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    8 Best Practices for Sending Text Messages in the Social Services Industry

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    This could be a long and very tedious article. It could be. After all, any communication sent via text message (also called “SMS” or short message service) may fall under a whole slew of rules and regulations, depending on the context of the message.

    In the U.S., there’s the TCPA (or Telephone Consumer Protection Act), there’s HIPAA – designed to protect sensitive client data – and there are even regulations imposed by the CTIA, which is a trade association representing the wireless communications industry.

    A thorough discussion of any of the above would have most folks drifting off to sleep or giving up on text messaging in no time. Luckily, this isn’t necessary.

    By adopting a series of simple, common sense tactics, your organization can use text messaging to connect with your clients without inadvertently breaking the law and exposing yourself to class action suits and fines from regulatory agencies.

    Here are 8 tips to get you started…

    1. Send messages only to people who provide you with the permission to do so.

    While communicating via text message is the way to ensure your contacts see your messages (99% of text messages are opened and read), it can also be a pretty good way to infuriate them, should they not be expecting such messages from you.

    Why?

    People have an intimate connection with their cell phones and mobile devices and are very sensitive as to what they perceive as spam on them.

    So a good rule of thumb is to only text people who have provided you with permission. Our clients have found that more and more people are happy to do so since text messaging is fast becoming the preferred communication channel for a growing number of people.

    2. Have contacts sign a simple permission form.

    Although it is unlikely that you will be challenged on this (after all, you’re going to be sending helpful, personal communications related to your agency and not commercial messages selling ringtones or Viagra), it’s always a smart idea to have clients sign a simple form that you can keep on file to prove that you have received the necessary permission to contact them.

    An example of the wording used on such a form might look like this…

    3. Personalize your messages & introduce yourself!

    This is even more important if you communicate only sporadically, since your client may forget who’s on the “other end” of messages originating from your number (if your client adds you as a “contact” on her phone, then all incoming messages will be attributed to you and this is no longer a concern, but there’s no guarantee s/he will do so).

    Not only does this virtually eliminate the chance that any such message be mistakenly identified as spam, but it strengthens relationships and builds goodwill.

    For example, a message like this…

    “Reminder: Job fair at community center this weekend, 10 am – 5 pm.”

    Is extremely generic, appears automated, and does nothing to build and foster relationships. On the other hand, this message…

    “Hi Mark. Sarah from the Employment Agency here. We talked last week. Just wanted to remind you about the job fair at the community center this weekend.”

    … Is highly personal, and not only ensures the client is never going to mistake the identity or intention of the sender, it also boosts goodwill and emphasizes the sender’s commitment to the recipient.

    4. Only send messages of value.

    Don’t bombard clients with messages that aren’t of critical importance to them. Only contact them when necessary – when you have something important to say.

    Sometimes this requires a little “thinking outside the box,” since it isn’t always evident that what’s important to you isn’t what is important to your client.

    5. Do not include sensitive client information in your text messages.

    Standard text messages are not HIPAA compliant.

    Just like you’d never send confidential information in a standard email or leave it on a client’s voicemail, you should never send sensitive, confidential or private client information via text message.

    The power of text messaging lies with its simplicity, widespread adoption, and extremely low cost. The fact that’s it’s a low-tech solution that works on phones long considered obsolete and doesn’t require the installation of 3rd party apps or software is a huge bonus too.

    Implementing a texting solution that allows the transmission of secure client data to your clients would invariably require a smartphone, internet access, the installation of an app and possibly access to a secure portal to retrieve encrypted messages.

    In other words, such a solution would require significant input from your client, restrict access only to those people who can afford smartphones and data, and as a result eliminate almost all of the benefits associated with simple text message communications.

    As a result, your text messaging should be used for simple, non-specific communications and for making contact.

    Today, if you can’t reach your contacts with voicemails and emails, you will be able to reach them with text messages, even if your intention is only to request that they get back to you on a different, secure communication channel, where such information can be exchanged.

    6. Send Your Messages over a Long Code.

    Text messages are sent over two mediums…

    1. Shortcodes: A 5-6 digit number used primarily for commercial purposes and bulk texting.
    2. Long codes: A standard 10 digit number which appears for all intents and purposes to be a “regular” phone number.

