Talk to the people working in child welfare agencies across the country and they will tell you the best way to help families in crisis is to help them avoid the crisis altogether.  

“Many of the child welfare leaders I’ve worked with over the years have told me they are haunted by the feeling that their work is often coming too late,” said Megan Toohey, director of children and families at Harvard Kennedy School’s Government Performance Lab (GPL). “The big question they’re asking is ‘how do we create a system that minimizes the number of families that come into contact with child protection systems by providing effective supports earlier, before a crisis occurs?’”

Many communities are starting to take steps towards this vision, connecting families with community-based preventive services before they enter child welfare systems. This allows child welfare agencies to minimize potentially harmful interactions between families in crisis and child protection systems.

Jeffrey Liebman, the Robert W. Scrivner Professor of Social Policy and director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government and the GPL, identified this upstream, preventative model as one solution for governments seeking to improve outcomes for families in a 2020 research paper published by the GPL. In that paper, Liebman and coauthor Scott Kleiman assert that governments need new strategies to manage the overall well-being of families that are involved in the child welfare system. The GPL recently introduced the Child & Family Wellbeing Accelerator to help address that need.

Lee Hodge smiling.

“We don't want something that's just going to give us better outcomes for a month. We want things that are going to help families for years.”

Lee Hodge

“There are two parts to GPL’s research agenda,” Liebman explains.  “The first consists of intensive work with individual jurisdictions to discover solutions. The second involves figuring out the most effective approaches to spreading successful practices to many jurisdictions. To have a meaningful impact on child outcomes nationwide, we need to make progress on both parts.”

The Child & Family Wellbeing Accelerator provides technical assistance to a select number of state and local jurisdictions that are actively working to advance child and family wellbeing. The first cohort of jurisdictions receiving this technical assistance, announced in August 2022, is focused on three key topics: making family-focused community resource hubs more accessible and effective, connecting substance-using pregnant people to treatment and other supports, and supporting placements of children with caregivers who are related to them rather than with foster families.

Pueblo County, Colorado, is one of five jurisdictions selected to participate in the Accelerator, along with Broward County, Florida, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, New Hampshire and New Mexico. The county’s work through the Accelerator focuses on getting services to families that are expecting a child and struggling with substance use. For Lee Hodge, deputy director for the Pueblo County Department of Human Services, the Accelerator is supporting critical efforts to divert families like these from entering the system.

“What would be best is if we didn't have babies who were born substance-positive, or born too soon or had addiction issues,” he said. “But if these families do come to our attention, we want to reduce our involvement and get them back on the road to parenting safely. We want to get out of people’s lives as quickly as possible.”

The support offered through the Accelerator appealed to Hodge right away. “The program really spoke to the needs of our community,” he said. “When we look at some of the work that we've been trying to do with new parents to help them parent safely, we thought the program provided a good opportunity to analyze the different pathways that families come to us and figure out if there is a way that they can be diverted to community services.”

When jurisdictions come onboard, they receive 12 to 18 months of technical assistance through which the GPL applies insights gained from its own research and expertise in the field to help the jurisdiction implement its selected reform. The GPL’s support includes creating and applying customized tools that help agency staff identify and assess available services for families, track key performance data in real time, determine potential referral pathways to connect families to resources, strengthen family outreach and engagement practices, and engage families to get their feedback and involvement in co-designing solutions. Additional support includes training and coaching on core GPL tools related to data-driven performance management, procurement design, service arrays, and referral pathways.

Kaitlin Tufts smiling.

“The GPL factors in the unique experiences of frontline workers and their jurisdictions to offer support that's specifically tailored to their needs.”

Kaitlin Tufts

Kaitlin Tufts, a Government Innovation Fellow at the GPL whose work supports the Accelerator, says this goal to reach families before they are in crisis is vital to improving outcomes. “I am a social worker and spent seven years in child welfare services. I really felt families could use help earlier than when they came to us,” she explained.

Tufts, who is providing support for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services through the Accelerator, said understanding the unique needs of child welfare agencies is key to helping them implement their reforms. 

"I’ve been a frontline social worker,” Tufts explains. “There are a lot of moving pieces—complicated schedules, multiple families with different needs, and other demands. The GPL factors in the unique experiences of frontline workers and their jurisdictions to offer support that's specifically tailored to their needs."

“I love the partnership,” Hodge said of the GPL staff. “I love that together our agency and the GPL staff are looking at data and making recommendations and lasting changes. We don't want something that's just going to give us better outcomes for a month. We want things that are going to help families for years.”

Through Pueblo County’s participation in the Accelerator, Hodge hopes his agency can identify services in the community that work best for the needs of each family. Bringing the community in, he believes, is key to preventing a family crisis.

Based on enthusiasm from the current cohort, the GPL is exploring expanding the Accelerator in 2023. Toohey hopes that the success of this first cohort of communities can be shared with others across the country.

“When we have some evidence that specific reforms are effective and improve outcomes for families, we hope the opportunity to spread these insights through the Accelerator makes it faster for another jurisdiction to enjoy that same success,” she said.

Banner image by FG Trade/Getty

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