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


The majority of staff reported that they believe informal approaches are more effective in uncovering barriers than is the completion of a screening or assessment tool.

Tools play an important role, both within the TANF agency and as used by partners. However, the use of interviews as a way to administer questions from a tool highlights the fact that tools are merely one part of a larger assessment process. Informal efforts to identify unobserved barriers are discussed further below.

Informal efforts to identify barriers occur throughout the case management process. By case management we mean the multi-faceted, on-going process that takes place between staff and clients in order to determine needs, establish goals, identify and address barriers, and monitor compliance with program requirements. Each interaction with program staff presents an informal identification opportunity where clients can disclose barriers to employment and staff can elicit disclosure or observe behaviors/characteristics that are indicative of the existence of a barrier. Staff in all sites reported using informal identification approaches throughout an individual’s interaction with the TANF system. These efforts were employed to different degrees across different staff positions, but occurred regardless of the use of a more formal identification instrument or the level of skill or training of the individual staff person. Importantly, even highly specialized staff who possess advanced training related to barrier identification noted the importance of informal strategies.

Although not evaluated as a part of this study, the majority of staff reported that they believe informal approaches are more effective in uncovering barriers than is the completion of a screening or assessment tool. Several staff noted that these informal mechanisms are more successful because clients are more willing to offer personal information in the course of a conversation than if a worker asks about a situation for the purpose of completing a form. The majority of TANF staff interviewed were confident that they are able to initiate discussions and observe behaviors that lead to barrier identification through their one-on-one interactions with clients. This does not imply that TANF agency staff determine with specificity the conditions faced by clients. Rather, they believe that they are able to rely on informal identification strategies to indicate that the client could benefit from a referral for additional assessment or services by a specialist or partner agency.

TANF agency staff rely heavily on their past experiences working with clients and their interpersonal skills to elicit disclosure or recognize behaviors indicative of unobserved barriers to employment. Although TANF agency staff reported that they had received training on a wide variety of issues, including barriers to employment, in many cases they found it difficult to recall the details or content of the training. Some staff did note that training on a particular barrier (e.g., substance abuse, domestic violence) was offered and contributed to their overall understanding of the barrier, its  characteristics, and effects. This general training assisted in their use of informal strategies including eliciting disclosure and recognizing characteristics or statements made by clients as possible indicators of the existence of an unobserved barrier.

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