The New England Youth Permanence Convening: A Regional Approach to Improving Outcomes

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All youth, including youth in foster care, need family. Young people's ability to successfully develop through adolescence and into young adulthood is tied to their relationships with their families. An important predictor of adolescent adjustment and adult self-sufficiency is their parents' support for their healthy separation and individuation during adolescence. Young people are more likely to develop as healthy adolescents and adults when they feel connected to family, can discuss their problems with parents and extended family members, know that their parents have high expectations for them, frequently participate in shared activities with their families, and have the consistent presence of their parents at the start and end of each day. Young people need somewhere to return for reassurance, support, and unconditional love in tough times.

The understanding of the importance of permanent families for youth in foster care, like other youth, has taken root over the past decade. Youth remain in foster care longer and achieve permanence at lower rates than younger children, and a significant number of youth age out of foster care each year to live on their own. Since FY 2002, more than 250,000 young people have exited foster care without a legally sanctioned permanent family relationship to offer guidance and support as they make the gradual transition into adulthood. Youth who age out of foster care without supports from their families or other caring adults, and who lack community connections, tend to fare poorly.

With the enactment of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) and the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (FCA), achieving permanency for all children and youth in foster care has become a primary goal. States and localities across the United States--including the New England states--have encountered challenges in implementing quality youth permanence policies and practices and ensuring that young people in foster care leave care to permanent families. In unprecedented ways, however, the New England states made youth permanence a priority for their states and the New England region as a whole. In 2006, at a meeting of the members of New England Association of Child Welfare Commissioners and Directors and the New England Foster Care Association, commissioners and directors of the six public child welfare agencies and the board presidents of their state Foster and Adoptive Parent Associations recognized the importance of a multi-year commitment to youth permanence and the power of manifesting their commitment by signing a pact pledging that commitment. By signing this pact, A Declaration of Commitment to Permanent Lifelong Connections for Foster Youth, each commissioner, director, and board president pledged their individual commitment and the commitment of their respective agencies to support and achieve permanent, lifelong connections for all children and youth that they serve. Even as leadership at the commissioner, director, and board president levels have changed, each new leader has added his or her signature to the Declaration and used it as a symbolic guidepost in assessing progress toward the goal of permanency for all youth in foster care in their states.

State-to-State Peer Learning

Recognizing that steps were needed to operationalize the Declaration, the New England Association of Child Welfare Commissioners and Directors (The Association)-- a consortium of child welfare agency leaders and staff members from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont--mobilized regional efforts to support the New England states in achieving their pledges. The Association collaborated with Casey Family Services and Casey Family Programs--organizations actively providing consultation and technical assistance on youth permanence in the New England states--to develop a strategic regional approach to training and peer consultation in the form of Youth Permanence Convenings. The strategy was intentionally designed as an inclusive, collaborative approach to challenging assumptions, refusing to accept barriers to youth permanence, and working in teams for the best possible permanency outcomes for young people.

The Association reached out to the child welfare commissioners and directors in each New England state to provide information on the regional strategy and obtained their support. Each commissioner/director selected a state team leader to assemble and guide the members of the state's youth permanency team. Beginning in 2009 and continuing through 2012, the New England state teams annually participated in Convenings that the Association, CFS, and CFP organized to provide them with space to reflect, recharge, learn and grow and to continue their work on strategies and actions steps to achieve legal permanence for youth in foster care. Learning opportunities, peer sharing, and the development of customized state action plans were critical components of each Convening.

Each Convening was aimed at helping states achieve the following measureable outcomes: reduction in the overall number of children in foster care and the number of children entering foster care annually; increased proportions of exits to permanence; decreases in the proportion of youth placed in congregate care; reductions in the proportion of older youth with APPLA goals; and reductions in the percentage of exits to "aging out." State participants heard the voices of young people and families, had opportunities to share with colleagues, and participated as teams in state-specific action planning. Each Convening also featured new and emerging information from research, policy and practice. Plenary sessions were devoted to such topics as adolescent brain development and trauma, developing court and agency partnerships, reinstatement of parental rights, and leveraging forces for change. Specific strategies were employed in the convenings to promote continued knowledge development, collaboration, and action (see table below).

Outcomes of the Regional Approach

From the outset, the New England states recognized that changing policy and practice to achieve family permanence for young people in foster care would take time. However, in the period during which the Convenings were held, important changes have taken place, and more are expected in the coming years.

Data Trends. Over the four-year period of the Convenings (2009 through 2012), all New England states saw a reduction in the number of children in foster care. Four of the six saw overall reductions in the number of children entering foster care over the same time period. Region-wide, the number of younger teens (ages 13-15) entering care declined, while the number of older teens (ages 16-17) remained the same. Across New England, the proportion of exits to permanency for all children increased from 80.2% in FY 2007 to 83% in FY 2011. Among older youth, however, only about 60% of exits from care were to legally permanent families. Between FY 2005 and FY 2011, three New England states saw a decrease in the proportion of older youth (ages 13-17) in congregate care. The most substantial and consistent positive trend was the reduction in the proportion of older youth in care with goals of Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA). Regionally, for the period FY 2005 through FY 2011, the proportion of teens with APPLA goals declined from 38% to 23%. Three New England states significantly reduced the percentage of exits from foster care to "aging out" with decreases ranging from 20% to 49%.1

State Policy and Practice Changes. In addition to measureable outcomes, each of the New England states has made significant policy and practice changes as a result of their participation in the Convenings.

