Potential Game Changers in Child Welfare

(Originally published February 2019)

In September 2018, Oregon’s Governor, Kate Brown, issued a report titled Child Welfare Policy Agenda: Protecting Children, Supporting Families and Ending the Cycle of Poverty.  The report’s vision statement: Create a comprehensive child welfare system that protects children, stabilizes families, and breaks the cycle of poverty, has a hint of grandiosity.  Nevertheless, the Governor’s strategy, more accurately described as goals, is sensible and praiseworthy:   

 

  • One: Promote healing for kids by providing the right placements.  

  • Two: Elevate child and youth voice in case management and program development.

  • Three: Focus on the root causes that drive foster care placements.

  • Four: Provide high quality support for foster parents.

  • Five: Ensure caseworkers have the tools and resources to support families and protect children.

  • Six: Quick, safe and complete case management that provides more consistent and targeted support.
     

Governor Brown’s child welfare reform agenda is focused on foster care, both preventing its need and providing safe and therapeutic care, an understandable concern in a state that lacks adequate foster care resources and whose child welfare system has been under attack in recent years for the maltreatment of children and youth in foster care and residential care.

 

The Oregon report is unusual in that it acknowledges “that for over a decade, DHS has received many reports and reviews that pointed to the inadequacy and safety failures in the child welfare system. In many cases, the agency did take some action.  However, many recommendations were not implemented, or agency leadership failed to sustain the reform efforts.” To prevent a recurrence of this pattern of failed reform initiatives, “the Governor directed DHS to develop the Unified Child and Youth Safety Plan,” “a dedicated project management team assigned to implement these systemic improvements.”  In other words, Governor   Brown asserts that past child welfare reforms failed to achieve desired results due to inadequate implementation. However, there is another possibility: the reform agendas adopted by the state were flawed to begin with and were then abandoned during implementation by managers who lost confidence in them.  What is it about states’ child welfare reform plans that creates a cycle of heady aspiration, comprehensive planning documents, implementation efforts that quickly lose steam and widespread disappointment among advocates and policymakers, often punctuated by leadership changes?

Oregon’s child welfare reform strategies

 

There is nothing remarkable or objectionable in the strategies outlined in Governor Brown’s report, and the Governor’s plan includes much needed enhancements.  The report summarizes steps taken from 2015-18 to address pressing needs and steps planned for 2019 and subsequent years:

  • Monthly progress reports from child welfare managers

  • Creation of a Foster Care Ombudsman and Foster Sibling Bill of Rights

  • Addition of 78 new caseworker positions and 50 training positions/consultants in 2017, and another 186 caseworker positions and support staff in 2018; use of case aides to support caseworkers.

  • A 14% increase in reimbursement to foster parents for cost of care.

  • Better supports for foster parents, including respite care and a mentoring program for new foster parents, and increased support for kinship care.

  • Enhanced legal representation for DHS caseworkers.

  • A commitment to cross agency initiatives with an emphasis on preventing the need for foster care.

  • Convening of a Children’s Cabinet “to develop a comprehensive plan for vulnerable families.”

  • Strengthen therapeutic foster care through “a system of professional foster care networks that are coupled with in-home services and supports.”

  • Targeted foster parent recruitment.

  • Create a foster parent resource center.

  • Expand the KEEP program (evidence based foster care program) through a contract with the Oregon Social Learning Center.

  • Increase of in-home services crisis response.

  • Development of Regional Assessment Programs for difficult to place or inappropriately placed children, along with short term stabilization beds for children who cannot be immediately placed in an “appropriate placement”.

  • Addition of short-term residential care beds.

  • Fully fund an independent living program for youth aging out of care.

  • Double the number of CASA’s.

  • Help parents prepare for and find higher paying jobs.

  • Enhanced legal representation for parents and children.

  • Launch a single child abuse hotline with 24/7 access.

  • Expand support for parent-child visitation.

  • Develop predictive analytics to better target use of limited resources.

