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2004 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 9, No. 3
April 2004

FamilyNet: A Framework for Collaboration

As we hope this issue of Practice Notes has made clear, you don’t need special tools or funding to work effectively across program lines: all you need is the desire and energy to collaborate. That said, it is hard to talk about collaboration in social services agencies in North Carolina without talking about FamilyNet.

The FamilyNet Story
In February 2000, the NC Association of County Directors of Social Services was awarded a Work First pilot grant from the NC Division of Social Services. The grant supported nine counties to engage their county departments of social services in a system reform initiative that would unify services for children and families in a more holistic, family-centered manner.

Although it started out as a collaborative initiative between Work First (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and child welfare programs, FamilyNet quickly became an agency-wide system reform effort grounded in the beliefs that:

  • Partnerships within and across agencies, with families, and with the community lead to success.

  • Improving communication about families, programs, and resources can help create more comprehensive services and facilitate a focus on prevention.

  • Establishing a unifying vision and mission for an agency’s work helps staff in all program areas understand how they work together toward a common goal.

  • Collaboration across program lines leads to stronger, safer, more prosperous families.

FamilyNet emerged into an unconventional philosophy for change that continues to be developed by and applied in 14 counties: Alamance, Buncombe, Cabarrus, Caldwell, Durham, Edgecombe, Guilford, Halifax, Lincoln, Rockingham, Swain, Union, Wilson, Yadkin.

Vision into Action
Lisa Eby, a human services planner with Buncombe County DSS and the point person for FamilyNet in her agency, says one of the best things about FamilyNet is the way it helps an agency understand what it wants to be and where it wants to go.

Thus, although the FamilyNet counties share a common vision—communities where families achieve well-being—and a common mission—to partner with families and communities to achieve well-being through prosperity, permanence, support, and safety—individual counties are free to articulate and pursue their own unique visions.

“In Buncombe,” Eby says, “we’re trying to build a culture in our agency where strengths are acknowledged, and where there is a real sense of community among our employees. We’re doing this because we are convinced that if we have respectful, strong relationships among ourselves, we’ll do a better job of developing these kinds of relationships with families.”

This FamilyNet vision has reinforced Buncombe’s preexisting collaborative efforts and inspired new ones. For example, the agency is developing infrastructure that will make safety plans and other information available to all DSS employees working with a family.

FamilyNet enhances a county’s ability to respond not just to individual families, but to crises faced by entire communities. For instance, when the Pillowtex plant in Cabarrus County closed down in July 2003, it laid off 4,300 people.

As the Pillowtex crisis unfolded, the collaborative lessons Cabarrus DSS learned through its participation in FamilyNet paid off. Staff responded to families by putting aside narrow programmatic definitions of need, eligibility, and job function and focused on mitigating the crisis at hand and getting families back on a path to economic self-sufficiency and well-being.

Collaborating Initiatives
FamilyNet also hopes to bring more collaboration to child welfare system reform at the state level. Today in North Carolina there are many active reform initiatives—Family to Family, System of Care, the Multiple Response System, Leading by Results, the Title IV-E Waiver, and more.

Our traditional default setting—despite protestations to the contrary—often sees reform efforts as “dueling initiatives.” Choose one or the other, not both or all.

FamilyNet would have us recognize that, just as a county DSS cannot single-handedly guarantee child safety, no single initiative can achieve all the reform we need. In the FamilyNet vision, no one initiative has all the answers, but together they point us in a new and better direction.

To Learn More
To learn more about FamilyNet, visit <www.ncacdss.org/ncacdss/TANFdocs/>.

References for this and other articles in this issue