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WORKING WITH LOCAL TANF-RELATED AGENCIES
By Patricia R. Cole, Ph.D.
welfare reform laws in Texas took effect, the Texas Department of Human
Services (TDHS) and the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) have been involved
in major overhauls of their policies and their client services systems.
Local Workforce Development Boards have been created and required to set
up new local policies and procedures and to put in place large service delivery
systems. Because of participation rate requirements and the state legislature's
establishment of the "work first" philosophy for the revamped
welfare system, the state and local agencies responsible for TANF have focused
almost exclusively on moving people off TANF and into work as quickly as
possible. Now that TANF rolls have declined and the basic policies and operating
systems are in place, agencies are turning an increasing amount of attention
to the families that remain on or return to TANF. Research and practical
experience have demonstrated that these families face many obstacles as
they try to move from welfare to work. However,
the agencies responsible for TANF implementation continue to be expected
to provide services based on a "work first" philosophy to the
greatest extent possible. They still are held accountable for moving TANF
recipients into work or work-related activities at a rapid enough rate to
meet their federally required participation rates. Therefore their efforts
to help the hardest-to-serve families will be done in the context of "work
first" and participation rate requirements.
State law and agency regulations have directed local TDHS and workforce agencies to identify, provide services, and, when necessary, provide good cause exemptions for TANF recipients when domestic violence is a barrier to employment or if meeting TANF requirements increases risks to their safety. The goal now is to get all local agencies to implement those laws and regulations in a manner that benefits and protects women who need special consideration or help because of domestic violence. Domestic violence advocates and service providers have a very important role in promoting and facilitating implementation of TANF policies that protect and assist women in violent partnerships.
TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES
During the spring of 2000, TDHS will provide training to its entire local supervisory and direct services staff (Texas Works Advisors) so that they all are knowledgeable about TANF options available to applicants and recipients who are victims of partner violence. This training will focus primarily on explaining the option for a good cause exemption from child support enforcement if collecting child support would put the woman or her children in danger because of partner violence. The women will be given information about the child support collection process so that they can make an informed decision about whether they need an exemption from child support enforcement. TDHS wants to involve domestic violence experts in making the decision about whether a good cause domestic violence is needed, and they are aware that many women will not call a domestic violence service agency if given the telephone number and told to call and then come back to TDHS. In an effort to assure that women have contact with someone with expertise in domestic violence, TDHS will attempt to set up a process through which they connect the woman by telephone with a domestic violence agency as soon as she requests the exemption and before she leaves the office. As verification of the need for a good cause exemption, TDHS will accept the recommendation of the domestic violence specialist who talks to the woman on the telephone. TDHS will supply forms for the specialist to complete after talking to the woman and will ask that the form be completed and mailed back to the local TDHS office immediately. They are setting up a procedure whereby the information sent will be directed to a specific person in the office to guard confidentiality.
Based on experience in TANF offices and in other states where good cause domestic violence exemptions have been emphasized, it is anticipated that a very small percentage of women applying for or receiving TANF will want good cause exemptions from child support enforcement. However, for those who want and need the exemption because child support enforcement would increase risk of additional domestic violence, having an effective process for explaining and granting such exemptions is extremely important.
TDHS will explain their new process for granting domestic violence good cause exemptions from child support enforcement to local domestic violence programs and ask for their participation and assistance. The success of this effort will require the participation of a large number of domestic violence programs.
LOCAL WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT AGENCIES
Since each local Workforce Development Board (WDB) has the authority and responsibility to set its own priorities, policies, and procedures, domestic violence advocates and service providers need to work with the local WDB and its staff. TWC sent out a memo to all local WDBs, explaining the domestic violence good cause exemption from employment services and suggesting implementation strategies. A copy of that memo is included at the end of this section. Reports from around the state indicate that most WDB's are not following the recommendations, although several are beginning to develop and implement procedures.
Suggestions for Working With Local WDB's
Local domestic violence advocates should meet with members of their area's WDB or with executive staff of the local workforce agency to discuss what specifically is being done to identify, offer good cause exemptions when needed, and provide or assist in finding services for women going through their programs who are in violent partnerships. (A list of the WDB’s and possible contact people are provided as resource materials in Section 5 of this notebook). If there are several domestic violence service programs in a workforce area, their going together to this meeting might be most effective.
