Children's Voice May/June 2009

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Safely Reducing the Number of Children in Foster Care

Nationwide Progress in Counties and States Builds Momentum

By David Sanders

Casey Family Programs' vision is to safely reduce the Casey Family Programs vision is to safely reduce the number of children in foster care by 50% over the next decade. It is ambitious, but improved policy and practice-and increasingly strong leadership-are driving us toward an objective that will give our most vulnerable young people a brighter future and a sense of family.

We call our vision the 2020 Strategy, which provides clear direction and challenges us to work with state, county, and tribal child welfare agencies to prevent abuse or neglect and achieve permanency for children while ensuring their safety. It was this vision, in fact, that brought me to Casey three years ago. I was director of one of the nation's largest child welfare systems at the time, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Previously I had been in Hennepin County, leading Minnesota's largest child welfare agency.

Los Angeles and Hennepin counties have more in common than my experience; they are both among a growing number of jurisdictions that have measurably improved outcomes for abused or neglected children. State, county, and tribal child welfare agencies across the country are moving toward improved practice. As Executive Vice President for Systems Improvement at Casey Family Programs, I am grateful for the opportunity to support change on a national level.

Casey Family Programs' 2020 Strategy

At Casey, we work with child welfare leaders who are committed to preventing children from going into foster care, shortening the length of stay for children in care, and increasing the number of children who leave care to safe and permanent homes. Our 2020 Strategy imbues us with a sense of urgency when discussing improved outcomes for children, youth, and families. The strategy was informed by some extraordinary research in foster care, particularly the Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study, available through the Publications page of the Casey Family Programs website.

The results of that study suggest that young adults who have emancipated have poorer outcomes in the areas of education, employment, and mental health than youth in the general population, regardless of the quality of their foster care services. In fact, the study found that youth aging out of foster care experience posttraumatic stress disorder at comparable or higher levels than U.S. war veterans.

Foster care systems can reduce the overall foster care population and improve safety outcomes for children if they work to improve safety and risk assessments, prevent abuse or neglect, and improve supports to families by both preventing initial removals and better preparing families for reunification.

These two factors informed the 2020 Vision: Casey Family Programs' goal to influence a safe reduction of the nation's foster care population by 50% by 2020 and convince state and federal lawmakers to reinvest the savings to continue improved outcomes for children, youth, and families; and our desire for well-being outcomes in mental health, education, and employment for youth served in foster care to at least equal the outcomes of the general population.

Making an Impact

Child welfare agencies are learning about and developing strategies that are making a difference. Awareness of these changes is spreading rapidly. When we launched our 2020 Strategy in 2005, we set the goal to safely reduce America's foster care population by 50% in 15 years. We are committed to the 2020 goal, investing a total of $1.8 billion to help state, county, and tribal agencies strengthen families to keep children safely at home.

The public expects two essential things from child welfare agencies, no matter where they are in this country: for children to be safe, and for children not to languish in care. That is the public's standard, and it is the standard we would want for our own children. In fact, the public expects that child welfare agencies treat and support youth in foster care as all of us treat and support our own children. This means seeing through the eyes of a child, and with the resulting urgency. Remember when you were a child and the summer vacation between school years seemed interminably long? Three months is a lifetime for a child, yet many children spend one, two, three, or more years in the limbo of foster care without a permanent and loving family.

Even more importantly, all of us would do everything possible to make sure that our own children were never abused. Therefore, Casey Family Programs supports system initiatives that do everything to prevent children from going into care in the first place by making sure their home is safe. When children must go into care, we work with agencies to safely reunify the children with their birth parents or connect them to other permanent families through adoption or legal guardianship.

Policy, Practice, and Consulting

Our foundation is improving foster care through direct practice, strategic consulting, and public policy. We have provided direct foster care services since 1966 and have accumulated a great deal of knowledge over those 43 years. We continue to operate nine field offices in five states.

Increasingly, we are creating opportunities to share information with all three branches of state governments as well as members of Congress. It helps for policymakers to understand the importance of safe reduction, improvement in well-being outcomes, and the need for financing structures. Our public policy work raises the visibility of foster care with public officials who have the power to create change.

