The Meaning of a Voluntary Referral

"I got the job!" said Willie Smith (not his real name) to Saudi Encarnacion, his Bronx Community Solutions case manager.

It was good news: Willie, who had lost his job after his arrest (and was worried about supporting his young son and pregnant wife), had approached Saudi after he finished his court mandate of two days social service. Saudi had arranged for Willie to meet with a job developer at Urban Youth Alliance, one of our partner agencies, who found him work right away.

Helping our clients find a job, get into drug treatment or obtain a GED after they complete their court mandate is one of the most important goals of Bronx Community Solutions. We see not only as an incentive to comply with a court order (which helps contribute to our 70 percent compliance rate), but as an opportunity to get individuals back on track after an arrest.

This type of voluntary engagement is particularly important for us, because the average Bronx Community Solutions sentence is four days. That's hardly enough time to tackle problems like drug addiction or chronic unemployment - precisely the issues that bring people back into court again and again. To make real progress, we need participants to seek services on their own.

As of June 30, 2006, we've made close to 900 voluntary referrals, including over 500 to employment programs and about 200 to drug treatment. While these are good results, we still have a lot to learn about improving the voluntary engagement process. Unfortunately for us, we haven't found much information to help guide us about best practices and results we can expect to achieve.

For example, we've heard “back of the envelope” estimates from experienced practitioners that only about five percent of offenders will seek out additional services, a good reminder of how important it to be realistic in this business. But it's not clear what it would take to move that number to eight or ten percent - or whether that's even possible.

Even the definition of a "voluntary referral" is unclear. For some, a voluntary referral might consist of simply handing a brochure or business card to someone who asks for help, without taking into account whether the person makes anything of the information (or even if there's someone on the other end of the line to answer the phone). While this kind of service can be helpful at times, we want to hold ourselves to a higher standard - a referral should mean more than just handing out a flyer.

Finally, there's the question of long-term impacts - whether referrals the one that helped Willie get a job help him stay on the straight and narrow.

Recently, however, we’ve started to take a closer look at our voluntary referrals to help us at least begin grappling with these questions. With the help of Judah Zuger, a FEGS employee who’s been posted at Bronx Community Solutions, we took a look at a months’ worth (from July 2006) of voluntary employment referrals — 103 in all — to see what could learn about the meaning of a voluntary referral.

What Judah found was encouraging, but suggested that there's a lot of room for improvement. The good news was that a quarter of our referred individuals received some kind of job interview in the month since they completed their Bronx Community Solutions mandate, and of those interviewed, close to half (like Willie) found a job. Since it’s only been a few weeks since their interviews, we may even hear some more good news in the next week or so.

On the other hand, about 60 percent of participants who received a referral never showed up for their initial appointment, a big drop off. (Another sign of the need to be realistic about our work). Those who we were able to contact for follow-up interviews gave a variety of reasons for missing their appointment, including trouble finding child care, competing appointments with a welfare agency, difficulty finding the location and oversleeping (not the greatest excuse).

The evidence seems to suggest that if an individual makes their initial appointment, they have a pretty good shot at getting a job. Obviously, there's no way we'll be able to get everyone to their first appointment (we won't be buying any alarm clocks, for example), but what's clear is that we have to pay attention to the issues that keep people from showing up. The research also bolsters the case for having more on-site services that are easier for our participants to access.

This represents a start, at least, to unpacking the meaning of a voluntary referral.

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