Pinballs no more

Guest author Robert Routh

Guest author Robert Routh

If you’ve ever worked at a community agency helping marginalized clients, I’m sure you’ve seen examples of people who have been bounced around from agency to agency. Sometimes they end up getting referred to the wrong agency and having to come back to you.

Or, they don’t make it to the referral agency at all, and it’s hard for community workers to find the time to follow up with them.

Clients get understandably frustrated when they have to go through a separate intake process at each agency, which can lead to “referral fatigue”. They have to repeat their story three or four times, sometimes more. They’re bounced around like pinballs. It’s vexing for the clients, and inefficient for us.

But how to address the challenge of helping our clients avoid falling through the cracks?

In 2010, my community legal clinic and three other community agencies in our catchment area started to talk about ways that we could reduce referral fatigue for our mutual clients.


It made sense that the first point of contact with one agency should be a potential gateway to all of our services. And, it seemed more efficient to have those frontline workers who have worked with specific clients and gained their trust collect and share standard information about the clients as part of the referral process.

Our network conducted a needs assessment to figure out the best ways of streamlining the referral process. We then developed a mutual referral protocol, including a detailed referral form intended to canvass and capture the varying types of legal and social problems that our clients routinely experience – often in clusters.

Through our needs assessment and consultation, we also learned about another interagency referral project that had started to use a free cloud-based interview to collect and share intake and referral information. We then partnered with Clinic IP, a technology partnership of community legal clinics, to design an animated intake interview customized to the needs of our agencies and clients.

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The referral protocol and interview we created has helped create an information loop between our agencies. If the clients consent, the agency who first sees the client collects information about the client and their issues, and shares it by email with the referral agencies.

Our agencies can then use this information to set targets to follow up with the client. Then, if a client doesn’t make it to one of the referral agencies, others in the information loop can follow up with the client.

Our pilot of this project was successful – in fact, we even won an award from the Toronto South Local Immigration Partnership in 2015.

We’re now hoping to develop a password-protected system so that we can store the intake information in the cloud. And, now that our pilot has concluded, we’ll make efforts to grow our network later on this year.

Would you like more information? Check out this PowerPoint presentation – or, contact me.

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Robert Routh works as an analyst/ trainer at Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto. In this role, amongst other things, he provides significant support to Clinic IP, a project funded by Legal Aid Ontario to expand community legal clinic services through the development and use of customized interactive interviews. In his spare time, he enjoys jogging, shopping for clothes for his toddler daughter, and tormenting his friends and colleagues with puns.

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