Community-based Approaches in Child Welfare Driven Systems of Care
Keeping children within their own community and relying on the community for services and support have been part of good child welfare practice for decades. From service delivery models from the Family Preservation movement, to practice models such as team decision-making, advocates and academics alike have emphasized the importance of the community to a child's life and the system serving that child (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2002; Patt, 2007).
Recently, Child and Family Services Reviews have continued the call for child welfare systems to engage the community. The Child and Family Services Reviews commitment to community-based approaches is demonstrated on two levels:
- Community as a resource for child outcome improvements. The Child and Family Services Reviews incorporate seven measures to assess State performance on safety, permanency, and well-being outcomes for the children they serve. Community-based approaches are part of most of these measures. For example, the permanency measures, "Children have permanency and stability in their living situations" and "The continuity of family relationships and connections is preserved for children," (Children's Bureau, 2008) illustrate the importance of grounding decisions about and supports for children within a stable and connected environment.
- Community members as stakeholders in system improvement. In addition to being part of the solution for serving children and families better, the community is becoming a growing part of the process of improving the system itself. According to the Center for the Study of Social Policy (2003, p. 17), "Some states have used the CFSR [Child and Family Services Reviews] process to engage judges and court personnel, provider and other agency stakeholders, foster parents and community members not only as sources of qualitative information as the on-site interview process requires, but also as partners in PIP [Program Improvement Plan] development." While the center's report asserts these stakeholders are not usually involved in the implementation of PIPs, it cites examples from several States that have broadened the definition of "stakeholders" to include the community and deepened the engagement of such stakeholders to drive the design as well as the implementation of system change.
A child welfare driven system of care focuses on establishing a stable and supportive community that assists with placement and case planning, encourages community members to guide families and staff in building a supportive community network, and actively engages the community in decision-making.
- Placement and case planning. Keeping youth in their community when they must be placed outside their home is a challenge for child welfare agencies. While recognizing the importance of maintaining the valuable connections children have with friends, extended family, neighbors, and perhaps most importantly, their school, keeping them in their community and school is difficult.
Contra Costa County, California, has successfully recruited foster parents by asking at school meetings if a family would care for a child from their school. Foster homes must be available before a neighborhood placement can occur. The systems of care coordinator in Contra Costa County explains, "First it was necessary to educate the community and neighborhood service providers about community-based support before we could secure help within the neighborhoods. We routinely turn to our foster parents to recruit additional foster parents within their own neighborhoods. We are developing strategies to ensure our staff, including support and information technology staff and system partners, are active foster parent recruiters. People are willing to help but have to understand the needs and be engaged as true partners in addressing those needs."
In Contra Costa County, the care plan for each child and family specifies services and supports that respond to the unique needs of the child and family in order to meet care plan goals.
- Family partners as community guides. Family partners can be instrumental in helping agencies locate neighborhood resources for children and families to address case plan goals. According to Ungar, Manuel, Mealey, Thomas, and Campbell (2004, p. 560), "The guides demonstrate that a practice that strives to be attuned to the local context of those with whom professionals work is much less distinguishable from what a community already does to help itself." Other researchers have articulated the need for social workers to find the community members who play pivotal roles "guiding those excluded back into the associational life of the community" (p. 551).
Family partners working as guides in the grant communities have uncovered resources that are helpful, logical, and accessible to the family; often are less expensive; and engage the family's community. The Las Vegas, Nevada, grant community developed KinCare Liaisons, composed of former kin caregivers whose relatives were placed through the child welfare system. They have provided essential links among the families, community, and the child welfare system. "[Our] KinCare liaison knew what her families needed because she had been one of them," reports the project director. "She had almost instant credibility with them because she was from their community and had walked in their shoes. She could find out what people needed and help match them to local resources faster because she knew what was and wasn't there for her."
"Since being employed by the child welfare agency, [the KinCare liaisons] have received more referrals from child welfare workers, feel more empowered and respected by child welfare workers, and believe that communication has improved between them and child welfare staff."
-Kathy Kopiec, National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center Evaluation Liaison for Nevada
- Integrating the community into decision-making bodies. Grantees have worked to engage members of community-based organizations and other service providers, family members, youth representatives, and faith communities in policy councils and decision-making groups that guide their systems of care. The collective knowledge and support have been instrumental in the success of the grants. By sharing information and working together, agencies become less insular, families are more empowered, and ownership for positive outcomes for youth and families is broadened.
In Reno County, Kansas, the local Family-Centered Systems of Care Steering Committee, led by family partners, developed a comprehensive community resource directory and secured resources to maintain the directory online. The Jefferson County, Colorado, grantee revised its social worker training program to bring community service providers into the agency to increase knowledge of community resources in high-needs areas among frontline workers.
Three distinct areas of Contra Costa County have partnership meetings that include representatives of community-based organizations, faith community members, and other interested community members. Based on questions they had about how the program worked, these participants contributed input to help shape the design of data presentations to internal and external audiences that described grantee operations and activities. Additionally, the county's System of Care Advisory Board, which oversees grantee activities, has representation from multiple agencies, families, and the community. They continually address the continuum of care with an eye toward keeping children and youth in their schools and neighborhoods, and utilize data to develop benchmarks of success.
The importance of community-based resources:
- Keeping children in their homes, neighborhood schools, and local communities has a positive effect on child and family well-being. Moving, in many cases, generates unnecessary stress for an already traumatized child.
- By remaining in the community, the child is able to retain critical bonds with friends, family, and school personnel.
- When services are community-based, the work done with the child and family is in the context of where the child lives.
- The community (faith-based organizations, nonprofit agencies, neighbors, and other institutions) can offer additional positive, informal supports to the child and family.
(Child Welfare Information Gateway, n.d.)
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