Implications for Administrators and Stakeholders
Long-term success of child welfare services depends on building a community-based support system. Child welfare administrators can draw on the experience of systems of care grantees as they work to strengthen supportive community networks. By reaching out to families, businesses, schools, faith communities, and partner agencies to identify combined assets, agencies can reinforce the community safety net. To succeed, agencies must be considered an asset and partner by the community. Child welfare agencies building a system of care are most successful when they identify local assets and promote partnerships for change rather than acting independently.
Building a stronger connection with the community may require a cultural shift within the child welfare administration and its leadership. Before partnerships are created or strengths-based intervention strategies are adopted, agency administrators must ensure policies and procedures are aligned with systems of care principles. Consistent administrative operations based on these values create a strengths-based focus for staff, partners, and families served. Administrators must eliminate barriers to improved practice and new partnerships by managing change strategically and employing data-based decision-making. Leaders are emerging who are changing the culture of their organizations through models that support team decision-making as they support effective casework. This shift to a partnership-focused culture has made outreach to community partners possible and must be adopted by agency leadership before it can be sustained.
Engaging community members, not just service providers, as consultants on policy and programming is essential. Residents from the communities most affected by child welfare involvement have been actively engaged in the systems of care interagency partnerships, which has improved the community's perceptions of agencies and their mission. Partnerships have increased resources for agency-involved families and are expected to enhance the ability to meet case plan goals and objectives through added support. The most significant allies in these efforts often have been the families themselves, hired as either regular or contracted employees. Their outreach to the community and its families has had a positive effect on the community view of child welfare. Family guides working within the child welfare system have been invaluable to caseworkers and administrators, as well as interagency partners who participate with them on policy and advisory boards. Whether in urban, suburban, or rural areas or within Native American nations, the accomplishments of family guides are proving that these partnerships can be effective and should be sustained.
Community-based supports and partnerships may develop amid tensions and mistrust, but these difficulties can be overcome and should not discourage child welfare agencies. Mulroy, Nelson, and Gour (2004, p. 462) noted, "Tensions may exist on both sides of the decision table until professionals, used to working in top-down, expert-client relationships, each with his or her respective professional 'lingo,' learn new, egalitarian ways of relating and communicating with residents in a community setting and develop an appreciation of local knowledge." Family partners and community guides often work as cultural translators and help diffuse some of the mistrust, allowing more energy to go into problem solving than problem identification or blaming.
Improving child welfare outcomes using a systems of care approach requires administrators to forge new partnerships within and beyond the service array. This means building upon the strong foundation of community-based practice in child welfare while revising the perception of child welfare from that of a distant bureaucracy to an engaged community resource and partner.
The systems of care grant communities have provided a road map for improved service delivery continuum, agency culture, community relationships, and child and family outcomes. Their experiences suggest that bringing family members and community guides into child welfare organizations in specific roles can prompt a tremendous impact that has the potential to lead to positive, lasting change.
"Community is a priceless commodity. How do you put a value on someone greeting us on a street, a neighbor helping in a difficult time and being part of a spiritual and/or religious community where life is bigger than one person? These are the jewels of community life. It is no surprise then that the system of care principle of community-based is so important to children and families. As hard as we might try to create community outside of community it just can never be quite the same." (Robichaud, 2007, p. 15)
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