As TANF agencies and their partners increasingly focus on efforts to identify unobserved barriers to employment, they must consider the roles different staff should play in the barrier identification process. In doing this, they must decide how to best utilize TANF agency staff and staff of partner agencies in this endeavor. In all of the study sites, TANF case managers play an integral role in initial barrier identification efforts, in many cases creating a new role for these staff. However, case managers’ abilities to fulfill barrier identification responsibilities are affected by their other responsibilities, their skills and training, and the size of their caseloads.
The study sites rely on specialized staff to assist in the identification of unobserved barriers to employment to varying degrees. Although TANF case managers bear the primary responsibility for initially detecting the possibility of an unobserved barrier, more specialized workers are responsible for additional assessment or diagnosis. Specialized staff may be social workers employed by the TANF agency or clinicians employed by partner agencies who are co-located in the TANF office. Additionally, in all sites, clients may be referred to partner agencies where specialized staff who have more formal training relating to an unobserved barrier, or experience working with individuals with a particular barrier, are involved in the barrier identification and/or diagnosis process.
Focus groups conducted with TANF clients in each study site indicate that clients give careful consideration to decisions regarding to whom to disclose their barriers, and were generally more comfortable disclosing to specialized workers than staff with responsibility for benefit eligibility determination. Clients are particularly concerned with the possible repercussions of disclosure—including affects to benefits and possible removal of children from the home. Other factors that affect decisions to disclose are the existence of a trusting relationship, understanding the help that is available, and the client’s willingness to accept help.
The coordination and sharing of information among the variety of staff and partners involved in identifying and addressing unobserved barriers to employment is a complicated challenge and requires a significant investment in communication and collaboration at multiple levels. The study sites employed two methods of sharing information among staff—case staffings and a team approach. Generally, staffings are intended to offer the opportunity for a variety of staff to pool information regarding barriers, discuss clients’ situations, and determine appropriate next steps for a client. In sites utilizing team approaches, information is shared on an on-going basis and supported by an understanding of joint responsibility for a case by all members of often interdisciplinary teams.
Sharing information among the variety of staff involved in barrier identification requires that all involved give special attention to issues of confidentiality. A number of different federal and state laws, as well as regulations, guide the protection of privacy, the confidentiality of records, and informed consent. When asked, staff in all of the study sites appeared familiar with their offices’ guidelines regarding confidentiality and information sharing. In some cases, staff of partner agencies appeared more familiar than TANF agency staff with the details of these provisions and the need to obtain informed consent from clients before sharing information with the TANF agency. The experiences of the study sites offers hope that, despite the complexity surrounding issues of privacy and confidentiality, these challenges are not insurmountable and should not prohibit the implementation of proactive strategies to identify and address unobserved barriers to employment.