Successful Alternatives to
Taking Children from their Parents
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’
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
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,
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)
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
CONTACT: Marno Batterson, Center for the Study of Social
Policy, (641) 792-5918,
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
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
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.
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;
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,
Mary Callahan, founder Maine Alliance for DHS Accountability
and Reform, (207) 353-4223,
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
The Crisis of Foster Care:
Practice the Art of Listening:
Practice the Art of Listening
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
* 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