 

How to Read a Child Welfare Reform Plan

 

There are a few useful rules for assessing states’ child welfare reform plans and strategic plans:

 

1. Any element of a reform agenda or strategic plan that refers to “planning to plan” should be disregarded. Nothing is more common or inconsequential in government agencies than planning exercises that have a future start date, a resolve as serious as a New Year’s resolution to consider various diets.  Ditto for references to “cross system initiatives” that are not described.
 

2. One question should be asked of every element of a reform agenda: Is this item a repair of the current system or an innovative practice, policy or program? Imagine a Mayor who, with great fanfare, announces that city government is launching a new transportation system infrastructure that turns out to be fixing potholes in the streets. Citizens would probably welcome the Mayor’s announcement while making fun of the rhetoric, i.e., fixing potholes is a necessary thing for city and county governments to do, but it’s not reform of the transportation system. Doubling the number of CASA’s, increasing foster parent reimbursement by 14%, creating stabilization beds and short-term residential placements, is a child welfare version of fixing potholes, a repair of the current system but not reforms that lay a new foundation for child welfare.

 

Child welfare systems (such as Oregon’s and Washington’s) that have been grossly underfunded for many years must fill numerous ‘pot holes’ just to maintain these systems in working order. These repairs, necessary as they are, will not satisfy the demand for genuine reforms that lay a different foundation for child welfare, but they do require considerable expenditures; which is a main reason why genuine child welfare reform is so rare.  How does a state that has failed to adequately fund a child welfare infrastructure for decades afford to create a better child welfare system while simultaneously repairing the old system?  

The only elements of Oregon’s child welfare agenda that possibly deserve to be called reforms are: a) making a big investment in therapeutic foster care; b) creating a Foster Care Ombudsman and; c) helping parents with open child welfare cases to acquire job skills that will qualify them for better paying jobs.

 

I say “possibly” because it’s not clear in Governor Brown’s report that the planned investment in therapeutic foster care and job training are what they purport to be. To greatly increase a state’s therapeutic foster care resources, child welfare systems must either (a) hire a cadre of salaried well trained and adequately supported foster parents or, (b) create a certification program for therapeutic foster parents which, upon completion, qualifies foster parents to be reimbursed at much higher rates than other foster parents, a reimbursement system combined with an agreement to operate by agreed upon rules, for example, no unplanned ejections of children from the foster home. Conferring the honorary title of ‘therapeutic foster parent’ on poorly trained, inadequately compensated and unsupported foster parents is not child welfare reform. Targeted foster parent recruitment campaigns will only be effective when there is a genuine commitment to professional foster care, as described above.

Adding job training to standard child welfare services and to substance abuse and mental health treatment would potentially be a foundational reform, especially if combined with housing services, but only if a state makes a commitment to developing and testing specialized training programs for this population of families while making a multi-year investment in combining behavioral health and economic interventions.

3. Read between the lines for what’s missing in a reform agenda.  

A 2018 audit of Oregon’s child welfare system found an organizational culture characterized by bullying and intimidation of employees. Governor Brown’s report does not mention the audit or outline a plan for changing harsh and dysfunctional managerial practices that, if not addressed, will undermine any and all caseworker recruitment and retention initiatives.

 

Game Changing Foundational Reforms in Child Welfare

Child welfare reform plans almost always include staffing enhancements, but these enhancements, however large, never seem to eliminate the need for subsequent staffing increases, a pattern that has played out over   decades in many child welfare systems. Why are child welfare systems so difficult to adequately staff? Why are workload problems endemic to most states’ child welfare systems?  

