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


In addition to efforts to elicit disclosure of unobserved barriers by clients, staff universally reported relying on behavioral observations—commonly described as “red flags” or “clues”—to assist in the barrier identification process. For the majority of staff interviewed, these efforts were undertaken informally and were based heavily on past experience. Some staff indicated that they attended training sessions on topics such as substance abuse or domestic violence that included discussion of behaviors staff might observe that may indicate a client has an unobserved barrier to employment. None of the study sites systematized the documentation of behavioral observations, for example through the use of a behavioral observation checklist that are used in some other states.22

Common examples of behaviors said to be indicative of barriers to employment include clients:

being jumpy, fidgety, or nervous;

slurring speech or smelling of alcohol;

having glazed eyes or dilated pupils;

avoiding eye contact; and/or

overreacting to questions.

Despite the common reliance on the observation of behaviors described above, staff noted that clients are generally very good at hiding these clues from the welfare system. As such, staff reported that they sometimes rely on more general behavioral clues to indicate that the client may have an unobserved barrier to employment. For example, staff indicated that changes in behavior or offering inconsistent answers to questions are more general indicators of the possible presence of a barrier to employment. However, such behaviors offer little indication as to specific nature of the barrier.

For many TANF staff, the mere suspicion that the client is grappling with issues beyond the need for standard supportive services (e.g., transportation or child care) or motivation to work, is often enough to warrant a referral to more specialized staff who can begin to discern the exact nature of the client’s disability, health condition, or barrier to employment. For example, a case manager in Owensboro, KY offered the example of a client who was initially very enthusiastic about participation in job readiness training and the possibility of obtaining employment. The client reportedly initially participated in required activities but then unexpectedly changed her attitude and abruptly stopped participating. This change in behavior was an indicator to the case manager that the client was likely to have an unobserved barrier such as a substance abuse problem or domestic violence situation and the client was referred to the TAP assessor for additional assessment.

22  For example, see discussion of North Carolina’s use of behavioral observation checklists in National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University (in partnership with the American Public Human Services Association). Building Bridges: States Respond to Substance Abuse and Welfare Reform. New York, New York: CASA, August 1999.

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