Reform - Suggestions

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Successful Alternatives to
Taking Children from their Parents


At the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, we often are asked what can be done to prevent the trauma of foster care by safely keeping children with their own families.  There are many options, and we’ve listed some below.  None of the alternatives described below will work in every case or should be tried in every case.  Contrary to the way advocates of placement prevention often are stereotyped, we do not believe in “family preservation at all costs” or that “every family can be saved.”  But these alternatives can keep many children now needlessly taken from their parents safely in their own homes.  Similarly, even communities that have turned their child welfare systems into national models still have serious problems, and often much progress still needs to be made.  All of the things that go wrong in the worst child welfare systems also go wrong in the best – but they go wrong less often.  These recommendations deal primarily with curbing wrongful removal by improving services.  But at least as important is bolstering due process for families.  For those recommendations, see NCCPR’s Due Process Agenda.

1. Doing nothing.  There are, in fact, cases in which the investigated family is entirely innocent and perfectly capable of taking good care of their children without any “help” from a child welfare agency.  In such cases, the best thing the child protective services worker can do is apologize, shut the door, and go away. 

2. Basic, concrete help.  Sometimes it may take something as simple as emergency cash for a security deposit, a rent subsidy, or a place in a day care center (to avoid a “lack of supervision” charge) to keep a family together.  Indeed, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has a special program, called the Family Unification Program, in which Section 8 vouchers are reserved for families where housing is the issue keeping a family apart or threatening its breakup.  Localities must apply for these subsidies.  By doing so, they effectively acknowledge what they typically deny: that they do, in fact, tear apart families due to lack of housing. CONTACT: Ruth White, Executive Director National Center for Housing and Child Welfare (866) 790-6766, info@..., Ms. White also is a member of the NCCPR Board of Directors.

3. Intensive Family Preservation Services programs. The first such program, Homebuilders, in Washington State, was established in the mid-1970s.  The largest replication is in Michigan, where the program is called Families First. The very term “family preservation” was invented specifically to apply to this type of program, which has a better track record for safety than foster care.  The basics concerning how these programs work – and what must be included for a program to be a real “family preservation” program -- are in NCCPR Issue Papers 10 and 11.  Issue Paper 11 lists studies proving the programs’ effectiveness.  CONTACTS: Charlotte Booth, executive director, Homebuilders (253) 874-3630, info@..., Susan Kelly, former director, Families First (734) 547-9164, skelly@...

4. The Alabama “System of Care.”  This is one of the most successful child welfare reforms in the country. The reforms are the result of a consent decree growing out of a lawsuit brought by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. The consent decree requires the state to rebuild its entire system from the bottom up, with an emphasis on keeping families together. The rate at which children are taken from their homes is among the lowest in the country, and re-abuse of children left in their own homes has been cut sharply.  An independent monitor appointed by the court has found that children are safer now than before the changes. CONTACTS: Ira Burnim, Legal Director, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law (202) 467-5730, ext. 129. Mr. Burnim also is a member of the NCCPR Board of Directors.  The Bazelon Center also has published a book about the Alabama reforms.  Paul Vincent, Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, Montgomery, Ala. (334) 264-8300.  Mr. Vincent ran the child protection system in Alabama when the lawsuit was filed.  He worked closely with the plaintiffs to develop and implement the reform plan.  Ivor Groves, independent, court-appointed monitor, (850) 422-8900.

5. Family to Family.  This is a multi-faceted program developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (which also helps to fund NCCPR).  One element of the program, Team Decisionmaking often is confused with the entire program, which has many more elements.  The program is described at the Casey website  A comprehensive outside evaluation of the program, found that it led to fewer placements, shorter placements, and less bouncing of children from foster home to foster home – with no compromise of safety. CONTACT: Gretchen Test, Annie E. Casey Foundation (410) 547-6600.

6. Community/Neighborhood Partnerships for Child Protection.  These partnerships, overseen by the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, are similar to the Family to Family projects. They mobilize formal and informal networks of helpers to prevent maltreatment and avoid needless foster care placement.  Partnerships in Florida’s Duval County, St. Louis, Mo. and Georgia  have reduced placements and improved safety.  CONTACT: Marno Batterson, Center for the Study of Social Policy, (641) 792-5918, marno.batterson@....

