Screening and Assessment in TANF\Welfare-to-Work: Local Answers to Difficult Questions. Integrated Resources for Independence and Self-sufficiency(iris)


The IRIS Program in Minneapolis, MN is a WtW and MFIP funded program designed to assist welfare clients with chemical or mental health problems that inhibit employment and self-sufficiency. IRIS uses a team approach to barrier identification, and offers social supports, individual and group therapy, and vocational services. IRIS services are built on the experience of the Hennepin County Children, Families, and Adult Services Department, Vocational Services Program, serving severely and persistently mentally ill (SPMI) adults. It is this experience which shapes the vocational services offered by IRIS. However, IRIS staff learned early-on that MFIP clients also face a variety of social needs and therefore, vocational services are supplemented by social stabilization services and substance abuse or mental health therapy. IRIS’s program follows five stages intended to lead to competitive employment, described below.

Stage 1 involves comprehensive assessments, therapy, and family stabilization provided by the IRIS staff team. Every IRIS client is required to go through this stage of the program. As the name implies, family stabilization involves ensuring that the client’s basic needs are met. This includes food, shelter, child care and clothing, as well as domestic violence and substance abuse services. The IRIS social worker will do whatever is necessary to meet the client’s needs, including accompanying the client to a homeless shelter or food bank. Clients also must attend a women’s support group and a life skills group. The life skills group involves weekly meetings that cover topics such as budgeting, the importance of work, and appropriate work attire.

Stage 2 involves participation in Steps to Success. Steps to Success involves 15 hours per week of psycho-social programming that consists of classes that attempt to psychologically prepare clients for work, as well as offers very basic training in keyboarding. Classes include employer site visits and classes on selfesteem, the reality of working, grooming, coping with anxiety, parenting concerns, nutrition, and budgeting. Clients generally participate in this stage until employment is obtained. Stage 3 offers an on-site vocational assessment as an evaluation tool for clients with limited work experience, chemical, or mental health problems. In Stage 3, clients also take part in job readiness classes including assistance in preparing resumes and refining interviewing skills, additional computer training, and other vocational training offered through TANF training programs (such as those preparing clients for jobs as nursing assistants, telephone operators, carpenters, or auto mechanics).

Clients who progress to Stage 4 (meaning their mental and chemical health challenges are becoming more stable, clients are taking their prescribed psychiatric medications, or have completed a drug treatment program) work intensively with a vocational counselor in locating job leads, preparing specific resumes, attending job fairs, and attending interviews. The goal for all clients is unsubsidized employment. However, some clients are assisted in locating positions within the community that may offer additional supports such as job coaching or a subsidized internship to provide on-the-job experience. The vocational counselor and client work together closely to find a job that meets the clients needs and interests. Once employed, all IRIS clients are provided job retention services. The level of job coaching or other job retention services is tailored to the individual client’s needs. Typically, the vocational counselor meets daily with the client during the first two weeks of employment, if the client and employer are amenable to this arrangement. Visits with the client away from the
worksite are also common.

Although there is a natural progression to the IRIS Program as indicated by the stages described above, client participation in IRIS services are highly individualized and depend on client needs, choices, and priorities. Each client progresses toward unsubsidized employment differently, but all clients receive a diagnostic assessment and some vocational services. Consistent with this individualized approach, clients spend varying lengths of time in the IRIS Program.

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