This concluding chapter outlines some promising practices that are effective at meeting the many challenges that face professionals working together collaboratively to delivery multidisciplinary family services. Like others, we use the term “promising practice” to express the idea that certain practices seem effective at meeting the challenges for professionals of multidisciplinary paths to family justice, although the effectiveness of the practice may not have been confirmed by an evaluation. Promising practice also expresses the idea that it may not be effective for all multidisciplinary family services. The promising practices identified in this chapter provide we think a mapping of how to realize the vision of multidisciplinary paths to family justice and ultimately how to address the legal needs of families in Ontario in a fashion that is different from the prevailing approach today.
It was clear that co-location is a key ingredient to the effective delivery of multidisciplinary family services. The actual site should be comfortable, inviting, and child friendly. A single central site can be supplemented by satellite sites providing services and programs that are located within communities with the particular needs being serviced. For families needing services, one-stop-shopping for families allows them to easily access a multitude of services – some of them they may not have realized they needed before entering the door – and be able to follow-up referrals without leaving the site. For professionals, it allows them to receive and make referrals in a seamless fashion. Just as significant it gives that professional some measure of quality assurance about the referral. It also allows for informal interactions between professionals in a way that simply cannot happen when professionals are siloed away at their own places of work.
These co-located sites should function as a gateway where the services provided can be adapted to the needs of the family. The gateway could literally be a door or it could be something like a phone number. The gateway in whatever form it takes should express the idea that it is never the wrong door to enter – families in need should just enter. Once inside, there should be timely opportunity to tell their story and have a counsellor assigned to them who can accompany them to the services they need. And, if necessary, remind them about what they need, for example, in an interview with an on-site family lawyer or dispute resolution specialist.
Co-located sites should have a managing coordinator who is able to have a vision of how the services and partners fit together and how the funding from diverse sources can be effectively utilized. The coordinator is essential in order to manage tensions between professionals when they arise. In sites that utilize information technology for collaboration along the lines described in the next section, the coordinator is the person who will make this happen.
There is no set template for the family service professionals who must be on-site. A slogan that captures this well is, “Not everyone can be co-located but everyone can collaborate.” It is clear however that there is a real value in having a family lawyer on site. Having a mediation service that would be a clear off-site alternative to mediation services provided by FLICs would also seem useful. Likewise, in sites where services for victims of domestic violence are provided, it is important to have a High Risk committee or team that can identify and respond to high risk situations quickly. A Crown Attorney on-site like in Waterloo is also beneficial. Ultimately, the actual set of professionals that are on-site should reflect the particular cluster of family problems and challenges that are faced by the community it services.
Collaboration Through Information Technology
An important challenge for multidisciplinary family service providers is how to bring together all of the professionals they need when those professionals are not co-located in the same physical space. This is an especially pronounced problem in more remote areas such as northern Ontario. We saw in Chapter Three how geography presents itself as a barrier to access services in northern Ontario. Can emerging inexpensive information technology be utilized to lower this barrier to access multidisciplinary family services?
Some software solutions, such as Cisco’s Webex, seek to imitate a collaborative meeting environment—without the need for members to come together at a real location. With the advent of web technology, connecting professionals from across the globe has moved far beyond phone conferencing. While using Webex, users connect to an online server, which has all the features of an everyday phone conference, but also allows everyone that has connected to view presentations, see documents, and run applications set up by one of their peers. In addition to viewing these elements, users can also make contributions of their own, annotating brainstorming sessions or highlighting documents. And all of this can happen on any computer with an internet connection and a webcam, anywhere in the world.
GoToMeeting, a similar service offered by Citrix Online, shares much of the functionality of Webex, with its only real difference being an invitation system by email or SMS messaging, as opposed to the login features of Webex. Adobe also offers its own Adobe Connect, which places more emphasis on video calling and relies on its ubiquitous Flash technology. Web conferencing is a rapidly growing industry, and many companies, including Microsoft and IBM have released software of their own in the past few years.
A nice illustration of a family service provider in Ontario using information technology to facilitate collaboration is Brant County’s regional domestic violence coordinating committee. This committee, which is called the Brant Response to Violence Everywhere Committee (BRAVE), has created a virtual hub of family service providers by utilizing Cisco’s Webex technology. Webex provides BRAVE with a secure online way to link professionals from all over Brant County with clients needing their services. It allows for up to 25 individuals in different places to share documents and collaborate in the provision of services. The estimated cost for Webex is $200-$250 per month.
BRAVE has a coordinator who arranges for virtual meetings between service providers and clients. BRAVE has received a commitment from all of its main partners to be available from 9 am – 3 pm every Wednesday for these sessions. Based on what the client needs, the coordinator will contact the relevant professionals and set up a time for the online meeting. The counsellor who made initial contact with the client will ordinarily be with the client when she or he participates in the meetings. It is possible that on a given day, the client could have six of these meetings – without the technology, this number of meetings could take weeks. Webex enables BRAVE to share the same information and documents with all of the service providers, which makes it unnecessary for the client to repeat his or her story again and again. The Webex technology also allows for some cultural sensitivity in the delivery of services – clients who do not want to be videoed can, for example, stand off to the side and just be heard. The virtual hub is also convenient for professionals because they too don’t need to spend time travelling to meetings. Ultimately, for professionals using this virtual hub, what is required is a paradigm shift in their thinking in terms of how they can provide their services.