TANF. We are the social service experts; therefore, needs are better addressed through our office." The kinship care coordinator in Wisconsin, who is housed within the child welfare system, also supports this notion. She stated that the "assessment process through CPS is continuous  first assessing that basic needs are met for food, shelter, and clothing and then making sure that emotional needs are met."

This level of involvement continues from the initial assessment through ongoing assessments with the child and relative caregiver. Typically, ongoing visits and assessments occur once a month on open cases. Social workers conduct home visits to make sure children are getting their immunizations and checkups, confirm that they are in school, and assess for support services. As a CPS social worker in Washington stated, "If CPS is involved, they are managing the social service needs of the family."

Although children in child welfare custody are more likely to be assessed, and those assessments are more likely to be conducted by trained social workers, this process may also fall short of recommended standards. The kinship care coordinator in Wisconsin noted that even in the child welfare system, "Basic needs and social service needs are assessed during ongoing assessments, but there is no formal assessment of well-being at this time."

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