To strengthen and support families, the Family First Prevention Services Act seeks to shift the nation’s focus toward developing community networks and partnerships and creating a child welfare system aimed at prevention. When children do enter foster care, new policies and practices support continual engagement with mothers, fathers, and other family members to bolster their capacity to care for their children and increase the chance of family reunification. Included in this vision of community-based, prevention-focused child welfare systems is an emphasis on protective factors, enabling a more complex understanding of child and family well-being that includes social, economic, educational, cognitive, behavioral, and relational functionality. By effectively engaging families earlier, child welfare agencies are more likely to achieve positive outcomes for children over time.
To strengthen cross-system partnerships and focus efforts on preventing maltreatment, program administrators need tools, resources, guidance, and support. Mathematica’s work with these agencies, as well as its partnership with stakeholders at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, supports the following considerations for achieving a child welfare system that promotes justice and equity.
1. Promote racial equity by examining how different policies, practices, and funding differentially affect subgroups of children in care.
The foster care system disproportionately affects families of color at multiple levels of service involvement, with African American children represented in foster care at 1.8 times their rate in the general population. Black, American Indian/Alaskan Native, and multiracial children all are at greater risk of substantiation after being investigated, and Black children are six percentage points less likely to achieve permanency within two years than their white peers. Targeted efforts to reduce disproportionality are critical to achieving greater equity for those families. To continually assess whether subgroups in the system have disparate outcomes, it will be important to collect demographic data, disaggregate the data, and examine involvement with services and outcomes across groups. Client feedback provides another window into how to address the needs of diverse populations. A better understanding of when and where families experience disadvantage is essential to understanding areas for improvement. From there, policy and practice can more clearly guide how to reduce disproportionality.
2. Provide support for states to use and build evidence to implement a range of programs.
Family First legislation represents a major shift toward evidence-based policymaking in child welfare. It ties Title IV-E reimbursement for offering services with evidence of effectiveness and encourages states to evaluate programs that serve families at risk of entering foster care. However, states continue to need guidance and support to conduct this research effectively. Some states have university partners that help them meet their evaluation needs, but others do not. Therefore, many states will likely need to work with researchers who can help them build capacity to conduct their own rigorous research, and guide them on how to collect and analyze data to thoroughly evaluate programs.
Owing to the diversity of family needs across the country, the limited selection of interventions that the Family First Prevention Services Clearinghouse rates as “well-supported” might hinder the legislation’s impact. States must therefore be encouraged to evaluate programs that do not have evidence, particularly programs that could work well for diverse families and children, including Native American, Latinx, African American, and LGBTQ populations. The new administration could achieve this objective by providing more funding and support to build research evidence for programs that lack it. Although Family First seeks to increase knowledge of what works in preventing child removal, it also improves the infrastructure to evaluate programs for children who do enter foster care.
3. Train and support child welfare staff in the use of rigorous processes for continuous quality improvement.
Continuous quality improvement is an organizational approach that ensures agencies have the tools they need to review their programs and outcomes and to continually improve. Quality improvement processes require a vision, data collection and visualization tools, and frequent assessment of data to support a culture of ongoing learning. In such a culture, all staff—from frontline workers who conduct assessments to agency directors considering how to spend money—must understand how to use data as feedback to improve programs. Staff can use data to assess a range of issues, such as program uptake, client satisfaction, and well-being and safety in many domains. To shift agencies toward continuous improvement cultures, technical assistance is needed to support staff training, coaching, and ongoing requirements for the workforce. For example, staff must know how to use assessments to support program improvement, how to collect high quality data, and how to effectively build monitoring into child welfare processes. Similarly, states need support to develop comprehensive plans for how to use data to improve programs.
4. Promote cross-system collaboration and shared data.
A community-level approach to family support recognizes that families often have contact with numerous systems. Services for families can therefore be more cohesive when education, health, Medicaid, behavioral health, legal, and child welfare agencies work together. Partnership requires agencies to communicate and collaborate, including sharing data systems and stakeholder feedback mechanisms. For example, programs such as Regional Partnership Grants support interagency collaborations for children with caregivers who have a substance use disorder, and through research, shine light on the factors that promote effective treatment of families struggling with substance use and involvement in the child welfare system. Additionally, the upgrade to the Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System presents a valuable opportunity for states to connect child welfare data with that of other systems, but states still need technical support and detailed guidance to take advantage of cross-system data sharing.
5. Link families with concrete resources (such as housing, employment, and child care) to maximize the benefits of programs addressing substance use, mental health, and parenting.
The effectiveness of child welfare services depends on a web of available resources and support. Neglect—which can include an inability to properly house, educate, clothe, supervise, and feed children—is the leading cause of children’s entry into care. For millions of Americans who struggle to meet their children’s basic needs, agencies must have access to primary prevention resources, such as housing, employment, food and nutrition support, and child care. Family First aims to expand services related to mental health, substance use, parenting, and kinship navigation programs, but many states still need stronger safety nets to support families with needs that are fundamental to health, safety, and well-being. Other federal agencies must also address these needs, and federal support for local agency partnerships will be essential.
Given the long-term shift toward prevention, family engagement, and community-based models to support families, it is important that child welfare agencies receive funding, guidance on best practices, and leadership support. They must also build infrastructure to monitor, evaluate, and continually improve programs. Although some jurisdictions offer high quality examples of how to promote a prevention-based system, others still struggle to design systems that actively use data. Some agencies will therefore need additional guidance from the Children’s Bureau to continually bolster workforce capacity to strengthen and support families through equitable practices, high quality data, monitoring processes, and improved connections with other family-serving systems.