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Children's Voice Article, January/February 2004

Executive Directions

by Shay Bilchik

It seems to be happening more often these days. Someone somewhere decides that if we simply raise the bar, people who have a difficult time jumping over that bar will have no choice but to rise to the challenge, dig a little deeper, and overcome whatever is keeping them down. Unfortunately, it doesn't often work out that way.

The latest example is the Child and Family Service Reviews (CFSRs), now being completed by the federal government. So far, 45 states have been subjected to a rigorous test of their ability to protect children from abuse, provide appropriate out-of-home care, and find safe, permanent homes for those children as soon as possible. The reviews concern the care of nearly 550,000 children in foster care and an estimated 500,000 others living at home under state supervision.

None of the 45 states reviewed so far have met the review standards for more than three of the seven outcome measures. Of the first 32 states with final CFSR reports available, 10 did not conform with any of the seven outcomes, 15 met the review standards for only one of the outcomes, 6 conformed with only two outcomes, and only one state met the standards on three outcomes.

Few of us have a problem with high standards. In fact, most of us wish the standards pertaining to child welfare were even higher, the investigations broader, the expectations greater. After all, is it enough to measure how many times a social worker visits a child or family? Wouldn't it be better to measure precisely what is being accomplished in that time? Is it enough to measure the number of months a child stays in a temporary home before going to a permanent home without understanding whether it's part of a meaningful plan designed to achieve a child's safety, permanence, and well-being? If a child is quickly reunited with his or her birthparents who suffer from alcohol or drug addictions, is the placement truly successful?

Perhaps future models can measure both the basics as well as the more meaningful outcomes we desire. In fact, we're working with the U.S. Children's Bureau to determine how to best achieve those more meaningful outcomes.

But are these raised expectations a mixed blessing for child advocates? CFSRs have revealed that families do better when caseworkers make more visits--no surprise to any of us. But more visits require more caseworkers, and that requires more money. Yet the federal government is threatening to remove funding from those states that can't do the job with the funding they already have. Clearly, CFSRs aim to set the ideal path for child-serving agencies, but in most cases, the path can be better defined, and the agencies involved could use more resources to take the first few steps. What's a state commissioner to do?

Years ago, Illinois was the target of a number of lawsuits from child advocates who insisted that children in foster care were not made available for adoption in a timely manner. Rather than fight the accusations, the state child welfare director agreed to settle the suits collectively. One condition of the settlement provided that the state would meet certain standards set by the Council on Accreditation. Of course, these standards required staffing and funding the state agency hadn't been receiving, so the governor and state legislature had no choice but to fund the program adequately. Other states have used similar tacks--Tennessee pointed to CWLA's standards and received greater resources from its legislature a few years ago.

At a recent gathering of state child welfare commissioners, Secretary Jerry Regier of Florida described how leaders in his state were so frustrated with the failures of the state's child welfare system they decided to appoint police officers as child protective investigators. The state also made a major shift toward community-based care--an effort to engage community-based agencies in taking responsibility for the care of children in the child welfare system. After the change, cases were closed more quickly, and investigators filed reports that were more accurate. In two of the counties in which community-based care work was more fully under way, results were also improving.

But one has to wonder what had actually changed, knowing that the reshuffling of personnel alone could not account for the improvements. It turned out that a larger budget, lower caseloads, and greater emphasis on effective supervision were behind the improvements--the same things social workers had been requesting for years.

In October, CWLA will look at even more solutions like this at its Biennial Leadership Summit in South Carolina, Is the System Broken? Creating the Will, Wisdom, and Ways to Meet the Needs of America's Children. Dozens of leaders in the field will look at the child welfare system through the eyes of critics and our members, examine the means by which change can occur, inspire us all to take up that challenge, and develop a plan for CWLA and its members to take the lead. We hope you will join us.

Clearly, our field is charged with the difficult task of weaving gold out of straw. The ongoing CFSRs are already showing the public what child welfare agencies aren't doing. But they're also an opportunity to show people what we can do if given the chance, the funding, and the public support. As we continue to work with the Children's Bureau and those in the field, we hope to expand this opportunity even more.

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