By Leon Fernando
Community Relations Manager, Alameda County DCSS
Providing family-focused services is an important part of the mission of child support services at the Federal, State, and local levels. For Child Support Awareness Month during August 2016, Alameda County Department of Child Support Services (ACDCSS) Director Phyllis Nance asked: “What does our community think about child support? Do they agree that we provide services in a family-friendly manner?” To find out, and to understand our customers’ needs from their perspective, ACDCSS convened a series of listening sessions in the community. Listening sessions are a relatively new avenue for collecting information, opinions, and insight from the public that have gained in popularity in recent years. The basic format is simple – group discussions around a common topic where the participants share personal experiences. Unlike focus groups or surveys that start off with a predetermined scope, listening sessions encourage open discussion between participants and more fully explore issues. Analyzing the content of the listening session discussions provides insight into the primary areas of concern and possible solutions.
Alameda County DCSS conducted three listening sessions: one for fathers, one for mothers, and a third for Spanish speakers. Participants were not required to have child support cases in order to take part in the session. Sessions were hosted at locations outside the child support office, such as a public library and at a community-based organization in order to provide a neutral environment and encourage open sharing. At small breakout tables, participants shared their perceptions about child support. Facilitators from ACDCSS recorded the discussions and asked clarifying questions in order to explore and understand the perspectives provided. The resulting data was closely analyzed in order to identify common themes and develop recommendations to address issues raised. Many of the thoughts expressed by participants were familiar to caseworkers from their day-to-day interactions with parents: a desire for more ways to access services, confusion about the legal process, and the effects of enforcement actions. Listening session participants expressed enthusiasm and appreciation for being invited to discuss their thoughts and ideas and were anticipating that their feedback would lead to improvements. A full report on the listening sessions will be available on the ACDCSS website in March.
ACDCSS has already acted on some of the information gleaned from the listening sessions. One of the themes raised at the listening sessions was that community services seem disjointed, and participants expressed a desire for better access. As a result, ACDCSS will be hosting a Service Providers’ Summit on March 15. The event will bring together a wide range of service providers from the community for a dialog about issues faced by our shared populations and a brainstorming session for how we can better coordinate our services to better serve the community.
For more information on listening sessions, be sure to attend “Are You Listening? How to Engage Customers and Community Partners through Listening Sessions” at this year’s CSDA Conference. ACDCSS and Orange County DCSS will be presenting on their listening sessions, offering lessons learned, and answering questions.
Leon Fernando, Community Relations Manager, Alameda County DCSS, email@example.com