  • Legislatures and Governors do not generally staff child welfare agencies to a reasonable workload standard; in rare instances when policymakers pay attention to a workload standard, agencies are staffed to achieve an average caseload of x, e.g., 15 cases in foster care units. Managing to an average caseload inevitably leaves a large percentage of caseworkers with higher (often much higher) caseloads than the standard due to vacancies, newly hired staff who can be assigned only a few cases and below average caseloads in some small to medium sized offices. In addition, whatever staffing enhancements are received during a legislative session are often taken away during the next budget crisis. In the meantime, the child welfare system has usually added to procedural requirements so that the old workload standard has become dated, a formula for overwhelming line units. For example, it was once reasonable to carry 18 cases – but no longer – in foster care units; currently, foster care caseworkers should carry no more than 15 cases (children), including a limit of 12 children in foster care at any one time.   
    To make a lasting fundamental change in workload management, child   welfare agencies must undertake workload studies every 4-5 years to determine reasonable workload standards for each program, manage to lids on case assignment rather than a caseload average (with the books balanced in CPS and Family Voluntary Service units every 3-4 months), set a ratio of case aides and administrative support staff to caseworkers and units, seek legislative authority to hire new staff before vacancies occur and create empowering working environments that will retain experienced staff. Furthermore, this approach to workload management needs to be endorsed in law and policy.  These ideas are radical in organizational cultures in which it’s common practice to overwhelm staff as deemed necessary, while steadily increasing “best practice” requirements on each case in response to pressure from advocates, regardless of staffing levels.   
     

  • The expertise of child welfare agencies can be dramatically increased by funding certification programs in substance abuse, mental health, DV, child development, cultural competence, etc., and paying staff with job relevant certifications an additional 5% in salary.  
     

  • Training programs can be dramatically improved by assigning newly hired caseworkers an experienced mentor, i.e., an experienced caseworker in good standing who is paid $300-400 per month extra for her/his mentoring role for 4-5 months following the hire date.  
     

  • Child welfare agencies can adopt loan forgiveness programs that require a multiyear commitment to agency employment.
     

  • Child welfare agencies can offer three month paid sabbaticals for an educational purpose after 5 years of continuous employment in caseworker and/or supervisory positions.
     

  • Child welfare systems can experiment with bottom-up approaches to reform by funding and encouraging innovative projects at the local office level, and by engaging in brain storming exercises widely used in the private sector to solve business problems.      

 

Many of the initial reforms which would be “game changers” in child welfare involve investments in workforce development because it is the mistreatment of line staff that has created a workforce crisis and made most child welfare reform plans an exercise in futility. However, there are also reforms in services and in community collaborations that have the potential to transform child welfare.

Nothing would be more impactful in child welfare than a large investment in housing for destitute families, i.e., families with annual incomes less than half the federal poverty standard, which is close to half of families with open child welfare cases in Washington State.  Combining substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment with housing services and job training has the potential to greatly increase reunification rates, while also preventing many foster placements.  

Following the passage of Families First finance reform legislation, the clock is ticking for states to develop alternatives to long term residential care programs. Unfortunately, some child welfare experts are promoting the idea that flexible funding of in-home services permitted by Families First will virtually eliminate the need for foster care. This is a delusion with the potential to create a train wreck in state foster care systems which do not make large investments in developing professional therapeutic foster care programs.  The number of children in foster care can be and should be reduced, but the need for foster care for behaviorally troubled children and youth will not be eliminated by any reform that is on the horizon, certainly not by an increase in kinship care.  

Child welfare systems should develop partnerships with public health agencies, by contracting with public health nurses to work with families of infants and toddlers. Furthermore, any state that wants to create effective child abuse and neglect prevention programs should begin by strengthening its public health system.  

Some of these proposals would be costly, especially housing programs, others would have modest costs. However, it is not cost consideration that is the major obstacle to genuine child welfare reform. Rather, stubborn adherence to fixed ideas and traditional practices is keeping child welfare agencies stuck. At least there is a reasonable amount of public debate regarding what to do about dysfunctional and unsafe foster care systems, but little or no reflection regarding harmful disempowering managerial practices that create a powerful incentive for young promising staff to look for greener pastures.

©Dee Wilson

Past commentaries are available at Deewilsonconsulting.com

  

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