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Human Rights

Government Innovation in Child Welfare

The federal government is empowering states to improve child welfare systems using design-thinking and other innovative approaches.

Due to sensational cases of child abuse and neglect, Foster Skills CEO James Eggers says, “When a child is removed from their home and placed into foster care, most parents are negatively stigmatized as bad parents and bad people.  However, not all parents whose kids enter into foster care are bad; they just lack the necessary resources.”

Just one example of this is Cynthia Jones. Jones—a single mother who could not afford childcare or babysitters—had to leave her 10-year-old daughter home unattended while she worked the evening shift as a security officer. Subsequently, her neighbors called child protective services, and Jones’ daughter was placed into foster care. She fought tirelessly for two years and jumped through many hoops before she could regain custody.

Federal and state governments are charged with strengthening and enhancing families’ capacities to meet their children’s’ physical, mental, and educational needs. However, historically, there have been very few processes, substantive programs, or funding streams dedicated to preventing young people from ever being removed from their families in the first place.

“Some states have been able to work with Medicaid to fund preventative (in-home) services for families in crisis with federal dollars, but most states do not have that available,” says Youth Villages CEO Patrick Lawler, who has been working to improve foster care for more than 20 years. Governments have traditionally invested in foster care as a solution to poor parenting and bad neighborhoods, but this approach has had a negative spillover effect and been detrimental to vulnerable families and communities.

But there is good news: “We are seeing a sustainable shift in our nation’s response to child abuse and neglect to be about making sure families live in communities that are safe and that offer ready access to the services and resources that strengthen, support and enhance parenting and raising children,” says Casey Family Programs CEO William Bell.

Over the past few years, the federal government has adopted an entrepreneurial and outcomes-driven attitude, and is proactively working to improve the foster care system by budgeting for innovation and investing in targeted interventions that support vulnerable families.

In 2011, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Child and Family Services Improvements and Innovations Act, which made it possible for states to use once-restricted Federal Title IV-E funds on evidence-based and upstream programs, including those providing services to families in crises. For example: Nebraska is using Title IV-E funds to develop an “alternative response” to child protection reports that rate vulnerable families on a continuum of risk. Lower-risk families can skip a traditional child welfare investigation, maintain custody, and receive necessary intensive in-home services that help stabilize the family before placing a child into foster care. Many more states, including Montana, Rhode Island, and Tennessee, are also using this new “innovation funding” to bring to life some evidenced practices that will improve their respective child welfare systems.

Beyond creating new funding streams, the federal is using human-centered design practices to improve the foster care experience for children and families. At the 2014 Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect, JooYuen Chang of Children’s Bureau—the largest and oldest federal agency responsible for ensuring the welfare of children and families—announced that the organization will fundamentally revamp and restructure two of its primary functions: Children and Family Service Reviews (CFSRs) and Technical Assistance (TA). According to Chang, Children’s Bureau wants to improve its CFSR (a quality-assurance mechanism for state programs) and TA (a program that helps build integrated child care systems) initiatives based on feedback from child welfare professionals, associations, and federal staffers. As a result, agency leadership is removing elements in the CFSR process that are burdensome to states and do not provide an accurate picture of what is happening to children and families, and folding TA into the National Capacity Building Center for Public Child Welfare Agencies.  Children’s Bureau’s consultation with groups that are actually using its services is driving an iterative design process to make its primary functions more customer-centric and user-centered.

While all of this points to progress, there are still many more pain points to tackle, including foster care. For example, 23,000 children “age out” of foster care annually with no permanent support system—the state is the parent, but unlike many parents, it does not provide financial support, tuition, a bedroom, or a health plan. We must recognize that expelling youth from care when they are 18 or even 21 is immoral.

Of course, government cannot do this work alone. It needs nonprofits to create awareness around its shortcomings and advocate for new legislation to create systemic change. It needs businesses to continue investing in their communities and sharing government practices they think can help move the needle on innovation in the child welfare. It needs neighbors to support people like Cynthia Jones during times of need.

Government needs help at zip-code level, because community-based problem solving is the best way to create a better future for all children.

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