Making effective investments: What if we could invest more of our federal child welfare funding in preventing child abuse and neglect rather than placing children in foster care?

Government at the local, state and federal levels has established a broad array of services designed to respond to a variety of health, safety and human services needs in communities. These include child welfare, education, health care, veterans affairs, criminal justice and homelessness, among others.

At all levels, government is a complex system. It produces a web of programs, agencies and departments that report up a chain of command to executive leadership. They work in an environment where legislative bodies set public policies, hold systems accountable and, of course, approve budgets where departments compete with other worthy programs for a share of limited funding. This categorical approach to funding often results in siloed service delivery systems that are difficult to coordinate – even when agencies are working on issues that are intricately connected.

Understanding that dynamic and breaking down those silos are crucial parts of building a Community of Hope.

A powerful example of that kind of understanding is reflected in a report released in late 2013 by Los Angeles County’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors created the commission after the death of an 8-year-old boy within the foster care system. It was tasked with making recommendations for improving the community’s ability to keep children safe from harm.

There must be a fundamental cultural and structural shift to a multi-disciplinary system of county departments with common priorities, shared responsibilities, and collaborative problem solving.

– Los Angeles County's Blue Ribbon Commission Report 2013

The commission recognized that “the failure to protect children cannot be attributed to one agency or department.” Its recommendations included the following:

“There must be a fundamental cultural and structural shift to a multi-disciplinary system of county departments with common priorities, shared responsibilities, and collaborative problem solving. Child safety must become a priority across these departments, coupled with mechanisms to work collaboratively.”

This call to action reflects the importance of coordinating governments’ many opportunities to affect the lives of children and families. When this kind of thinking is combined with local leadership, strong community coalitions, a shared vision and effective use of data, a Community of Hope can become a reality for all of our children.

But what does an integrated government response look like?

One example can be found in Boulder County, Colo.

In 2008, the county faced a severe financial crisis. As a result, county administrators decided to merge the housing and human services departments.

Implementation of the merger was led by Frank Alexander, the head of the county’s housing department. Even though the merged budget had been reduced by $5.7 million, Alexander approached the implementation as an opportunity for change and improvement.

Alexander knew the two agencies – which eventually would merge to become the Housing and Human Services Department – served many of the same people in many of the same neighborhoods and families. Not content to leave it as a simple consolidation, Alexander worked with staff to change the very nature of the new agency’s connection with the public and the nonprofit community in Boulder County.

Alexander knew that the newly merged agency, with a focus on prevention and incentive, could help people through critical stabilizing services such as food, housing and health care.

The result was an effort called Any Door is the Right Door. This new approach meant that families could go to any person in the new agency and get the help they need – or at least quickly get directed to that help.

Versions of Any Door is the Right Door now are being created in San Diego County, Calif.; Duluth, Minn.; and Allegheny County, Pa.

In Ohio’s Lorain County, a similar restructuring brought remarkable change.

The suburban-rural community on the shores of Lake Erie transformed its approach to keeping children safe by asking a simple question: What if we could invest more of our federal child welfare funding in preventing child abuse and neglect rather than placing children in foster care?

Fifteen years later, the results provide a compelling example of how changing the federal child-welfare financing system to allow more effective investments can safely reduce the need for foster care and improve the lives of children and their families.

What if we could invest more of our federal child welfare funding in preventing child abuse and neglect rather than placing children in foster care?

Each year, the federal government provides about $7 billion to states and tribes to support child welfare services. This funding authorized by Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, is matched by additional state and tribal funding. But the bulk of the federal money can be used for only one intervention – foster care. And as the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. In this case, the federal appropriation of funds primarily supports maintaining children in foster care, even though federal policy supports safely reducing the need for foster care and improving the well-being of children.

Ohio is one of 21 states and the District of Columbia that have been given Title IV-E demonstration waivers that allow them to use funding designated for foster care on a broader array of services. The program essentially allows a county or state to spend Title IV-E funds not just on foster care, but on strategies that would decrease the need for foster care and improve child, family and community well-being.

“In the ’90s, the federal government knew that Title IV-E needed to look different,” said Jennifer Justice, deputy director of Ohio’s Office of Families and Children. “The federal government had the wisdom to say, ‘Let’s let some states try something different.’”

Among the demonstration project pioneers was Lorain County. With a population of 280,000 in 1998, Lorain County was small enough to make a rapid adjustment in child welfare services but large enough to create a model that could be applied by other systems.

You don’t always get the best services when you try to fit children into funding. When you are fitting funding to the needs of a child, you get much better outcomes and much better services.

– Judge Debra Boros

This made the shift more manageable for Lorain County Children Services Director Gary Crow. Using the newly available local control in 1997, he began to implement a variety of prevention programs, including in-home services, fast-track adoptions and other behavioral health and education programs.

Lorain County’s child welfare system, which once spent nearly 50 percent of its budget on foster care, now spends 11 percent on foster care.

The results have been dramatic, not only in Lorain County but across the state. Since the start of the demonstration project in Ohio, the need for foster care in counties with those projects has declined by 39 percent. At the same time, children in demonstration project counties are more likely to be served in their own home, cared for by relatives, spend fewer days in foster care and achieve permanency sooner than children in counties not using Title IV-E funds with some capacity for strategic investment.

And, adjusted for inflation, Lorain County is spending less on the same services than it did 15 years ago. “You don’t always get the best services when you try to fit children into funding,” said Judge Debra Boros of Lorain County’s Domestic Relations Court. “When you are fitting funding to the needs of a child, you get much better outcomes and much better services.”

That is a cornerstone of any Community of Hope.

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