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May 2019Vol. 20, No. 4A Landmark Achievement in Program Improvement Plan Development Brings Cause for Hope

Written by Jerry Milner

History was made on April 18, 2019, in Lansing, Michigan—the Children's Bureau (CB) was pleased to sign and approve the first Program Improvement Plan (PIP) ever submitted in approvable form within the 90-day regulatory timeframe. This is significant not just because it has never happened before in the 18 years that CB has administered the Child and Family Service Reviews (CFSR) but because of the manner in which it was completed.

The approval was possible as the result of a new approach to PIP development currently being piloted by CB. The approach requires enhanced levels of partnership between the federal government, state government, county child welfare agencies, federal technical assistance providers, and a wide array of state and local stakeholders, including, most importantly, parents and youth with lived foster care and child welfare experience. CB initiated the pilot process in direct response to continued poor national performance on round three of the CFSR. Three states volunteered to be a part of the pilot: Michigan, Louisiana, and Maryland. Michigan was the first state to commence the process.

To date, no state has achieved substantial conformity on all of the measures included in the CFSR. Consequently, every state in the country has been required to develop a PIP in all rounds of the CFSR. The process of negotiating PIPs with states has been arduous and far in excess of the timelines set by regulation. While certain measures have been improved under many PIPs, such improvements have not commonly led to meaningful systemic changes overall as we originally envisioned in implementing the CFSR. 

The purpose of the PIP pilots are to:

  • Test an approach to developing PIPs that will address the most common reasons for current delays in approving PIP ( e.g., lack of meaningful stakeholder engagement/commitment) strategies that are not directly related to the underlying causes of poor performance on the outcomes and extensive review and comment phases between the states and federal government
  • Increase the possibilities of approved PIPs leading to measurable improvements on the CFSR outcomes

The desired outcome of the PIP pilot is to assist the state agency and stakeholders in developing a PIP framework that puts the state on track for an approvable PIP within 90 days of the onsite review. The most common reasons that we have engaged in prolonged deliberations with states over the PIPs include the lack of a common understanding of the underlying causes of the problems to be resolved/improved, of the approaches needed to resolve the problems and how to get there, the lack of critical stakeholder involvement, the lack of fit between strategies and desired outcomes, and extended review and comment periods on drafts of the PIPs between states and the federal government. In the PIP pilots, we have looked for ways to address those issues.

The pilots were designed to help stakeholders reach consensus and come together around a vision for what they want child welfare in their state to be and provides space and structure to ensure that all improvement efforts align with and support that vision. The vision and resulting desired outcomes should be jointly owned and implemented by the child welfare agency, the legal and judicial systems, service providers, and key stakeholders whose interactions with families and children affect the outcomes. A portion of the onsite PIP pilots is devoted to clarifying vision and values in order to guide development of specific PIP strategies and approaches and roles and responsibilities of the stakeholders in implementation.

In Michigan, nearly 70 stakeholders from across the broader child welfare system came together to work with a team comprising CB and staff from the CB Capacity Building Centers for Courts and States for 1 week to examine the root causes of what was standing in the way of producing the outcomes all hoped to see for children and families. Significant work was done in advance by teams to analysis and prepare data for stakeholders to examine and considered throughout the process.

The Michigan team was successful in building consensus around a common vision, identifying cross-cutting issues impeding their ability to reach their vision, and creative, realistic strategies that have a strong possibility of improving the lives of children and families.

The following are two of the strategies that warrant specific mention and represent the type of creativity and boldness that CB would like to promote nationally:

  • A concerted cross system effort to improve the quality of legal representation for children and parents 
  • An effort to expand and institutionalize an effort led by foster parents to recruit and support foster parents to serve as a support to the entire family as opposed to a substitute for parents

Both strategies are designed to address challenges with parent and youth engagement that persist in Michigan and are endemic nationally and to help improve specific safety, permanency, and well-being outcomes identified as areas in need of improvement through the review.

CB commends the state of Michigan for its courage in volunteering to be a part of the process. The child welfare system in Michigan has faced tremendous scrutiny as the result of a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of children in care and had every reason to retreat into a protectionist bunker. Rather, the state's leadership, including those who were outgoing and transitional, demonstrated tremendous trust and boldness in going out on a limb to participate in the process.

Finalization of the PIP is a necessary but insufficient accomplishment in improving the way children and families experience the child welfare system. Michigan must now implement the plan in meaningful and effective ways. CB has committed to support Michigan in its continued efforts through our region 5 office team and CB Capacity Building Centers for Courts and States to ensure full implementation.

We congratulate all involved with the successful Michigan PIP development.

With continued diligence and coordinated work toward its vision, the stage is set for success in Michigan.