By SUZANNE HAUGH | Published February 24, 2005
Catholic Social Services, Inc., the outreach ministry of the Atlanta Archdiocese, has reason to celebrate. Its recent accreditation by the Council on Accreditation, an international, independent organization of social service providers, backs up CSS’ commitment to the high quality care of its clients.
“I tell people it’s like earning the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, except it’s more intense,” said Sandra Hollett, executive director of CSS.
“In the three-year process, we did a lot of staff training and team building. We worked with the program staff, developed a strong management team and a client-focused vision for the future. We could not have accomplished the accreditation without each individual’s commitment. This effort brought us all together and bonded us in a way that’s hard to describe.”
Jutta Hansen, public relations coordinator for CSS, spoke of the agency’s calling. “The mission of Catholic Social Services is rooted in the Gospel and strives to serve people of all backgrounds and religions, with special concern for those most in need and most vulnerable,” she said.
Annually CSS serves about 16,000 people and has helped over one million clients in over 50 years of its existence. The scope of aid to those in need is impressive and falls under one of six programs under its umbrella of services. They are: Community Outreach Centers serving low-income clients; Immigration Services; Migration and Refugee Services; Parish and Community Ministry, helping to form groups interested in addressing particular needs in their area; the Pregnancy, Parenting and Adoption Program; and the Village of St. Joseph Counseling Services.
Managing all of these services efficiently and in the best interests of its clients proved to be no small task, but one made possible through participation in the accreditation process. The Council on Accreditation exists to improve the delivery of social services by developing, applying and promoting high quality standards for agencies serving clients whose needs can range from pregnancy counseling to referral services for newly arrived refugees to employment assistance.
“Accreditation sets national standards of high quality in service, as is done in hospitals and schools for example, and shows that there is an infrastructure in place so that any client that walks through your door receives quality professional care,” Hollett explained.
She noted an emerging trend for social service agencies that has not yet arrived in Georgia but probably will in the future.
“In many states an agency can’t receive state or federal funding unless it is an accredited program, so it’s really important for us.”
The accreditation brings with it an affirmation that clients coming to CSS for help will receive consistent high quality care. The milestone also addressed another area of note.
“People who donate money to CSS now can be assured, as the agency has demonstrated on a national standards level, that its services not only meet its fiduciary responsibility but ensures that funds are used efficiently, producing positive outcomes.”
CSS reached its goal through successful team building and an intensive overhaul of its infrastructure.
“We wrote 600 policies; that was the easy part. Getting the staff involved, determining what all the policies were, training—so we do them all in the same way—is the hard part.”
The effort started not long after a crisis hit the agency in the fall of 2000. The press ran a story on the deplorable living conditions of some refugee families placed by CSS, sparking efforts by the archdiocese to find better housing for these families and a re-examination of the approach CSS took in handling refugees.
Hollett recalled accepting the position as executive director in the aftermath of the crisis.
“When I came in May 2001, the agency had just been through a crisis with refugee housing. The initial priority was to assess how the organization was structured, what work procedures were in place and how were client services being delivered.”
Hollett and those working with CSS identified the strengths and weaknesses of the organization.
“Overall, CSS has always provided, with the exception of the refugee crisis, very good quality services, but there was limited infrastructure to support this work. It was very dependent on the individuals providing the service. When an individual would leave or there was a change, we would lose momentum. We had a great staff but lacked structure.”
People working together with a common vision were crucial to moving the agency forward.
“Morale of staff members was pretty poor. First, because the whole agency experienced the crisis and had lost its executive director. Even though a lot of the programs were functioning well, the bad news (in the press) had caused damage to the overall agency reputation.”
There was no cookie-cutter approach to setting up the agency’s new infrastructure, let alone technology to support the work of the agency that provides for a variety of needs.
“Number one, we had to bring six very diverse programs together,” explained Hollett.
The organization also needed to create a culture of Continuous Quality Improvement and to meet the best practice standards established by COA. The accreditation process also asked that CSS look at how its board of directors governs, its fiscal responsibility, human resources practices and study all of its client services.
“The first year we really had to pay attention to (morale), regain staff trust, open up communications, and establish a different, more participative internal culture.”
After recognizing the good work accomplished through CSS, “now the challenge was to change the whole way of doing work. That was difficult.”
She and others developed its procedures, policies, practices and checkpoints, but forming new work procedures meant an increase in paperwork for people “already carrying a full load,” Hollett said.
But the effort has paid off. “The client service process works consistently in a high quality manner whether the staff is seasoned or new.”
Hollett recalled first starting the process along with Joe Galvin, associate director of CSS. “We were driving the train and from the engine where we were, we’d look back and not all of the cars were there or they were far behind. But by the second year the team worked to develop (the procedures) and when we looked back we were altogether.”
Now with the new policies and procedures in place, the agency can move beyond any worry that what happened in 2000 will be repeated.
“Clients have several opportunities to voice a concern or complaint,” Hollett said. “They don’t have to go to the press or their parish priest. They can bring their issues directly to CSS, and they are guaranteed we will take the issue seriously.”
Among other tools to gauge performance, clients receive a confidential survey following contact with the agency and every client grievance comes to Hollett or Galvin, who respond to it.
“The most important aspect is that the case manager works closely with the client and that the process empowers the client to go directly to the case worker with a grievance.”
With policies and procedures now part of the CSS infrastructure, accreditation will be less of a burden, leaving time and energy to focus on other issues CSS has wanted to address.
“The key issue is that there are many needs in this archdiocesan community that we want to build programs to meet. Now that we have accreditation under our belt, the staff and CSS board feel that we can respond to more needs such as elder care, the needs of the growing (Hispanic) community, and we want to do more for our community’s children at risk. Whatever programs we start, we will use the Best Practices structure now in place.”