Leadership Lens

Christine James-Brown

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When CWLA was formed almost a century ago, child welfare advocates and providers came together to make sure that all children in America had access to high-quality services that would keep them safe and allow them to grow up in healthy families and communities. Throughout our history, this commitment has included developing Standards of Excellence for practice based on research, evidence, and the on-the-ground experience of organizations directly serving vulnerable children and families; providing training, consultation, and education so that organizations can operationalize best practice; advocating for policies that support best practice; and creating public will to make sure that lawmakers support those policies.

For me one of the most notable issues in child welfare is the tendency to think about program types that describe where we serve children—in residential programs, in foster care, at home—rather than how we provide the services that they need. Most often, the services required for our children and families cut across the various settings. When we look at child welfare services based on settings instead of needs, we tend to get caught up in systemic problems like ‘provider politics.’

Providers of adoption, foster care, and kinship care all exist to bring the safety, permanency, and well-being services that make sense to meet the unique needs of children and families at certain times. They are part of the full array of services necessary for child welfare as a field to achieve its goals. Also included in this array are residential care services. Residential care offers a critical treatment model for some of the most traumatized and vulnerable children. It is a treatment that some children need for a defined period of time, and it is an important part of the toolkit for helping those children heal and achieve better outcomes.

It seems as though too much time is spent on the debate surrounding residential versus community-based services, when the focus should really be on the needs of children. In talking with a colleague recently, we consistently came back to the idea that we must focus on quality services—however they are provided—to achieve optimal outcomes rather than getting involved in this debate. In this issue of the Children’s Voice, there are several examples of innovative programs that serve the needs of children in a variety of settings. At Arise Academy in Philadelphia (page 10), anecdotal evidence suggests that charter schools specifically for foster youth may be one way to improve educational outcomes for kids in the system. In New York, the GrandParent Family Apartments (page 28) are offering a new model for kinship care that helps children remain in safe and stable housing. And in Bellevue, Washington, the CHERISH program (page 6) fills gaps in young children’s psychological development by helping them bond with their foster parents.

Outcomes for kids improve when providers become partners with each other in achieving child safety, permanence, and well-being rather than getting caught up in provider politics. As the leadership organization for the field, CWLA is committed to working in partnership with our members, researchers, and key stakeholders to achieve consensus about what excellent practices and services look like, and to help all facets of the system move forward in working together. It is by working together that our agencies can improve their work with children and families and help each of them succeed.

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