7. The turnaround in Pittsburgh.  In the mid-1990s, the child welfare system in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County, Pa. was typically mediocre, or worse.  Foster care placements were soaring and those in charge insisted every one of those placements was necessary.  New leadership changed all that.  Since 1997, the foster care population has been cut dramatically.  When children must be placed, nearly half of all placements are with relatives and siblings are kept together 82 percent of the time. 

They’ve done it by tripling the budget for primary prevention, more than doubling the budget for family preservation, embracing innovations like Family to Family and adding elements of their own, such as housing counselors in every child welfare office so families aren’t destroyed because of housing problems.  And children are safer.  Reabuse of children left in their own homes has declined and there has been a significant and sustained decline in child abuse fatalities.  CONTACT: Karen Blumen, Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Office of Community Relations (412) 350-5707.

8. Reform in El Paso County, Colorado. By recognizing the crucial role of poverty in child maltreatment, El Paso County reversed steady increases in its foster care population.  The number of children in foster care declined significantly – and the rate of reabuse of children left in their own homes fell below the state and national averages, according to an independent evaluation by the Center for Law and Social Policy. CONTACT: Barbara Drake, El Paso County Department of Human Services, (719) 444-5532.

9. The Bridge Builders, Bronx, New York. Combine the giving and guidance of ten foundations with the knowledge and enthusiasm of eight community-based agencies, add extensive involvement of neighborhood residents in outreach, service delivery and governance, then partner with the child protective services agency and what do you get?  A significant reduction in the number of children taken from their homes, with no compromise of safety, in a neighborhood that is among those losing more children to foster care than any other in New York City.  That’s the record of the Bridge Builders Initiative in the Highbridge section of The Bronx.  (NCCPR received a grant to assist the Bridge Builders with media work). CONTACTS: Joe Jenkins, executive director, (718) 681-2222; Jenkinsj@..., John Rios, Jewish Child Care Association of New York, co-chair Bridge Builders Executive Committee, riosj@...

10. The transformation in Maine.  After a little girl named Logan Marr was taken needlessly from her mother only to be killed by a foster mother who formerly worked for the child welfare agency, the people of Maine refused to settle for pat answers about background checks and licensing standards.  They zeroed in on the fact that Maine had one of the highest proportions of children in the country trapped in foster care.  The combination of grassroots demands for change from below and new leadership at the top led to a dramatic reduction in the number of children taken away over the course of a year.  And while the state still has a long way to go in using kinship care, the proportion of children placed with relatives has more than doubled.  It’s all been done without compromising safety, earning the support of the state’s independent child welfare ombudsman.  CONTACTS: Dean Crocker, Vice President for Programs, Maine Children's Alliance,  (207) 623-1868 ext. 212, dcrocker@...; Mary Callahan, founder Maine Alliance for DHS Accountability and Reform, (207) 353-4223, maryec_98@...

11.Changing financial incentives.  While not a program per se, making this change spurs private child welfare agencies to come up with all sorts of innovations. This is clear from the experience in Illinois. Until the late 1990s, Illinois reimbursed private child welfare agencies the way other states typically do: They were paid for each day they kept a child in foster care.  Thus, agencies were rewarded for letting children languish in foster care and punished for achieving permanence.

Now those incentives have been reversed, in part because of pressure from the Illinois Branch of the ACLU, which won a lawsuit against the child welfare system. Today, private agencies in Illinois are rewarded both for adoptions (which often are conversions of kinship placements to subsidized guardianships) and for returning children safely to their own homes.  They are penalized for prolonged stays in foster care.  As soon as the incentives changed, the “intractable” became tractable, the “dysfunctional” became functional, and the foster care population plummeted.  And children are safer. Today, Illinois takes away children at one of the lowest rates in the country. Independent, court-appointed monitors have found that child safety has improved.  CONTACT: Ben Wolf, Illinois Branch, ACLU, (312) 201-9740, ext. 420, bwolf@...

12. Due process of law.  Even the best programs are no substitute for due process.  That means court hearings in child welfare cases should be open.  But that also means  it’s urgent for accused parents to have meaningful legal representation from well-trained attorneys with low caseloads and solid support staff.  It’s not a matter of getting “bad” parents off, it’s a matter of challenging case records that often are rife with error, countering cookie-cutter “service plans” that provide no services and ensuring that families get the help they need.  A pilot project to provide such representation in some counties in Washington State has had such success in safely keeping families together that even the Attorney General’s office, which represents the child welfare agency in these cases, favors expanding it.  FURTHER INFORMATION AND CONTACTS are available from the Washington State Office of Public Defense at this website:  And for additional due process recommendations, see NCCPR’s Due Process Agenda.

