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Changing Lives Long Distance

Fairfax residents use one number to dial up the “Front Door” to all county services.

After dialing 703-222-0880, the caller probably waited about 80 seconds before hearing these words.

“Coordinated Services Planning, this is Etsu Tefera. How can I help you today?”

The caller described being laid-off from her job several weeks before. She had not received any income since, and was still waiting for her unemployment assistance to be processed. Her rent was due, and she needed rent assistance or she could be evicted.

Tefera is a social worker for Coordinated Services Planning, the division within the Department of Systems Management for Human Services that for the last ten years has been “the front door to services in Fairfax County,” as Region 1 team leader Kathryn Van Curen phrased it.

Tefera works out of the South County Government Center in a cubicle equipped with phone lines, a computer and printed references to every social services organization in the county.

She quickly learned that the woman who had called her has dealt with Coordinated Services before. The woman told her a story about seeking help from a shelter and issues with some money she had received. The woman struggled to explain the situation clearly, but Tefera’s uncertainty about the case lasted only about 30 seconds, the time it took for her to type the woman’s name into a database and retrieve a detailed description of her case history. Typically for Coordinated Services, the previous social worker had patched together a variety of grants and loans from local social non-profit organizations to help the woman cope with a financial emergency a few years before. Tefera scanned the list, identified the source of confusion, and explained it to the caller.

At the same time, she was also trying to call the woman’s initial case worker on another phone line, but failed to get through. So she sent an instant message over the Coordinated Services network and waited for a response. In a few minutes, a reply came back. The case worker was using both her lines, but could take the client soon.

Tefera explained the exact situation to the caller, then transferred her.

“IT’S SO WONDERFUL,” Tefera explained after transferring the caller, “because the technology that we have makes it so much easier to communicate.”

She said that if the caller had been new to the system, Tefera would have taken on her case and done a detailed assessment, lasting about 45 minutes, of the client’s situation.

“Typically we do an assessment with the client to identify what the presenting situation is, what the crisis is. In her situation she’s already had an assessment done and that social worker already made recommendations for her and I’m reconnecting her back with that social worker,” Tefera said.

The assessment is designed to efficiently uncover the extent of the person’s problems, whether it is something that a Coordinated Services Social Worker can handle over the phone by offering small emergency grants and connecting the person to “home groups” (local non-profits like United Community Ministries or New Hope Housing) or whether the caller is entangled in a complex situation that will require repeated face-to-face meetings with social workers in other departments, like Family Services.

“Our job is to coordinate the service,” Tefera said. “If it’s very cut and dry like a utility bill, a financial need, then we would refer them to their home group, but typically someone who has a financial need has a host of other needs.”

“In the case of the woman who called, she’s unemployed; she could probably benefit from some employment services,” Tefera said. “If she was terminated, was it a childcare issue? Was it a transportation issue? Was it a mental health issue? We would look into some support services for her. We’re trying to assess if beyond the immediate crisis is there more to her situation.”

The wall of Tefera’s cubicle is adorned with a large map of Fairfax County with the names of major home groups covering different region. Tefera also has an index with hundreds more, sorted by the types of problems they address, from “Abortion” to “Youth – Outreach and Preventive Services.”

“It’s awesome,” she said of the technology. “Instead of case files where you’re going to a drawer and searching for files that may not even be located in this region, you’re going to [an online] database.”

She said spends three hours out of her eight hour day working the phone. The remainder of the time is spent working on the cases that came over the phone. There is a precise schedule drawn up for the 37 case workers throughout the county so that call-waiting times are kept to a minimum. Tefera said she currently has 18 clients on her case load, an aberration from an average of about 10 clients for each social worker. Coordinated Planning workers try to keep clients on their list for no more than two weeks, if a situation needs a longer time, it may be a matter for case workers at the Community Services Board, the Health Department, Family Services, Department of Housing or local non-profit social workers.

“We’ve developed these relationships with these community partners and by fostering these relationships we’ve been able to get families connected with their community,” Tefera explained.

ELEVEN YEARS AGO, Fairfax Human Services officials were concerned that the county’s resources were not reaching the people who needed them.

“We had a lot of resources,” said Ken Disselkoen, the director of Systems Management in Mount Vernon, “but people didn’t know who to call.”

Since Coordinated Services was created, it has worked to receive every call as quickly as possible and to connect clients to all the public and private social services resources of the county.

Team lead Van Curen described how the agency had studied itself and changed its methods to cut average call-waiting times to 1 minute 23 seconds in 2005. Two coordinated services employees work full time on making sure their online database of resources, the Human Services Resource Guide (www.fairfaxcounty.gov/rim) up-to-the-minute accurate.

Van Curen credited the agency’s democratic, work-group based structure for its advances in efficiency. “All of the improvements were driven by staff,” she explained. “[It’s] a great testament to this agency. The people that were doing the work were charged with finding the solution.”

In 1998, Coordinated Services took over some front-line assessment duties from social workers at Family Services and as a result Coordinate Services workers have access to some Family Services funding to extinguish isolated emergencies.

A Coordinated Services social worker can be found to speak Spanish, Korean, French, Vietnamese, Somali, Urdu, Farsi, Arabic, Amharic, Bengali, Punjabi or Creole and they all have access to a language translation line for anything else. The 37 workers usually receive 300-500 calls a day. They received almost 60,000 calls between June 2005 and April 2006.

Requests for food and rental assistance are the most common type of call. Utility assistance and family shelter intake are also issues the social workers are frequently asked to address.

“We’re pretty unique in terms of our collaborations,” Van Curen said. “Because we’re based here in Fairfax County we’re very lucky to be in a place where there’s a large network of human services agencies.”

“We’re not about making someone be a client,” she added. “We’re about helping someone be empowered to meet their emergency need through a quilt of resources.”

Tefera said the most meaningful resource she offers may occur as soon as she answers the phone.

“I think the most invaluable thing that we offer, more than the financial assistance, is the listening, the opportunity for someone to talk to someone who’s knowledgeable about county services, knowledgeable about community resources, someone who can listen to that person’s situation and really hear what’s going . There’s been so many times when people have called me and they’ll say, ‘Thank you so much for listening. I feel so much better because I talked to you,’” Tefera said.

“Sometimes that human connection is more important than really anything you can give them.”