Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock () or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

July/August 2010Vol. 11, No. 6Site Visit: Changing Systems to Improve Family Engagement

An effort is underway in Fairfax County, VA, to make organizational changes within the Department of Family Services to improve engagement with families involved in the child welfare system. The effort is an outgrowth of one professional's experiences with the National Child Welfare Leadership Institute (NCWLI) training program, which was designed to build leadership skills in mid-level managers in public and Tribal child welfare agencies. Sponsored by the Children's Bureau, NCWLI prepares managers to develop and implement changes in their communities through two sessions totaling up to 8 days of training, as well as ongoing technical assistance.

In May 2008, the Quality Assurance Manager for Fairfax County's Children, Youth and Families (CYF) Division began her training with the NCWLI program. Training sessions focused on the stages of change and applying evidence-based management skills and data-driven decision-making to systems change efforts. The Fairfax County manager leveraged these new skills and knowledge to launch a two-phased family engagement project.

The first phase of the project brought together a voluntary workgroup of 30 supervisors and frontline staff to determine what broad changes were needed to improve CYF efforts to engage families. The Division had previously initiated several practices focused on family engagement, such as the development of a strengths-based model of practice and Family Group Conferencing, but the workgroup's initial assessment identified a number of ways the Division’s structure did not support family engagement.  These structural issues included the assignment of different caseworkers as families moved through the system, multiple family assessments, “siloed” services, and lengthy investigations. Differing practices among in-home services social workers and inadequate resource allocation also contributed to the lack of systemic support for family engagement. The workgroup developed the following short- and long-term goals for making organizational changes to promote a more fluid, family-focused system:

  • Establish a centralized process for families entering the system
  • Use common assessment tools
  • Maintain worker continuity throughout the case
  • Open lines of communication across programs to increase trust among workers

Phase two of the county's effort convened a smaller workgroup to develop a model for implementing these goals. The workgroup assessed how to engage families at each stage of the child welfare process and what skills staff would need to accomplish more meaningful engagement. The CYF management team was also tasked with developing a management plan and revising leadership job descriptions in accordance with the proposed changes.

Although the Family Engagement project is still in the planning stages, the project's leaders feel that participation in the NCWLI has contributed to their efforts by helping them to see the big picture regarding systems change and to apply effective leadership principles to their initiative.

Two other systems change initiatives are also occurring in Fairfax County and across Virginia that may support the Family Engagement project. The first involves a department-wide Lines of Service review of protocol and practice to identify gaps and inefficiencies and develop action plans to address them. The second is the Children's Services System Transformation (, a statewide effort to follow a new practice model to enact systems change in a number of areas, including family engagement and enhanced communication among partners.

For more information on Fairfax County's project, contact Allison Lowry, Quality Assurance Manager, at

The full site visit report will be posted on the Child Welfare Information Gateway website:

For more information on NCWLI, visit the NCWLI website:

The National Child Welfare Leadership Institute is funded by the Children's Bureau, CFDA #93.648.This article is part of a series highlighting successful Children's Bureau grant-funded projects around the country, emerging from Children's Bureau site visits.