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DHS News July 2012

Family Team Conferencing

Since its formation more than 15 years ago, the Allegheny Department of Human Services (DHS) has worked to develop an integrated model of human service delivery. While DHS has been successful in integrating administrative, communications, fiscal and data functions, integration of services for people and families with multiple needs has been more elusive. DHS, working internally and with its partners, has steadily improved coordination among services and systems, but has not yet achieved the systemic integration that would simplify, streamline and improve services. Given the variety of services under the DHS “umbrella,” this is no easy task.

“When we talk about integration here at DHS, it’s important to remember that the goal is always to make sure that we’re not changing for the sake of change, but for the sake of improving the quality, accessibility and responsiveness of our system,” says Pat Valentine, executive deputy director for Integrated Program Services at DHS. “Whether it’s developing a new practice model, thinking differently about our own administrative structure, changing the way we manage cases, or looking for the highest-quality interventions and treatments, we are always guided by what’s best for the people we serve.”

It is those individuals and families – DHS serves more than 205,000 people across the county every year, many in multiple programs – who will be put at the center of a new case management practice being implemented at DHS, called Family Team Conferencing.

Family Team Conferencing, or FTC, evolved in the early 1990’s after a class action settlement in Alabama required child welfare agencies to actively involve families and children in the decision-making process. National experts used best practices from child welfare, children’s mental health, developmental disability practice and special education to create the family team conferencing approach which follows several key principles:

  • Extended family members and friends often identify solutions that no formal system would be able to generate. They are also able to provide long term support, love and caring in a way that no formal system can.
  • Team meetings are focused on needs rather than the symptoms. Underlying needs must be addressed to keep symptoms from reappearing.
  • Everyone has the ability to change, especially when guided in a caring way.
  • Every individual and every family has strengths.
  • Individuals and families are more invested in a plan, and that plan is more likely to succeed, when the family plays a role in the decision-making process.

DHS already has several initiatives under way aimed at better engaging families and natural supports in a team-based approach to the planning and coordination of services. The Family Group Decision Making (FGDM) process is used for assuring family leadership in critical decisions for families involved with child welfare, the High-Fidelity Wraparound (HFW) model is used in behavioral health, and the Inua Ubuntu model focuses on reducing the number of African-American male children requiring out of home placement.

According to Dr. Walter Howard Smith, Jr., integrated programs initiative manager for DHS, the goal of FTC isn’t to replace these existing family engagement models.

“What we’ve learned from other family engagement strategies is that we can plan and coordinate services in line with a family’s needs, strengths and goals, which in turn means we’re doing business more in line with our own values – promoting self-reliance, cultural competency, family unity,” says Smith. “Our goal in bringing Family Team Conferencing to Allegheny County is to complement what’s already happening around family engagement and teaming, and to do it in a way that drives the integration of services at the family level,” says Smith.

On April 30, DHS held an overview session on FTC to introduce staff members and providers to the approach. Attendees interested in learning more about the approach and becoming family team conferencing facilitators attended a more in-depth, three-day training from May 1 through 3. Both trainings were conducted by Cornelius Bird and Lu Missildine of Alabama’s Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group (CWPPG) and underwritten by Casey Family Programs, a national foundation focused on improving child welfare.

In July, CWPPG was back in Allegheny County for additional trainings, and county staff members have begun a wider adoption of FTC. Staff trained as FTC facilitators can eventually become coaches who carry out training of new facilitators, and coaches can eventually become head coaches who provide additional support and guidance to the coaches.

“The training process has two advantages – first, it becomes self-sustaining, and second, it involves actually doing the work with families,” says Smith. “We can train in a classroom setting all day, but this doesn’t become real until you’ve actually sat with a family on their front porch and worked as a group to find a way forward.”

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