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May 2012Vol. 13 No. 4Electronic Early Education Referrals

Improving child well-being, including meeting educational needs, has become a high priority in the child welfare field over the past decade. In 2011, the Children's Bureau issued two funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) highlighting the importance of improving educational attainment among children served by the child welfare system. One of those FOAs focused on establishing partnerships across child-serving systems to increase access to early education services. In response to this, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) proposed enhancing an existing electronic referral system and building stronger local collaborations to better link children in the child welfare system with early education providers. The system enhancement became the Los Angeles Child Welfare-Early Care Systems Infrastructure Project.

Prior to the grant, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) developed a referral system to boost the Head Start enrollment of children in foster care ages 3–4 years. What started as a paper-based referral process became computer based, and both systems increased Head Start referral rates. For the LA Child Welfare-Early Care Systems Infrastructure Project, the electronic referral system was expanded in Long Beach, the second largest city in the county. The expanded system generates Head Start and Early Head Start referrals for children ages 0–4 who are involved in any open child welfare case.

When caseworkers enter the Head Start and Early Education Referral System, it generates a list of children from their caseload who are eligible for Head Start or Early Head Start. If the caseworker clicks on a name, the system asks if the caregiver consents to enrolling the child in an early education program. If the caseworker clicks Yes, a referral is generated. Each week, a DCFS staffer emails a list of newly referred children to the Head Start/Early Head Start office. If the caseworker clicks No, the system asks the caseworker to select a reason (e.g., the caregiver is not interested, the caregiver cannot transport the child, the child is already enrolled, the program will not meet the child's needs). The entire referral process takes less than 1 minute per child.

Both the initial and expanded referral systems help already overwhelmed caseworkers by automating one component of their jobs and more easily connecting them with the early education agencies. The expansion allows a wider range of children to receive referrals, thereby improving their educational opportunities and providing another resource for parents. Project staff report that caseworkers appreciate the facility of the system and that it has made their practice easier. Some caseworkers have even requested the concept be expanded to include other aspects of case practice. Dr. Sacha Klein, the project evaluator, noted, "Child welfare staff are already overwhelmed by myriad responsibilities and sometimes large caseloads, and so automating and simplifying the early education referral process for them is critical to the success of this initiative."

The referral system also establishes enhanced communication between the child welfare and early education systems about how the children are faring, which will hopefully lead to better coordination of services for families. Head Start and Early Head Start staff conduct developmental assessments and connect families with community resources, such as medical and dental care, and any necessary specialized education or developmental resources. Early Head Start and Head Start staff can update the caseworkers about emerging issues and let them know what additional services the children and families receive.

Another key component of the project is a Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) Head Start staffer who, among other things, finds alternative early education settings if there are no open Head Start or Early Head Start slots. The project intends to make this position sustainable after the grant ends. Two of the key project partners to which children are referred are the South Bay Center for Counseling and the Los Angeles Universal Preschool. The South Bay Center for Counseling operates a "preschool without walls" in public community spaces (e.g., library, park, school) and models enrichment activities for children while teaching parents how to engage their children in educational activities using materials they likely have at home.

The project also conducts trainings with child welfare staff, juvenile court personnel, and parents/caregivers about the value of early education, and project staff offer trainings with early education staff, court personnel, and caregivers about working with the child welfare system. Additionally, the project has an advisory committee, which includes a caregiver, to discuss a multitude of issues, such as how to share and track data among child welfare and early education systems and how to facilitate transitions when children move from one home or school to another to maintain continuity of the child’s education.

Project staff noted several key strategies for moving this initiative forward. One is to have child welfare agency staff whose focus is on education and early education. Otherwise, with everything else on which the agency must focus, these areas may receive a low priority. Additionally, agencies do not need to immediately create a large system or process to achieve positive results. It may be better to create a small, scalable system in the beginning, ensure the process works, and then expand later.

The Los Angeles Child Welfare-Early Care Systems Infrastructure Project is a partnership between UCLA, the Los Angeles County DCFS, the LBUSD Head Start/Early Head Start program, the Michigan State University School of Social Work (project evaluator), and various early childhood and family support service providers in Long Beach, CA.

Many thanks to Todd Franke of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Sacha Klein of the Michigan State University School of Social Work, and Steve Sturm of the Los Angeles County DCFS for providing information for this article.