Screening and Assessment in TANF\Welfare-to-Work: Ten Important Questions TANF Agencies and Their Partners Should Consider. Approaches to SCREENING/ASSESSMENT - How, When, and by Whom? (questions 4-7)


Approaches to screening and assessment are largely defined by how the case management process contributes to identification of barriers, the use of screening or assessment instruments, the timing of identification efforts, and the staffing arrangements used to carry out screening and assessment. Questions Four through Seven address these approaches.

How can the case management process aid in identifying unobserved barriers to employment?

Case management is an ongoing, multi-faceted process of staff interacting with clients, determining needs, establishing goals, addressing barriers, and monitoring compliance with program requirements. Within the case management context, staff may rely on self-disclosure of a barrier or the observation of behaviors that might be indicative of barriers (“red flags”) –for example, bruises or a client who smells of alcohol – as methods of identifying barriers to employment. Although inexpensive to implement, and likely already occurring at some level in most TANF agencies, these approaches may be imperfect if they are the only identification strategies undertaken.

The effectiveness of self-disclosure and behavioral indicators as methods of identifying barriers depends heavily on staff's abilities to make clients comfortable disclosing or eliciting disclosure, as well as staff's understandings of different barriers and the behaviors that are indicative of those barriers. In some locations, these less formal methods of identifying barriers are combined with the administration of screening or assessment tools. However, little is known among the TANF community about the tools that are available and their appropriateness for this population.

Are there tools that can be used to identify barriers to employment?

There are several state- and professionally-developed tools being used by TANF agencies (or recommended for use) to identify substance abuse and mental health problems, learning disabilities and domestic violence situations. Tools vary widely with some screening for multiple barriers while also collecting general background information, and others screening for a single barrier. Tools also vary considerably in length, complexity, and cost.

Experts caution that TANF agencies should be careful when selecting or developing tools to ensure that the instrument is methodologically sound. For example, there are a number of tools that have been developed to screen for substance abuse problems, but we were unable to identify such a tool that was designed specifically for use with TANF clients. In contrast, there are two learning disability screening tools that were designed specifically for use with TANF recipients.

When selecting or developing tools, TANF agencies may consider seeking guidance from partner agencies or community-based organizations with experience identifying or addressing a particular barrier. When selecting tools, TANF agencies must not only consider methodological aspects of the instrument but also the cost of the tool and the staff skills necessary to implement the tool and utilize information obtained.

When should screening or assessment occur?

TANF agency administrators interviewed generally considered efforts to identify barriers to employment to be an on-going, dynamic process, noting that there is no singular point in the TANF process when they believe screening or assessment should be carried out. Although the TANF client flow offers a number of opportunities to screen or assess for barriers, staff with whom we spoke noted that they utilize many of these opportunities to further their efforts to identify barriers. For example, TANF program orientations may offer an early opportunity to screen a client for barriers to employment. However, this early screening is often used to determine if a client is eligible for an exemption from participation requirements. The employability planning process offers additional opportunities to uncover barriers and is a common point where formal screening or assessment tools are utilized. As clients participate in work and self-sufficiency activities, re-planning sessions offer further chances to explore the reasons a client has not successfully made the transition from welfare to work.

In some locations, clients are referred to partner agencies for additional services. In some cases, the service received is additional assessment by a subject matter expert or trained clinician. In other situations, clients are referred for work-related services but may receive additional assessment as a part of this process. Finally, some TANF agencies use opportunities presented by non-compliance or lack of success in activities to conduct further assessment. Each of these points in the client flow offer opportunities to further explore barriers to employment. However, there is little information indicating if screening or assessing at any particular point in time yields more accurate information.

Although time limits and work participation requirements provide incentives to conduct screening or assessment early in a client’s experience, TANF agencies repeatedly note that they are only concerned with a barrier in so far as it prohibits the client from obtaining or retaining employment. Therefore, even screening or assessment efforts that are conducted “up front” are conducted within the context of determining services to assist the client with her quest for employment, not based in the belief that the existence of such a challenge necessarily presents a barrier to employment. In some states with a strict “work first” approach, there is little formal screening or assessment conducted early on and, instead, the labor market is used as the up-front screen to determine job readiness or the existence of a barrier to work.

Who should conduct screening and assessment?

TANF agency officials and subject matter experts generally agree that the most appropriate role for TANF agency staff is to screen clients for barriers to employment and facilitate referrals to organizations with expertise diagnosing and addressing barriers. This belief is based in the fact that many TANF caseworkers are former eligibility or income maintenance workers with little experience with case management and barrier identification. To the extent that this is the case, states may need to consider training existing staff on barriers, screening, or assessment, hiring new staff to conduct screening/ assessment, or creating partnerships with other agencies to assist with screening or assessment efforts.

TANF agencies generally have many partners in the service delivery process. However, for the purpose of identifying and addressing unobserved barriers to employment, TANF agencies may need to develop new relationships or change the nature of existing partnerships. Although resources in communities will obviously vary, other government agencies and communitybased organizations may possess valuable experience identifying and addressing barriers to employment and therefore may be potential partners. Partnerships for the purpose of identifying and addressing barriers to employment faced by TANF clients bring with them many challenges, including understanding respective program philosophies and requirements. For example, partner agencies may not understand the work incentives and work participation rates that exist in PRWORA. In some cases, TANF agencies and their partners may need to consider adaptations in their policies or strategies order to accommodate TANF program requirements such as adapting services to meet shorter time frames or focus more heavily on work-related activities.

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