We provide strategic consulting in 25 states and the District of Columbia in order to support child welfare leadership and influence an improvement in outcomes. We are working to engage tribal communities to develop effective and culturally appropriate Indian child welfare programs.

Change that WorksProgress in Los Angeles County

Los Angeles County, with a population of 10.5 million, operates one of the nation's largest child welfare systems. In 2003, when I came aboard the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), we confronted the challenge of having too many children in foster care by sharpening the focus on three key outcomes: safety, reduced reliance on out-of-home care, and shortening the time to permanency. These three key outcomes are still the driving goals for Trish Ploehn, my successor as director of Los Angeles County DCFS. "We all from the very beginning were really part of believing that was the right direction for our department," Ploehn says. "These three outcomes...really helped to align people's vision, it helped to align the structure of our department."

We used five strategies: point of engagement, team decision making, structured decision making, concurrent planning, and our Permanency Partners program. Structured decision making gave caseworkers a critical tool to make the right decisions about how to serve families, and aligned with our other strategies to make progress. We did not place children in foster care, where they possibly could get stuck for interminable periods of time, when the evidence told us that services would keep them safe at home.

As a result, the Los Angeles foster care population declined quickly and dramatically, from a peak in the 1990s of almost 50,000 to nearly a third of that today. "The number, which I am just so proud of," Ploehn says, was 16,087 at the end of March. Children spent a median 1,011 days in out-of-home care in 2003, but spend fewer than 500 days there today. Adoptions soared from 9.5% within 24 months to about 23% over the same period. And the median time to reunification was cut in half from 16.1 months to 8.3 months. Meanwhile, recurrence of maltreatment declined, proving that safety and permanency indeed go hand in hand.

California's IV-E waiver has helped sustain this success because it provides the funding flexibility to align resources with desired outcomes. "That is one of the pivotal pieces to our success," Ploehn explains. While negotiating for the flexibility, we knew it was a gamble. "It was a risk it had to be sold to our board and to other people," Ploehn recalls. But it was necessary to get the funding needed for DCFS' progress.

A Nationwide Commitment

Several other states are adopting policies and practices that either have already begun making a difference for vulnerable children or are showing great promise. Florida is focusing on front-end prevention. New Jersey's practice model has resulted in a 15% reduction in a short period of time. Minnesota has had impressive results through alternative response, which Ohio is now using with encouraging results. Alabama made so much pro-gress that in 2007 a federal judge dismissed a consent decree that had hovered over the system for 16 years.

Additionally, six states are participating in the National Governor's Association Policy Academy on Safely Reducing the Number of Children in Foster Care, working in teams with stakeholders, and sharing innovations. Casey Family Programs is partnering with this policy academy, and I've had the opportunity to address the representatives at their first two meetings. Susan Golonka is Program Director for Human Services at the National Governor's Association Center for Best Practice. She explained that the interest in this topic is broad; the participating states were chosen in a competitive process, and had to prove their commitment to the goal by sharing details about permanency programs they already had. "This academy provided a focus and a real commitment of these states," Golonka says. "It also provides a way to bring together the best practices that we know of in child welfare."

Golonka and her colleague Jody Grutza say that each state is bringing something impressive and unique to the group. Pennsylvania and Oregon have county-based initiatives that the states are providing technical assistance to; South Carolina is a leader in utilizing family group decision making; Arkansas put a strong focus on increasing adoptions; Ohio brought in the state's First Lady as a proponent and spokesperson for the issue; and Florida set an even more aggressive goal than we did, vowing in 2006 to have a 50% reduction in the number of children in foster care by 2012.

Private Agency Help: Alabama

Some of the changes have included private child welfare agencies. California's Residentially-Based Services reform has engaged pro-viders as well as other stakeholders to develop a framework to improve services and expedite family placement for youth in congregate care.