It is important to remember that the primary philosophy underlying these programs is "work first" and that the WDB’s are responsible for meeting certain participation rates, meaning they have to get a certain percentage of TANF clients into work or work-related activities very quickly. Additionally, it is important to remember that WDB's also are supposed to focus on job retention and advancement. They are supposed to identify barriers to employment and provide services that are necessary to help women overcome these barriers so they can go to work and leave TANF rolls and not return. While they have a great deal of local autonomy, WDB’s also must abide by state laws and TWC regulations, which includes providing information to women about domestic violence options and providing good cause exemptions when needed.
Suggestions for Talking with WDB’s
It is important that WDB’s understand that identifying and assisting TANF or Welfare-to-Work recipients who are victims of domestic violence not only protects women's safety but also helps them meet the WDB's goals of TANF recipients being able to maintain employment and get off and stay off TANF rolls. Facts that may be useful in talking with WDB’s include:
In deciding what people to contact first, it is important to remember how most local workforce agencies are set up. In most local workforce programs, the WDB sets policy, hires executive staff, and contracts with a private agency (Lockheed, SER, etc.) to operate the program. The private contractor hires the employees who work in local workforce centers and actually work with TANF recipients. It may be best to start by talking to someone on the Board or the Board's executive staff to find out what policies are in place about domestic violence and what is actually being done to identify and assist women in violent partnerships.
Suggestions for Staff Training
If given the opportunity to train Choices workers who actually see clients, based on experiences in other places, the following suggestions are made:
Staff in workforce offices have expressed reservations about talking to women about domestic violence for several reasons. They are uncomfortable bringing up the subject and do not know what to say if the woman is in a violent relationship. They may care about her safety, but they do not see how domestic violence relates to their job of moving her into work or work-related activities. They are not clear about what their responsibilities are related to domestic violence. Based on the information gathered from Choices staff, staff training should include the issues cited above.
BUILDING LOCAL SERVICE COLLABORATIVES
In most local workforce areas that are addressing domestic violence and other areas with which current or former TANF clients need special assistance, the Boards contract with several different service providers, each working in a specific area of specialization. These include GED or adult education programs, services for mental health or drug and alcohol addiction, mentoring programs, and community college or technical training programs. It is extremely helpful to the women involved in these services if the various providers communicate with each other and try to arrange some prioritization or coordination of services. In some workforce offices, a specific case manager is assigned to work with designated women. It may be important for that case manager to be involved in the collaborative efforts among various service agencies.
Since many women in violent relationships are reluctant to acknowledge domestic violence and also have other hardships or problems, they may be involved in a GED program or in drug and alcohol services without having previously acknowledged domestic violence. Cross training, at least on a basic level, is important so that service providers who have contact with women recognize indicators of domestic violence, know what questions to ask the women and how to respond if she acknowledges domestic violence, and what suggestions to make to her. They can refer her to a domestic violence agency, but if she will not go, perhaps they can talk with her and give her guidance about safety for herself and her children.
In many regions, volunteer agencies or mentoring programs are working with women trying to move from welfare to work. Pathfinders is one such program in many parts of the state. Volunteers often have frequent contact with the women and try to assist them in resolving problems. Sometimes they have more ongoing contact with women than Choices staff or other service agencies will have. Training volunteers about domestic violence, what to say to women in violent relationships, and how to assist them may be a route for identifying and assisting women who have not otherwise sought help.
Because the Texas system for TANF places so much authority and responsibility in the hands of local workforce agencies, local level action from domestic violence advocates is essential in order to get domestic violence addressed appropriately with women currently or previously enrolled in TANF. It probably will take patience, perseverance, diplomacy, and creativity to make progress. However, the safety and well-being of thousands of women at stake, so it is worth whatever effort is necessary.
The staff of the National Center
on Domestic and Sexual Violence will be glad to help in any way we can.
Feel free to call us if we can assist you as you work to improve services
to women in the welfare system. We will continue working both in Texas
and nationally to improve policies and implementation strategies that
benefit impoverished women and their families.