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For decades, child welfare agencies were largely funded on how many children were in foster care. The Family First Act is upending that model – aligning funding around the number who safely remain in the care of their own families. It’s a long-overdue shake-up that arms states with an unprecedented opportunity to support vulnerable families and children by maximizing prevention efforts.
The Family First Act requires states to reconsider what constitutes “candidacy for foster care.” At its core, this is an opportunity to completely reimagine and redesign the “front door” to child welfare. The point of entry should no longer be a phone call reporting suspected abuse or neglect. Instead, the “front door” should be much broader – and occur much sooner if we really want to realize prevention in its truest form.
States are beginning to envision how this broader lens – and focus on prevention rather than reaction – could shift the trajectories of vulnerable families. As child welfare stakeholders, we must ask ourselves what we mean by “prevention.” Does such a definition effectively tap into our collective resources? Is it the kind of prevention designed to keep children known to child welfare from moving deeper into the system? Or are we talking about a sea change, where supports are made available well before a family comes to the attention of child welfare – significantly reducing the likelihood that such contact ever occurs?
As a former child welfare caseworker and administrator, I know that many families who become involved in child welfare have come to the attention of other systems long before they were the subject of a report. This continually begs the question, Could we have done more earlier? Imagine a family experiencing increased stressors around food insecurity, housing, behavioral health supports, or child care and a collective system that leans in to support that family when early warning signs are evident. Such an approach leads to the right supports at the right time.
How can states get there? Much of the answer lies in the ability to examine key metrics and data to understand the root causes of child welfare involvement. These insights can inform the way the larger system focuses on prevention through proactive support for families and kids. A system could be organized in a way that keys in on family and community stressors early, works to mitigate those stressors, builds on a family’s strength and reduces deeper system involvement.
Recognizing that each state, jurisdiction, county and region may have different needs, it is essential to draw on such insights to inform solutions. Agencies can build on their respective strengths while working in a coordinated and collaborative way that understands the needs of the larger communities and creates opportunity for targeted and strategic investments in the right families at the right time.
Let’s stop waiting until families are at the edge of a cliff. Instead, let’s identify and support them as their needs arise. To get there, we need meaningful, data-driven collaboration – shifting from a child welfare agency focused on foster care to a child welfare system focused on better outcomes for kids.
It’s an exciting proposition, to be sure. In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the related impacts and opportunities when it comes to assessing and building the right service array.
Read the next post in this series, Designing service systems that put families first