Another good example of this is in Alabama. In coordination with the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR), Casey Family Programs contracted with Children's Aid Society (CAS), a CWLA member agency in Birmingham, to use retired master's-level social workers to expedite finalizations of foster parent adoptions. Workers completed backlogged case summaries and moved "families-in-waiting" to final judicial consent. Christie Mac Segars works with the program, which is still being used on an as-needed basis. At one point the Alabama DHR had about 400 adoptions that needed to be finalized. "A lot of the delay has just been with the paperwork," Segars says.

Casey Family Programs and DHR contacted CAS to see if the agency could help. "We have a lot of experience in permanency and adoption, and we already had a contract with the state," Segars says. "It was a natural fit." A few current CAS staffers work on the project, but to broaden the capacity they decided to reach out to other people they thought would be interested. "It's people who've retired from our agency, from DHR, contacts we have from a variety of methods from programs we've had in the past," Segars explains. "Most people were excited about the project."

That excitement inspired a simultaneous special effort to finalize other foster parent adoptions, resulting in almost 200 consents from this past October through January. This should enable more expeditious exits from care.

Building Toward Success

As we change our practice, we constantly need to measure outcomes and build on the body of knowledge. At Casey Family Programs, our data advocacy and research teams work aggressively to shed new light on child welfare practice nationally and state-by-state. We specifically want to track safety, entries into foster care, exits from care, and the time in care. Those numbers tell us, more than anything, how well we are moving toward our 2020 goal of safe reduction. Our research tells us the stories behind those numbers.

Peter J. Pecora, senior director for research at Casey Family Programs, points out that an innovative program in Los Angeles County has brought new community partners to work in collaboration with DCFS to ensure child safety and family well-being. More than 60 of those organizations did not have previous relationships with the department. "Some of these groups have little bureaucratic infrastructure, but they represent important resources for families. Others have long-standing relationships with county departments that can be leveraged and enhanced on behalf of the entire network," Pecora says. "These early successes are encouraging other partners who are stepping up and want to be included."

Change is possible when an organization commits to several fundamental components of change. The building blocks for child welfare change start with strong leadership: organizations need leaders who provide clear and consistent direction while working with stakeholders and mobilizing agency staff to a focused goal. From there, it requires moving values to practice, building the will, using a data-driven approach, investing resources and, finally, gaining and maintaining momentum to sustain the change through difficult circumstances, including tragedies and transitions.

Of course, there are challenges, especially in 2009. Child welfare agencies often undergo leadership change, and sustainable changes are needed to ensure that good new practices stay around long after the leaders. Crises such as child fatalities can undermine change without the right messaging to demonstrate to stakeholders and the public that the agency is moving in the right direction. Lack of flexible funding places a huge constraint on innovation, particularly when agencies want to shift resources from foster care to family preservation. Often, there is a lack of system-wide standards, which could produce dramatically different forms of practice from one caseworker to another. Also, state budget crises are hitting human services divisions especially hard.

Signs of Progress

There are many good reasons to be encouraged, however. The 2020 Strategy does not advocate using more money for child welfare, but seeks more prudent investment of current funding so that costs are placed on strengthening families. Some say that we should never waste a budget crisis. With that in mind, the current recession can be seen as an opportune time to discuss funding flexibility.

It also is encouraging that states are increasingly engaged in improving outcomes for children, youth, and families, while a new generation of child welfare leaders shows perhaps unprecedented commitment to improving foster care by doing more to prevent its overuse.

Increasingly, the child welfare community is demonstrating that greater sense of urgency and success. The community is developing standards that will improve practice and establish the profession as one that uses principles based on scientific methodology. Casey Family Programs, CWLA, the American Public Human Services Association, and other national organizations are moving practice in that direction.

Transforming the foster care system is not just possible it's already happening. "If Los Angeles can do it, anybody can do it," Ploehn contends. Many agencies at the county and state level have already proven that change is possible, and the momentum is spreading. As we move toward a potential White House Conference on Children and Youth next year, we can build on this momentum and create a child welfare system that uses the very best information and tools to give all our children what they deserve: safe and permanent homes.

David Sanders PhD is Executive Vice President for Systems Improvement at Casey Family Programs, a national foundation that has a mission to provide and improve, and ultimately to prevent the need for foster care.

Meghan Williams contributed to this article.

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