Screening and Assessment in TANF\Welfare-to-Work: Ten Important Questions TANF Agencies and Their Partners Should Consider. What Role Can TANF Agency Staff Play?

03/01/2001

Observers are quick to note that, in many states, TANF caseworkers are former eligibility or income maintenance workers with little experience with case management and barrier identification. Staff hired to perform eligibility functions are required to have high levels of attention to detail and an understanding of the complex budgeting requirements required to determine if a family is eligible for TANF. This differs markedly from the skills required to conduct case management, including developing relationships with clients that foster trust and facilitate disclosure of barriers.

The challenges associated with former eligibility workers assuming new responsibilities for case management and employment planning are significant and common across states. For these staff, their focus has historically been determining accurate benefit amounts and in some cases processing sanctions for non-compliance. Assuming barrier identification and service planning responsibilities is a dramatic change.

As discussed in Question Four, because screening relies heavily on obtaining honest information from recipients, staff conducting screening must be able to establish rapport and a trusting relationship with the client, sufficient to allow for self-disclosure or honest responses to screening or assessment questions. If staff are primarily focused on accurate eligibility determination or sanction processing, they may have established a different (and in some cases punitive) relationship with clients that does not facilitate effective screening for barriers. Where this is the case, agency managers should consider whether or not screening for barriers is an appropriate responsibility for these staff and if so, what training or professional development opportunities should be offered.

To the extent TANF staff have experience performing needs assessments and service planning responsibilities (i.e., former JOBS case managers or staff hired with these skills), they might be well positioned to screen for unobserved barriers. Often these staff are already engaged in the case management process and have developed a relationship with recipients focused on meeting needs and service planning. In many states, such staff are responsible for collecting information about the recipient and her circumstances including barriers to employment. For these workers, the added responsibility of screening for unobserved barriers might be a natural fit.

The size of workers' caseloads may effect their ability to conduct screening and assessment.

TANF staff's ability to screen and assess for unobserved barriers may be affected by the size of their individual caseloads. Although nationwide TANF caseload declines have been dramatic, these declines often mask high individual worker:caseload ratios. The number of cases each individual worker is responsible for becomes increasingly important to consider when staff must assume new responsibilities (i.e., case management, service planning, and monitoring in addition to eligibility determination). If individual caseloads are high, it may not be possible for TANF staff, even with training, to provide the level of case management services or conduct the formal or informal assessment necessary to identify unobserved barriers to employment.

As noted in Question Six, Utah and Washington offer examples of ways TANF agencies can use their staff to conduct not only initial screening as part of employability planning, but also more in-depth assessment guided by that screening. However, despite smaller caseloads and a windfall in TANF funding, many states face hiring freezes that do not allow state government agencies to add staff with the skills necessary to identify the barriers faced by remaining TANF recipients. Still others must undertake complicated and time consuming union negotiations in order to implement changes to staff responsibilities. In this situation, states and localities may need to offer additional training or seek assistance from partner agencies.

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