Transforming a child welfare system is often a collaborative effort, involving motivated, future-oriented state systems and a variety of consultants and model developers.
In Delaware, recent efforts to improve outcomes for children who come to the attention of the child welfare system have focused on a pressing problem: A high percentage of teens entering and lingering in the system, often aging out with few skills, prospects, or relationships. While nationally one third of kids in care are teens, in Delaware in 2010, nearly half the out-of-home population was made up of teens.
In 2011, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Child Welfare Strategy Group (CWSG) began working with Vicky Kelly, the determined director of the Division of Family Services. An intensive CWSG assessment uncovered a variety of structural and practice challenges. A group of consultants from Casey and other organizations swung into action, supporting or implementing a Structured Decision Making® (SDM) hotline, a differential response (DR) system, and safety-organized practice (SOP) to remedy the state’s inconsistent screening system and improve practice decision making.
Casey helped focus DR resources on teen entries, since the CWSG assessment had indicated that many teens were coming into care unnecessarily. Using a newly developed CWSG teen diversion model, Casey, other key partners, and the state are working to provide resources to decrease entries due to parent/child conflicts.
CWSG went deeper, working with the state to expand its parent and child engagement toolbox. “Their system was focused primarily on safety,” says Karen Angelici, CWSG’s Delaware engagement manager. “Safety is essential. But it has to be paired with efforts to ensure that kids are connected to family. To turn 18 and have nowhere to go, no one to turn to—that does not prepare young people for success.”
Recently, CWSG has collaborated with Delaware to introduce an extensive Family Search and Engagement (FSE) strategy, Team Decision Making meetings (TDM) and a foster family Recruitment, Development, and Support (RDS) approach. The three practice approaches complement one another.
FSE provides caseworkers with the skills needed to find and encourage families to participate in a child’s life, from planning and support to placement. As a Delaware caseworker recently noted, “Our current practice model is basically to allow family and significant others to fade away. … What I am finding is that most kids have connections and are trying to make them work on the sly.” She added, “We need to support the kids as they are doing this work.”
TDM, a Casey-developed approach, provides a forum that includes family members and, often, the child in planning for a child’s safety and placement. Multiple studies have found that TDM, implemented with fidelity, can be effective in increasing the number of children whose safety can be achieved with family, at home, or with relatives rather than in foster care or institutions. Likewise, RDS is tailored to helping foster families, including kin, to support children’s development. All three approaches dovetail with other new Outcomes Matters approaches, with an overarching goal of reducing inappropriate entries and connecting children, especially teens, with family.
This exciting work in Delaware is part of Casey’s decade-plus commitment to state- and county-system reforms on behalf of vulnerable children and families. Already, the state is seeing data indicators begin to shift—improvements for children cannot be far behind.