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December/January 2019Vol. 19, No. 10Missouri's Multidisciplinary Approach to Child Welfare Systems Transformation

Written by Allison Green, Special Assistant Professional & Foster America Fellow, Missouri Children's Division.

It's often said that that attorneys and social workers "speak two different languages"—lawyers chatting in "legalese" and social workers using the vernacular of clinicians. In Missouri, the child welfare community decided that this status quo was no longer acceptable. Children and families deserve a system where professionals use a common language, share a joint vision, and persistently work across silos. The Children's Division prioritized several initiatives to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and enhance court engagement:

  • Court partnership teams—The agency worked with Missouri's Office of the State Courts Administrator and judiciary to hold five regional convenings for court stakeholders. These events offered joint training to activate 46 "court partnership teams" across the state. By jointly reviewing data and trends, members engage in an iterative process of continuous quality improvement. Experience shows that these collaborations can have a profound impact. For example, Greene County in Missouri—in partnership with Casey Family Programs' judicial engagement team and the nonprofit, Fostering Court Improvement—used the court engagement process to safely reduce the number of youth in care by over 30 percent in 4 years. During the convenings, teams asked ambitious, exploratory questions (e.g., How might we promote safe visitation for parents who have relapsed?) and returned to their localities prepared to transform ideas into practical solutions.
  • Permanency Attorney Initiative—Although historically unrepresented at most dependency hearings, the Children's Division shifted resources to hire attorneys in several sites to provide zealous representation "from petition to permanency." This model of representation, coupled with robust training, can accelerate permanency timelines by up to 250 days (Herring, 1992). The agency also offered a 5-day training covering relevant laws, trial skills, trauma, cultural humility, and other topics from the cannon of child welfare expertise. The permanency attorneys will serve as advocates and as translators, harmonizing the Missouri Practice Model used by caseworkers with the legal analysis that lawyers and judges expect and rely on.
  • Elevating diverse voices in systemic planning—Missouri has reinvigorated efforts to include a diverse set of voices in the systemic improvement process. For example, its recently approved Program Improvement Plan (PIP) emphasizes adaptive change around parent engagement, including plans for a statewide parent advisory board, expanded Parent Cafés, and amplified engagement with noncustodial and nonresident parents. Similarly, we jumpstarted our Child and Family Services Plan (CFSP) advisory process by including parent advocates, guardians ad litem, and judges. When fully maximized, both the PIP and CFSP are effective tools to embed vision and values into the agency's daily work. 

Child welfare agencies can no longer settle for a system that does not embrace the principles of multidisciplinary teaming, data-driven decisions, and high-quality legal representation. Children's Bureau Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner has called for the broader child welfare workforce "to come together in a more coordinated way to harness our collective impact for good" (see Related Item). Missouri has started its journey down this path, and our sights remain set on this "jointly owned vision" (see Related Item). When lawyers and judges learn the agency's language and practice model, they bring rigor and accountability to each recommendation. Working together, we can meet and exceed reasonable efforts, preserve families, catalyze permanency and build a system that is worthy of the children and families it serves.


Herring, D. J. (1992). Legal representation for the state child welfare agency in civil child protection proceedings: A comparative study. University of Toledo Law Review, 24, 603-687

Related Item

Milner, J. (2018). The need for an expanded view of the child welfare workforce. Children's Bureau Express, 19 (7). Retrieved from