    To ensure your messages are not perceived as commercial or are blocked by your contacts, send your messages over a long code. To the recipient, it appears for all intents and purposes like the message originates from a personal device, which helps emphasize the personal element of proper SMS communication.

    7. Update Your Client Data When Required

    When a client has a new phone number, it’s important to update your records immediately. Messages sent to numbers that have been retired and then re-assigned to a new customer (who hasn’t provided you with consent to contact them) are considered to be spam.

    Don’t panic though; you are allowed a single communication with the owner of a newly assigned number and most numbers are retired for up to 3 months before being assigned to a new customer.

    8. Use Complaint Messaging Templates

    When using bulk texting, ensure your outgoing messages automatically include the required options for compliance (i.e., opt-out instructions like “reply STOP to end” should be appended to all messages). Most bulk messaging services include compliant templates.

    In Summary…

    Capitalizing on the power of text messaging for your organization doesn’t need to be a frightening or intimidating process. Simple common sense and adhering to the aforementioned points will allow you to reach your audience in a way that’s convenient, easy, and accessible, and you’ll never have to worry about your messages being missed or ignored again.

    Legal disclaimer: I’m not an attorney, nor do I play one on T.V. This article should serve as an introduction to text messaging and should not be considered an alternative for professional legal advice. Please conduct your own due diligence before adopting any text messaging program for your organization.

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    Paul Crane is the CEO of Local Text Marketers, the makers of CONNECT, an affordable, easy to use service that allows social services and employment agencies to reach their clients via text message through an online platform. For more, visit…Text Messaging for Social Service Agencies.

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    Child Welfare

    Single Father Adopts Five Siblings from Foster Care System

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    Back in October of 2020, single father Robert Carter adopted a set of five siblings so that they would never again be separated by the foster care system. Robert became inspired to foster after being split up from many of his own brothers and sisters when he entered the system at the age of 12. Following his emancipation, Robert became legally responsible for two of his siblings, which inspired him to continue to expand his family. He became a foster father to three of the five siblings and quickly realized that it was his purpose to adopt all five children.

    A Systemic Issue

    There are currently over 400,000 children in the foster care system, two-thirds of whom have a sibling in the system as well.  Many of these children are separated from their siblings for reasons including a lack of families able to foster sibling groups, diverse needs of children and lack of resources for finding placements. Other siblings may be more likely to be separated by social workers due to myths that sibling sets will not integrate as well into a new family dynamic or that it is in the best interests of a parentified older child to be removed from their siblings. 

    Sibling separations, like Carter and his children experienced, often compounds the trauma that children in the system endure. In a foster care system where 63% of children are removed from their homes due to parental neglect, sibling relationships help to provide much needed stability and emotional support. These sustained relationships allow sibling sets to have greater success in school, better relationships with foster parents, more successful permanency outcomes, and better mental health. Yet, until the last couple of decades, the advantages of keeping siblings together were largely ignored from a policy perspective.

    Policy’s Influence

    In 2008 this changed when keeping siblings together became national priority when the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act was passed. This Act “requires a state plan to provide for reasonable efforts for joint placement of siblings in the same foster care, kinship guardianship, or adoptive placement unless it would be contrary to the safety or wellbeing of any of them.” This act also requires that children who are unable to be placed with their siblings be allowed frequent visits with their other siblings.  

    While sibling placement is defined as a priority on the federal level, states may interpret the implementation of a plan differently. As of 2018, only 37 states have statutes requiring these reasonable efforts to keep siblings together during the placement process. States may often vary in their definition of “sibling” as well. While children often define their siblings as those who grew up with them, including step-siblings, often state laws only define sibling relationships in terms of blood relations. 

    Certain states, such as Oregon, have a Sibling Bill of Rights to help protect children in the foster care system.  Some of these rights include being able “to live in the same home as (their) sibling if possible” and “to live with foster parents who are trained on the importance of sibling relationships.” Bills like these offer children autonomy and protection when entering the system so that they can advocate for themselves. 

    As laws continue to evolve to protect children in foster care like Robert and his kids, Robert hopes that foster and adoptive parents will step up to help keep families together. Here’s what he said in an interview with Aol.com:

    “A lot of people think you have to be married to adopt or be a foster parent. I want people to know: No matter the situation, as long as you have the means to take care of a child [you can] become a foster parent,” he explains. “We have so many kids still in custody, there are 400 kids in Ohio waiting on forever homes. And I am happy that I was able to help encourage and inspire other people to step up.” 

