Teaching Social Workers to Use Psychological Assessment Data

Article excerpt

Psychological assessments of children and parents are frequently used by social service caseworkers when making case planning decisions. Often, however, the two disciplines-psychology and social work-have difficulty collaborating in and coordinating their respective work. Caseworkers may lack formal training in how to understand and use psychological reports. Psychologists may lack formal training in forensic assessment and in understanding the constraints of the social service and child welfare systems. This article describes how caseworkers may become more sophisticated consumers of psychological assessments, and how collaborative relationships between evaluating psychologists and caseworkers can be fostered.

Psychological assessments of children and parents are used frequently in the formulation of intervention plans. In cases of child maltreatment, for example, psychological evaluations, maybe used to: (1) evaluate parents' capacity to adequately care for their children; (2) assess whether it is safe and prudent to return previously abused children to the care of their parents; (3) evaluate the degree of emotional and psychological harm children may have experienced from abusive or neglectful parenting, and the likely impact such harm may have on their future development; (4) develop treatment plans for children who have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused, and/or develop treatment plans for their parents; (5) evaluate whether children can benefit from psychotherapy or other forms of intervention, including specialized, out-of-home care facilities; and (6) recommend whether parents' legal rights should be terminated.

Often, however, the collaboration between social workers and psychologists is poor. Several obstacles to collaborative practice may exist. First, caseworkers may lack the skills to request and use psychological evaluations for their child or parent clients and to evaluate the quality of those evaluations. Although the social work profession historically has emphasized interdisciplinary collaboration with other helping professionals [Berg-Weger & Schneider 1998; Hooper-Briar & Lawson 1994, 1996], not all social service caseworkers are trained in social work. Of those who are, few may have received specific training in how best to use psychological assessment data in case planning decisions.

Second, psychologists performing such evaluations may lack familiarity with the complexities and constraints of the child welfare system. Several authors have noted that psychologists and mental health evaluators employed by courts or social service departments typically have little specialized training in child welfare [Lauer et al. 1979; Quinn 1992; Quinn & Nye 1992]. Therefore, they may have little expertise in the areas of child protection, court procedure, custody alternatives, and placement options. In addition, the forensic child training of some psychologists may be limited. As a result, evaluating psychologists may fail to request and use the extensive ecological assessment data that caseworkers typically have about family members' functioning across multiple settings (e.g., home, school, neighborhood, community, work), which often shed light on the chronicity and extensiveness of child and family problems.

Third, caseworkers frequently report that county attorneys and juvenile courts request psychological assessments without carefully formulating the questions they want such evaluations to answer, particularly when faced with difficult decisions, such as terminating parents' legal rights. Judges and attorneys may view psychological evaluations as being intrinsically more "objective" or "scientific" than information gathered by caseworkers, despite the fact that the psychological evaluator's contact with a given child or family typically is of relatively brief duration, and may occur exclusively in a controlled setting (e.g., the psychologist's office).

This article provides a framework for how social service caseworkers in child welfare may become more knowledgeable consumers of psychological evaluation data, and how they can foster improved collaborative relations with evaluating psychologists. …