Challenges and Strategies: The Experience of Child Welfare Driven Systems of Care Grant Communities
The grant communities and the National Technical Assistance and Evaluation Center supported by the Children's Bureau's Improving Child Welfare Outcomes Through Systems of Care demonstration initiative serve as a national learning laboratory for understanding how systems of care can be used effectively to build a stronger child welfare system. This demonstration initiative provides resources to understand how a principle-guided process promotes change at both the systems and individual outcome levels (safety, permanency, and well-being). Since the initiative was launched in 2003, the Children's Bureau and State child welfare administrations have shown growing interest in building systems of care to organize and implement State Program Improvement Plans. The grant communities also have provided details about the challenges and potential rewards of establishing a systems of care framework to achieve systems change and improve child and family outcomes.
Data from the national and local evaluations reveal that the communities are changing how they conduct the work of promoting permanency, safety, and well-being of children, youth, and families. The grant communities report that the work is challenging and change typically does not proceed evenly. The experiences of the grant communities illuminate the challenges of operationalizing each principle and demonstrate their unique and innovative approaches to building and sustaining systems of care.
Operationalizing each principle means that within each level of child welfare and partner agencies, tangible, observable indicators of the principle exist. For example, promoting family involvement is exemplified in the Kansas Family Centered System of Care by the active and valued participation of family leaders on statewide quality improvement councils, as well as the public-private partnership between the State child welfare system and the statewide Kansas Family Advisory Network. Similarly, in addressing interagency collaboration, the Colorado grantee community was instrumental in shaping and gaining acceptance for Colorado House Bill 1451, promoting interagency collaboration between State human service agencies and the involvement of family members and community stakeholders in designing and implementing service systems.
In addressing some of the major challenges of child welfare, grant communities have used systems of care to respond in ways that promote safety and build on collaborative processes. New York and Oregon both faced the challenge of a child's death. In both cases, the structure and processes guided by systems of care principles helped stabilize the agency and provided some consistency in the midst of tumult and unpredictability. In one instance, changes in policies and frontline procedures were guided by systems of care principles, and in another, the existing systems of care structure adapted to changes in leadership and tempered efforts to implement abrupt, reactive change in favor of more conservative service approaches.
In a fully functioning system of care, all human service agencies adopt similar guiding principles and processes. In practice, systems of care principles rarely evolve across human service agencies at the same time or rate. While change leaders may become frustrated with the pace of change and participation in the collaborative change process, each agency has to do the work of integrating the principles into its organizational culture. Consequently, child welfare administrations must build a vertically integrated system while working across organizational boundaries to reach agreements based on shared values/principles and overcome historic and current impediments to interagency coordination and collaboration.
Each of the grant communities is unique in its approach to systems change but collectively, they address many of the challenges faced by the entire child welfare community. Each issue of A Closer Look focuses on one of the systems of care principles and highlights how the grant communities have applied the principle in their work. The reports summarize their challenges, highlight emerging and promising practices, and describe lessons learned when promoting systems change. Each issue provides information communities should consider in planning, implementing, and evaluating effective systems change in child welfare, and is intended as a tool for administrators and policymakers leading systems change initiatives.