    Currently, over 100,000 children are to be adopted, many of which risk being separated from their siblings. You can help to keep these children together by becoming a foster parent for a sibling set and learning more about the adoption process

    If you are unable to adopt or foster right now, research your state’s sibling protection measures and help advocate for policies that support sibling reunification.

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    Child Welfare

    Protecting Children from Harm in the Context of Distance Learning

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    The nation saw an uptick in domestic violence calls in the midst of the pandemic and the shutdown. The convergence of social isolation, economic pressure, and psychological stress created favorable conditions for abuse to occur. Adults are not the only victims of abuse in the home. Children, too, are vulnerable. History shows that violence against children and child exploitation intensify under conditions of isolation and economic pressure. While the pandemic may be temporary, child abuse often has long-term consequences.

    School systems play a vital role in intervening in the lives of vulnerable children. In fact, schools make 21% of the reports to child protective services according to The Washington Post. When COVID-19 forced the schools to close, states saw a drastic drop in the number of children being referred to CPS. Unfortunately, this reduction did not mean that the incidence of abuse decreased. Indeed, as reports to CPS dropped, ER doctors saw a rise in more severe cases of abuse. Child abuse not only persisted, but it went unchecked during the shutdown. Without school personnel, community workers, medical and dental personnel, and other mandated reporters, there was no watchdog to report the abuse until children sustained injuries severe enough to warrant medical attention.

    Clearly, schools serve a vital function in protecting children from harm. Now more than ever, they need to be alert and responsive to abuse as children return to school virtually. Distance learning presents unique opportunities and challenges that should be addressed proactively. Social workers can and should play a leadership role in adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning and retraining school personnel to identify and report suspicions of child abuse and neglect. This article outlines a proposed curriculum for child abuse and neglect reporting in the context of distance learning.

    School personnel should be well-equipped to spot signs of child abuse and neglect in the context of distance learning. Asynchronous instruction affords teachers a glimpse into students’ homes. In addition to any disclosures of abuse, teachers should be especially attentive to:

    • Verbal threats of harm, hidden, unexplained, suspicious, and/or repeated injuries
    • Suicidal ideation in students
    • Sexually inappropriate behaviors or images
    • Weariness when an adult is present or approaches the student
    • Excessive dirtiness or lack of proper hygiene in the home or the student
    • Illegal substances or evidence of impairment in the caregiver
    • Evidence of malnourishment in the student

    School staff should also note that it is illegal under most state laws for children to be home alone unless they have demonstrated sufficient maturity, and there are safety structures in place. Young children should not be home alone. Furthermore, children with a record of behavior or emotional problems (e.g. frequent suspensions) should not be in the home unattended. Children who are able to be home alone should be able to access safe adults in case of an emergency, and there should not be hazardous conditions or items present. Children who can take care of themselves may not be mature enough or capable of taking care of younger children. School staff members play a critical role in monitoring these conditions. Clear steps should be outlined for reporting any safety concerns or suspicions in a timely and accurate manner to school personnel (e.g. principal, guidance counselor) and child protective services.

    Because teachers will be exposed to the live conditions of the home, they have to be prepared to respond to crisis situations. Crisis management in the context of distance learning is different from that in more traditional settings because the staff person is physically distant from the student, and there may not be another adult present with the child for reinforcement. As a result, they are at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to intervene.

    Still, there are measures staff can take to manage the crisis from afar. In the event of an imminent threat to the safety of a student, staff can adapt telehealth protocols such as:

    (1) call local 911/EMS while maintaining contact with the student

    (2) identify bystanders who may be able to assist by providing information, monitoring the student, and/or intervening, as appropriate

    (3) obtain the student’s physical location, an alternate contact in case of a disconnection or other technical issue, and contact information for the student’s caregiver

    (4) while maintaining contact with the student, contact the caregiver to advise him/her of the situation

    School personnel has an important responsibility in monitoring student attendance. Countless children can be lost to human trafficking and exploitation if schools falter in this duty. As such, the onus is on the schools to locate children who do not report for school. Students should be expected, at a minimum, to check in occasionally so that school personnel can check on their well-being.