Updated, December 3, 2008

County modifies approach to team-based family services

By: Anita Zimmerman March 04, 2009
From now on, struggling Barron County families will be drawing on their own strength for help.

After one year of training with a state consultant and Washburn County program coordinator Shelby Fader, employees of Barron County's Health and Human Services Department have adopted Coordinated Services Teams as a new approach to aiding those in need.

Judith Demers, director of the Barron County Department of Health and Human Services, says the system change will do more for families suffering from mental illness, abuse, juvenile delinquency, emotional and behavioral disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse and other problems.

In a presentation to the Barron County Board of Supervisors Feb. 23, Demers said the traditional approach, where "the service provider is the expert," "participants have little input in or ownership of plans concerning them" and the "focus of treatment is problem-saturated," is out the window.

"We know now that doesn't work," she told supervisors.

Instead, the new process invests families in their own treatment, Demers said; "participants have insight into their own needs and strengths," "participants have input and ownership of plans concerning them and their family," and the "focus is strength-based."

As the name implies, Coordinated Services Teams are committees composed of community members, including neighbors, teachers, friends, spiritual leaders, law enforcement, county officials and family members. Everyone meets to plan the family's course of action and give them support. Focus is on unconditional and long-term care of families, especially children, and fostering functionality.

It's a better system because families are "as independent and self-sufficient as possible," Demers later explained in a phone interview. She adds, "The system has been, historically, reactionary"; children were separated from their parents whenever the court deemed it necessary, and Health and Human Services was placed in authority over them.

Now, instead of shipping kids off to foster homes and subjecting both parents and children to the disruptions of separation and reunion, the department will respond to crises and ensure children's safety while working to prevent future occurrences.

At the county board meeting, Demers used statistics from Calumet and Manitowoc counties to illustrate the system's success: fewer foster care placements, child maltreatment incidents, juvenile offenses and hospitalizations plus shorter stays in hospitals and foster care, all indicators of increased familial well-being.

Healthy families beget healthy societies, and the second biggest perk of CSTs is financial-it saves taxpayers a lot of money. Calumet County reported a savings of $210,000 in out-of-home placements in the first year following implementation and $470,713 by the fourth year. Given the state's budget deficit, the change has arrived just in time.

Gov. Jim Doyle's proposed budget includes hefty cuts in HHS's state funding, and like other county departments, HHS has been instructed to maintain the same level of service without money to do it. Last year, the department lost $32,000. Next year, it could be $90,000, plus the county will have to cover additional costs without state supplements. Demers calls the outlook "pretty grim."

"Who knows how we're going to deal with that," she says.

Fortunately, implementing CSTs wasn't expensive. Training was funded through a $20,000 grant, and Demers thinks the department could possibly employ fewer people if everything pans out as planned. She's hoping schools will eventually facilitate CST sessions and become a locus of support.

So far, Demers is pleased with the department's new style. "We have a lot of things going on here," she says. "A lot of changes. Change is good. It's progressive."

National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts

The Crisis of Foster Care:,9171,998479,00.html

Practice the Art of Listening:

Practice the Art of Listening

ONS Connect, Sep 2008 by Hochberg, Karen

Epictetus, an ancient Greek philosopher, once said, "Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak." To become a great communicator, we must apply that equation to spending twice as much time developing our listening skills as we do planning our replies. Listen up and try some of these techniques.

* Identify listening habits. What does it feel like when someone really listens to you? What behaviors do you find irritating in the listening habits of other people? Identify for yourself a list of your listening habits that work for you and those you need to change.

* Ask questions. Learn to ask questions that encourage dialogue. Give feedback, make eye contact, and summarize what you have heard or ask the speaker to clarify. Ask, "Are you saying such and such? What I heard you say is this. Is this what you meant?"

*Avoid formulating a response. Listen to the entire message before you craft your response. On average, we can think 500 words per minute, and the normal speaking rate is about 125-150 words per minute. This gap can lead to communication breakdown or your mind to drift off to other thoughts.

* Remove distractions. Let the speaker know if the time is right. If you are stressed or in the middle of another project, simply say so and schedule another time or ask for a few minutes. Let the speaker know that you want to be fully present for the conversation.

[By Karen Hochberg, MS, ONS Director of Marketing and Public Relations]