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Social Services Innovations: The Case for a Collaborative Approach to Social Work
By Gary Pettengell
Social Work Today
Vol. 22 No. 4 P. 28

Our social support infrastructure is being strained in every direction.

Most prominently, the long-tail impact of consecutive pandemic years is taking a toll on individuals, families, and communities, creating cascading consequences that span socio-economic boundaries, racial demographics, and age groups.

For example, according to the Institute of Education Sciences, more than 80% of schools have observed “stunted behavior and socio-emotional development in their students because of the COVID-19 pandemic.” This has contributed to everything from increased “acts of disrespect toward teachers and staff’’ to diminished educational outcomes and staff retention.

Collectively, more than 70% of schools report that student behavior, socio-emotional development, and staffing challenges worsened in the past year. Interestingly, adults are struggling with their day-to-day responsibilities as well. One employee survey found that 83% of respondents felt emotionally drained from work, and 71% strongly agreed that the workplace affects their mental health.

At the same time, a confluence of other difficulties requires the social support sector’s time, attention, and resources. The CDC reports that, tragically, more than 100,000 people are dying annually in the United States from drug overdoses, many attributed to rising rates of synthetic opioids.

In addition, the country’s homeless population has grown each year for half a decade, a problem exacerbated by rapidly rising rents and pandemic-related eviction moratoriums expiring.

Notably, these and other social challenges are often interconnected, making it more important that a response brings together financial, personnel, and infrastructure resources to optimize impact.

None of these challenges negates the fact that there are expansive cohorts of support agencies, social work professionals, and inspiring volunteers doing excellent work, bringing together critical resources that strengthen individuals, families, and communities. However, they can’t do it alone. Instead, there needs to be a collaborative approach to social work that connects professionals, agencies, and resources across communities, helping people thrive in any circumstance.

Why Collaboration Is Critical
As social workers, aid organizations, government agencies, and communities work to support people with their various needs, collaboration is critical to meet the moment, especially in an environment where high turnover, staffing shortages, and interconnected challenges demand a comprehensive response.

In some states, social work shortages are significantly impacting care capacity. Most alarmingly, in West Virginia, Child Protective Services vacancies are at a crisis level, putting people and communities at risk.

Simply put, working together is the most effective and affordable path forward for several reasons.

Most importantly, asking for help is extremely difficult for most people. Whether they are unsure of how to seek support or are worried about looking weak, needy, or incompetent, studies and analysis consistently prove that support services can’t just wait for people to reach out.

As Garret Keizer, author of Help: The Original Human Dilemma, explains, “There is a tendency to act as if it’s a deficiency. There is an understandable fear that if you let your guard down, you’ll get hurt, or that this information you don’t know how to do will be used against you.”

One survey discovered that the stigma can be so strong that nearly three-quarters of Americans will not seek support until “they absolutely need it.”

As a result, most people won’t reach out for help until it’s too late, compounding their challenges and making positive results more difficult to achieve. If care networks wait for people to show up for help, they will miss opportunities for early intervention that support people and lower overall personnel and financial costs.

Meanwhile, many problems are interconnected. Students acting out in school might be grappling with untreated mental health challenges, or chronically unemployed adults might be struggling with substance abuse.

For instance, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that more than 30% of people suffering from housing insecurity also demonstrate substance abuse or mental health problems. When social workers, aid organizations, government agencies, and communities are more closely connected, they can best solve separate but interconnected problems.

When someone’s entire support network is aligned, they are more likely to achieve positive results. According to a Rutgers University study examining the impact of interconnected support services, “More than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, this collaboration has helped improve child well-being, financial stability, and the relationship between children and their caregivers.”

With so much on the line, it’s clear that collaboration is the right way to help people and communities thrive. However, embracing the principle and putting it into practice is not the same.

How to Enable Collaboration
Increasing or enabling collaboration can be challenging, especially for social workers, aid organizations, and government agencies accustomed to embracing a limited mission and siloed approach that produces predictable outcomes.

Fortunately, in today’s digitally integrated world, making the connection is easier than ever.

First, social workers, aid organizations, and government agencies should adopt a one-front-door intake process that lets people tell their story or express their needs once while gaining access to multiple support systems.

A one-front-door intake process acknowledges people’s bravery and vulnerability by ensuring their outreach is met with resources that make a difference. For example, a school system embracing this method can accommodate a student acknowledging mental health challenges compounded by a stressful home environment made more difficult by food insecurity, ensuring that appropriate services are provided to accommodate in-school and at-home concerns.

Next, social workers and ancillary services need to develop or implement an electronic records database that tracks caseloads, interventions, and impact. This can help social workers and other stakeholders ensure consistent reporting, identify trends, determine best practices, and modify response efforts over time.

Of course, collecting, storing, aggregating, and analyzing data from vulnerable populations requires organizations to take steps to safeguard data and protect IT infrastructure. Support services should prioritize data privacy and cybersecurity when selecting vendors and collaborators.

Ultimately, when support networks have timely, actionable data, they are best positioned to provide interventions that maximize and multiply impact, producing results at scale as people and communities pursue holistic wellness.

Collaboration in Action
While collaboration is critical in every space, schools often serve as a litmus test for effective response methodologies as their vulnerable populations, multifaceted support networks, and other factors typify the challenges and opportunities throughout communities.

Understanding that collaboration is critical to helping people and communities thrive, many schools and their social worker support networks are modeling the process and potential of collaboration in action.

Recognizing their students’ escalating and diversifying needs, many teachers relied on rudimentary reporting techniques, including shared spreadsheets, e-mail communications, and hallway encounters, to convey student needs. This process was tedious, time-consuming, and too often ineffective.

However, with centralized digital approaches to collaboration, educational leaders across departments have greater ease and access to direct communication. For example, teachers can comprehensively communicate with in-house social workers and broad community support resources. This is especially important for transient students who routinely arrive in a classroom after moving to a different school, town, or state.

Additionally, a modern digital collaboration approach helps make practical a one-front-door-policy whereby any vulnerable individual needing support can come to only one door to receive a breadth of support resources. It also provides a holistic picture so the school and extended community can create an alliance of support for that person.

When paired with easy-to-use self-reporting tools that let students opt-in to specific services, many school districts are impacting children, families, and communities like never before. The academic community is demonstrating that, with the right approach and solutions, collaboration is possible and impactful.

Together We Can Make an Impact
Simply put, today’s social support networks are severely strained, creating tension in every direction that requires a response. Social workers are on the front lines, making essential contributions as they deliver expert care, unparalleled compassion, and transformative results.

Even so, they can’t carry this responsibility alone. They need the capacity to collaborate with organizations, agencies, and communities so they can build an alliance of services, resources, and people that produce lasting, sustainable results.

Embracing a collaborative mindset complete with tools, processes, and personnel can make a difference, allowing social workers, aid organizations, and government agencies to meet the moment with excellence, helping people and communities achieve holistic wellness.

— Gary Pettengell is CEO of ECINS (Empowering Communities with Integrated Network Systems), a social enterprise dedicated to improving the lives of vulnerable people and empowering the practitioners who serve them.