Connecticut drew on Convening presentations on the role of the court in ensuring youth permanency and collaborated with the state's juvenile court, the child protection attorney, and the Attorney General's Office to develop a standardized process to ensure youth participation in court hearings. The state also updated its training materials regarding the legal rights of young people in foster care and instituted training for staff on these issues. After learning about permanency pacts at the Convenings, the state incorporated this practice into training for its adolescent workers. Following a presentation on other states' laws on reinstating parental rights, Connecticut began to explore potential statutory language proposals regarding reinstatement of parental rights and guardianships.

Maine made significant policy changes based on what was learned at the Convenings, including expanding the eligible population of young people who are served with both supportive and permanency planning services. After hearing directly from youth at the Convenings, Maine focused on refining extended care for young people ages 18-21 to provide educational, employment and life skills support for the young people and permanency planning. Following one Convening, the Performance and Quality Improvement Unit reviewed all APPLA cases and provided recommendations to senior management on implementing best practices to reduce the number of young people in the state with APPLA goals. Maine took the conversations that were held at the Convenings and within the agency to the community to broaden the base of stakeholders engaged in ensuring youth permanence. Nine such community conversations were held in 2012; they will be continued and expanded in 2013. After learning about Permanency Roundtables at the Convenings, Maine customized the approach to meet its own unique needs and called the process Permanency Review Teaming.

Massachusetts utilized its learnings from the Convenings to expand its Adolescent Outreach Program New Training for adolescent staff with a focus on permanency. After attending one of the Convenings, the Department of Children and Families Commissioner, Angelo McClain, instituted a policy for agency leaders to review all cases in which APPLA was the chosen permanency goal to determine its appropriateness. He believed that careful scrutiny of APPLA goals was critical to permanency outcomes. Hearing the youth panel further influenced his commitment to create the Massachusetts Network of Foster Care Alumni.

New Hampshire developed a Youth Bill of Rights after learning about the Maine Youth Bill of Rights at the Convenings. Based on discussions at the Convenings, the state extended its child protective services permanency team meetings to juvenile justice cases when those young people need permanency planning. New Hampshire developed a Youth Normalcy Survey to learn directly from young people in congregate care whether they have opportunities for adolescent normalcy. The state presented on the survey at a convening and plans to use the data to help residential treatment centers to provide normal activities for the young people they serve.

Rhode Island learned about New Hampshire's permanency team meetings and implemented similar meetings as a primary vehicle for permanency planning for youth. The state enhanced its Permanency Support Team (PST) practice by training its staff in Permanency Roundtables after learning about Roundtables from Casey Family Programs and discussing them further at the convenings, where Rhode Island made this practice part of their action plan. After deepening its understanding of the importance of early assessment and planning through Convening participation, Rhode Island, in collaboration with the Child Study Center at Yale, developed a model to identify children as they enter agency care who are most likely to age out of care without permanent families and refer them to PSTs for evaluation. The Convenings solidified the state's commitment to community collaborations to support and strengthen kinship foster parents and reduce the need for congregate care.

Vermont was able to implement new practices that the state learned about at the Convenings and increase the percentage of all exits to permanence from 84% to 90%. The state has expanded its use of Family Engagement Strategies, including the use of Family Safety Planning and Family Group Conferencing, to develop plans for children and youth in custody. These practices have been expanded in the state's work with youth in residential care in order to plan for their return to the community. In 2011, after learning more about Permanency Roundtables at the Convenings, the state began to explore how it might embed this methodology into practice in a sustained manner.

The Benefits of a Regional Approach to Youth Permanence

The participating states highly rate New England's unique regional approach to achieving youth permanence. Among the range of benefits they identify to a regional approach are the following:

  • A regional approach brings a focus to youth permanence that is reinforced as states come together.
  • A regional approach brings a diverse group of people together who generally do not have opportunities to interact. Regional meetings support the convening of various stakeholders across systems and disciplines, including youth to focus on a comprehensive approach to youth permanence.
  • Regional meetings assemble people together who understand the challenges because "we are all in the same boat."
  • Regional meetings provide new ideas and new insights from other states that can be applied to practice. Peer- to-peer learning can be shared across state lines. States can "steal shamelessly" from one another.
  • Regional meeting allow states to showcase what is was happening in the state. States that are showcased have a sense of pride in their work and accomplishments.
  • Regional meetings hold participating states to a high standard of accountability because they are reporting back to colleagues in the region.
  • A regional approach has the benefit of doing something "close to home" but not "at home."
  • Regional meeting provide the opportunity to build and sustain cross-state relationships. People reconnect at each Convening, and there are opportunities between regional meetings to connect by telephone.

Conclusion

Planners and participants agreed that the Convenings' greatest successes were the excitement and enthusiasm that existed around making permanency a priority--giving people "time apart" to look at the issues from multiple perspectives, learning from colleagues in a collaborative environment, and developing state action plans. For the states, it was a unique opportunity for child welfare professionals to work shoulder-to-shoulder with parents, foster parents, and other key stakeholders in their own state and across the region. Challenges were inevitable, including the two-day commitment to annual convenings, although only one state struggled to send a team regularly. Participants were required to find answers to challenging questions: How do we make this new conversation part of what we are already doing? How do we incorporate and embed it into our current work? A number of key lessons were learned that can be of assistance to other states considering a regional approach: the need to take time to reach a common understanding of permanence, the importance of using time and other resources strategically in the planning process, the need for a multi-year initiative, the importance of working across systems and roles to achieve positive outcomes, the importance of using data from the outset, the critical importance of the ongoing support and visibility of State Commissioners and Directors, and the need for state team members who are able to keep the focus on permanence and maintain momentum.

1 All data are taken from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, AFCARS Reports #15, #16, #17, #18 and #19. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/afcars.

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