    Finally, school administrators should be cognizant of the increased risk of exploitation by school staff when supervision and monitoring are lacking. Clear codes of conduct should be put in place or adapted to guide online interactions between students and school staff. Outside meetups should be prohibited unless they occur at school during school hours with proper supervision. Administrators should ‘‘float’’ from class to class to monitor interactions and conduct in the virtual classrooms. Caregivers should also be encouraged to monitor online learning. An adult should be present at all times during synchronous sessions to supervise and provide support.

    Schools play a critical role in protecting our most vulnerable population. Critical attention should be given to adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning so that school personnel can make the necessary efforts to be effective in this capacity under these unprecedented conditions. Social workers should proactively address this issue and retrain school staff in child welfare protocols.

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    Human Services

    Morgan State University School of Social Work Secures Contract to Support Baltimore City Pediatric Primary Care Providers

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    Morgan State School of Social Work students performing field work consultations

    Program Will Provide Critical Aid to the Maryland Health Department’s Effort to Address Disparities and Better Serve the Behavioral Health Needs of  Underserved Communities

    The primary goal of the project is to support pediatric primary care providers, strengthening their capacity to meet the behavioral health needs of young people in their care. To accomplish this goal, Morgan State and its M.S.W. program participants will engage in training, telephonic and telepsychiatry consultation, information gathering and dissemination, referral for specialized services available statewide and additional activities designed to support primary care providers.Morgan State University School of Social Work (SSW) has been awarded a $960,641 subcontract from the Behavioral Health Administration (BHA) of the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) to provide frontline support in assessing and treating mental health needs of Baltimore City families and youth.

    Teaming with the Behavioral Health Integration Program for Pediatric Primary Care Program (BHIPP), faculty and students from Morgan’s Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) program will conduct critical field work focusing exclusively on underserved minority communities, many of which have experienced long-term trauma and great disparities in mental health treatment. The effort will establish a collaborative learning community to support behavioral integration and foster interprofessional learning opportunities for next-generation social work clinicians.

    anna-mcphatter

    Anna McPhatter, Ph.D., LCSW, dean of the School of Social Work at Morgan State University

    “For our future clinicians who aspire to affect the communities they serve in bold, meaningful ways, programs like these offer invaluable field experience that will inevitably help bridge gaps and enhance service within our most underserved populations,” said Anna McPhatter, Ph.D., LCSW, dean of the School of Social Work at Morgan State. “As an anchor institution in Baltimore, we are proud to carry the mantle by addressing critical issues in behavioral health and creating new pathways for rehabilitation.”

    The Morgan State BHA/MDH subcontract in coordination with BHIPP places a significant emphasis on urban areas and populations suffering from shortages of child psychiatry practitioners and other health-related disparities. Working collaboratively with primary care providers, Morgan M.S.W. program participants will be instrumental in early intervention, reducing long-held stigmas associated with mental illness and increasing the population’s general knowledge of mental health services.

    “To utilize the expanding knowledge base of the social work profession and address the growing complexity of the population it serves, it is important that all social workers be equipped with practical field work related to their academic pursuits,” said Laurens G. Van Sluytman, Ph.D., LCSW, associate professor and assistant dean of SSW and co-principal investigator for the program.

    SSW will identify and supervise students to serve as social work interns, Dr. Van Sluytman said. The interns will conduct field placements within primary care settings and establish working relationships with pediatric offices to coordinate mental health screenings and psychiatric consultations and better understand the overall goal of integrated care. Dr. Van Sluytman anticipates that, through this advance practicum, Morgan students will gain deeper insights into the implementation process, identify strengths and weaknesses within the program design and improve upon the program in future scale-up efforts.

    The expanded minority health component secured by the Social Work program at Morgan through this subcontract is part of an ongoing statewide interagency initiative that has enlisted the support of advanced-year M.S.W. students from Maryland higher education institutions. The project was initially forged as a partnership with the University of Maryland School of Medicine and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and was broadened to include Salisbury University, which placed interns in rural pediatric primary care practices in Western Maryland and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Morgan State’s involvement and its emphasis on urban/minority health further broadens the scope of the project.

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