Screening and Assessment in TANF\Welfare-to-Work: Local Answers to Difficult Questions. Advantages and Disadvantages


Both formal and informal identification strategies carry advantages and disadvantages. Because many involved in identifying unobserved barriers are in search of a tool to assist in this process, there has been relatively little discussion of informal strategies. However, the discussion below of the advantages and disadvantages of both strategies, as well as descriptions of the study sites’ approaches, illustrate that perhaps the most comprehensive approach to uncov- ering unobserved barriers involves the integration of both strategies.

The use of formal screening or assessment tools or instruments has the advantage of providing staff with a structured approach that may provide greater consistency regarding who is screened and what information is collected. Formal tools are often forms that collect information that can be used by TANF agencies and their partners to determine the prevalence of different barriers. If the data are collected and analyzed it can then be used to more accurately determine the level and scope of service responses that are warranted.

To the extent that tools used have been methodologically tested, the use of such instruments may provide some greater assurance that the barriers will be identified. However, as noted above, few such tools exist, and regardless of methodological rigor, even the best tools rely on some level of disclosure from clients. Most of the tools used by the study sites are not validated and many provide merely a place to record information collected through a conversation or interview.

Many indicated that regardless of the instrument used, if it is not implemented within a context of safety and trust, it will fail to uncover the desired information.

Many state or locally-developed instruments used by the study sites require relatively little skill or formal training to utilize and interpret. By posing specific questions regarding the existence of unobserved barriers to employment, these tools provide a straightforward way for staff who are not comfortable with personal or sensitive topics to explore these issues with clients. However, when utilized by staff who are not comfortable with the topic, the use of a more structured and straightforward approach may detract from the staff person’s ability to establish a trusting relationship or good rapport with the client. Many staff interviewed indicated that regardless of the instrument used, if it is not implemented within a context of safety and trust, it will fail to uncover the desired information. Further, tools or instruments not completed in a personal, sensitive manner could be perceived as just another form that must be completed in order for the client to obtain benefits. Where this is the case, such tools are less likely to capture the true nature of the client’s unobserved barriers.

If staff are only looking for information on which to base a referral for more in-depth or formalized assessment, investing in validated tools or creating validated tools for the purpose may not be necessary. Informal strategies may be equally or more effective in achieving this goal.

The on-going process of staff interacting with clients throughout their TANF experience lends itself to the use of informal identification strategies. Therefore, it is not surprising that all staff rely on informal identification strategies, including disclosure, efforts to elicit disclosure, and behavioral observations, as integral parts of their overall barrier identification process. In many ways, what is described here as an identification strategy are techniques that would be expected to be employed by experienced case managers. Informal strategies offer an inexpensive, more personal approach to exploring clients’ needs that require little formal training and build on a worker’s past experience. Use of informal strategies allow staff to develop the trusting relationship and positive rapport reported as essential to identifying unobserved barriers to employment. Additionally, the on-going use of informal approaches offers multiple opportunities to uncover barriers (as opposed to the one time implementation of a tool) thus decreasing the likelihood that a client would be sanctioned or have her benefits terminated without several efforts to uncover barriers and several opportunities for clients to disclose barriers or pursue additional assessment.

Informal strategies, particularly to the extent they are not employed by specialized staff  or used in conjunction with other strategies, present a number of pitfalls.

However, informal strategies, particularly to the extent they are not employed by specialized staff or used in conjunction with other strategies, present a number of pitfalls. First, the unstructured nature of informal identification offers a wealth of opportunity for staff to apply biases or stereotypes when interpreting clients’ comments or behaviors. To the extent staff have not been trained regarding the characteristics of individuals likely to have different barriers, they may make incorrect referrals for additional assessment or services or fail to make referrals when appropriate.

Staff also have varying experiences and levels of formal training on which to base their efforts to elicit disclosure and understand of clients’ responses. Staff who are uncomfortable discussing personal or sensitive issues are less likely to employ informal identification techniques or establish the level of comfort or trust necessary for this technique to be effective. The use of behavioral observations also requires that staff know the client well enough, or interact frequently enough, that they can accurately interpret what are perceived as changes in behavior.

The study sites have attempted to maximize the advantages of both formal and informal approaches by using them in combination with one another and expecting no one effort to uncover all barriers to employment. As will be illustrated in the next chapter, the on-going nature of barrier identification provides multiple opportunities for TANF agency staff and partners to identify unobserved barriers to employment using both formal and informalstrategies.

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