Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 27, Number 1
by Jennifer Michael
Every family needs a roof over its head. But what if poverty, substance use, or struggles with mental health issues imperil a family’s ability to keep a home and protect its children?
Over the last decade, a program model called Keeping Families Together (KFT) has made promising strides in preventing homelessness and child welfare involvement among families at greatest risk of crisis by pairing them with permanent supportive housing—stable, affordable housing matched with intensive case management and family preservation services.
KFT formed through a partnership between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), a New York-based national nonprofit that promotes affordable housing, combined with services and case management, to reach people who are the most vulnerable.
With funding from RWJF, CSH piloted Keeping Families Together from 2007 to 2010, providing permanent, supportive housing for 29 families in New York City who had been homeless for at least one year and had at least one case of child abuse or neglect open with child welfare. The families received services to improve parenting, treat mental health and addiction problems, provide vocational training, prevent violence, and address other needs specific to each family. An evaluation of the KFT pilot conducted by Metis Associates showed promising results of using supportive housing as a platform for helping families achieve housing stability while resolving their child welfare cases and keeping children safe. Among the outcomes:
- 90 percent of the pilot families remained housed;
- 61 percent of child welfare cases closed in an average
of 10 months after move-in;
- 100 percent of children returned to their families from
foster care and stayed with their families;
- abuse and neglect reports decreased dramatically; and,
- roughly 63 percent of families had no further involvement
with the child welfare system
Michelle, a single mother who participated in the KFT pilot, was able to establish a stable home for herself and her three sons in the South Bronx through the program. Michelle had struggled for years with poverty, using drugs and shuttling back and forth between homeless shelters with her children. When Michelle’s 13-year-old son Donovan, who has behavioral and emotional problems, attacked her and she struck back to defend herself, New York City’s Administration for Child Services opened a child welfare case against her. Michelle’s KFT case manager stepped in, interceding with child welfare on Michelle’s behalf and ensuring that her son received proper medication. Her son was placed in psychiatric day care and the family remained intact.
“I don’t know what I would do without the services here,” Michelle says of KFT. “Sometimes when you need support, you need it right then—not tomorrow or next week.” She added, “They should welcome this program in other states. This is a really good program. They should have had this program 20 years ago.”
In 2012, following up on the success of KFT, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (ACF) made a $25 million investment in a demonstration project, “Partnerships to Demonstrate the Effectiveness of Supportive Housing for Families in the Child Welfare System.” The purpose of the demonstration is to increase the evidence base for KFT-like supportive housing models for families involved in child welfare. Target outcomes include reducing rates of child maltreatment, out-of-home placements, and overall involvement with the child welfare system.
The demonstration is providing five-year, $5 million grants to five sites nationwide: Broward County, Florida; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; the state of Connecticut; Memphis, Tennessee; and San Francisco, California. CSH is providing technical assistance for the sites. Each site is also engaging in local evaluations of their initiatives and in a national cross-site evaluation by the Urban Institute. More than 800 families are participating in a randomized control trial, and more than 300 of those families are in the treatment group and have been housed to date.
At the time of entry, 41 percent of participants were homeless, 35 percent were unstably housed, 45 percent had a history of frequent moves, and 42 percent had a history of homelessness. Across the sites, primary caregivers have high needs, including high rates of mental health issues (58 percent), high rates of substance use (48 percent), high rates of criminal justice involvement (49 percent), high rates of domestic violence (32 percent) and high rates of children with special needs (27 percent).
Final results of the cross-site study are anticipated in January 2019; however, emerging data suggests that after 12 months, families who received supportive housing are much more likely to be stably housed with a lease than those who received usual child welfare services.
The demonstration project in Broward County, Florida is called HEART—Housing, Empowerment, Achievement, Recovery, and Triumph Alliance for Sustainable Families. HEART is creating 50 supportive housing opportunities by connecting permanent housing subsidies, provided by the five Broward County public housing authorities, with evidence-based supportive services. The services model focuses on providing family and parenting skills training, prenatal health services, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, employment assistance, and financial management coaching.
According to Ann Deibert, Chief Executive Officer of the Broward County Housing Authority, “One of our major interests is that we have a large FUP [Family Unification Plan] program very similar to HEART, except the services are short-term. “What we see with [FUP] families is that when services ended…there was a strong likelihood they were not going to be able to function and abide by the rules to pay rent, be a good neighbor, budget, keep lights on, etc., and many faced termination and were eventually terminated because of lack of program compliance. If they had intensive services, such as those offered through HEART, the likelihood of losing the FUP housing voucher decreases. This is what we want to see long-term for these families, and why supportive housing is proving a good investment.”
Meanwhile, alongside the demonstration, CSH is continuing to work with states and grant funders to scale KFT in more communities. “Building on positive results and the interest of child welfare agencies, we are committed to spreading the KFT approach to other communities across the country,” says Deborah DeSantis, CEO and President of CSH. New Jersey’s Department of Families and Children launched its first KFT pilot in July 2014 and has continued to expand the program through partnerships and collaborations. As of April 2017, DCF had four pilot programs with the capacity to serve 73 families across seven counties. California is another state where legislation has allowed for the implementation of Bringing Families Home (BFH), a Department of Social Services program modeled off of KFT. BFH is an optional state-funded program with a dollar-for-dollar county match requirement. The California Department of Social Services allocated BFH program funds in May 2017 to 12 county child welfare agencies.
On an advocacy level, the Child Welfare League of America has partnered with CSH to help connect the child welfare field to supportive housing resources. CWLA and CSH have held joint webinars sharing positive outcome data around supportive housing for families involved with child welfare. Also, CWLA’s special housing issue of Child Welfare journal (Volume 94, Number 1: Housing, Homelessness, and Economic Security) included articles about supportive housing and KFT models around the country. Additionally, CWLA’s President and CEO, Christine James-Brown, is serving on the advisory board of One Roof (www.1rooffamilies.org), a CSH-led initiative to elevate the visibility of the need for a stronger public policy response to providing KFT supportive housing for families who are vulnerable. More than 1,200 individuals and organizations have endorsed One Roof, and teams from 27 communities have completed the One Roof Keeping Families Together Training Academy.
One Roof is working on the following federal policy goals: 50,000 housing vouchers for families involved in child welfare; expansion of supportive services for families; support of the Family First Prevention Services Act (child welfare reform) to expand use of federal dollars for family preservation; creation of a Keeping Families Together Services Fund at the Administration for Children, Youth and Families; and strong administrative action and program guidance from the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services that works to keep vulnerable families together.
“We would very much like child welfare agencies to work with CSH and their local housing partners to develop these solutions,” says Alison Harte, Associate Director with CSH. “Child welfare is so often overwhelmed, and they know housing is important, but they just don’t have the time they need to focus on it. We want to transform that mindset so that child welfare is considering housing as an issue and they know where to go.”
Jennifer Michael is a former editor of Children’s Voice.