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September 2019Vol. 20, No. 7A Necessary Reconnection

Written by Jerry Milner

It is not that often in a career that you have a chance to return to a project or initiative nearly 20 years after its inception. As one of the original designers of the Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs), that chance arose for me when I returned to the Children's Bureau 2 and a half years ago.

In 2001, we rolled out a radically different process for reviewing state child welfare programs—one that was designed to be anything but an exercise in compliance. We designed the CFSRs to explore how children and families actually experienced the child welfare system and to go beyond a review of mere documentation. With program improvement as the ultimate goal—as demonstrated in seven outcomes—we envisioned the reviews and Program Improvement Plans (PIPs) driving a dramatically improved system for serving children and families.

The CFSRs were rooted in the vision that the reviews themselves could drive improvements by focusing attention on the practice of child welfare, the engagement of families and children, the effectiveness of service delivery, and child and family well-being, in addition to core safety and permanency concerns. We launched the CFSRs with the understanding that they were not a perfect process. Rather, they held tremendous promise to think about and approach our work in very different ways.

When I arrived back at the Children's Bureau in 2017, we were deep into the third round of the reviews, and, within days, there was a stack of final review reports and PIPs waiting for my review. I was eager to see how much things had changed since I left the Bureau early during round two. I was hopeful that states' performance on achieving the CFSR outcomes would be markedly improved over the results of the first rounds of CFSRs and that the PIPs would be driving the needed systemic changes.

That's not what I saw or read. Round 3 results were not much different than those of rounds 1 and 2. Even at the end of round 3, no state had yet achieved conformity with the major permanency and well -being outcomes, and they missed the mark by more than a little.

Little in the PIPs I reviewed gave me confidence that the strategies included therein would reasonably lead to the kinds of changes needed in the outcomes. I saw plans that had been in negotiations for 2 to 3 years, with disconnected strategies not identifiably tied to a clear vision, lack of focus on underlying root causes of the problems to be solved, and inconsistent reliance on the activities of stakeholders essential to improving outcomes, especially the courts.

Even though I knew many states were involved in system reform efforts, the PIPs reflected a reluctance to commit to bold actions or to rely on stakeholders outside the child welfare agency to carry a portion of the load—most likely due to fear of incurring a financial penalty. The degree of progress committed to in the PIPs was not enough to move the mark dramatically for many cycles of the CFSRs. In short, with some exceptions, the PIPs seemed to reflect more concerns about compliance than bold commitments to improve outcomes radically.

That's not to say that the CFSRs have not changed child welfare in our country. They have. They've helped to focus our attention on outcomes as the key goals of federal oversight at a time when checking boxes and ensuring correct language in case plans were the subjects of review. They've helped bring the use of data and an emphasis on quality of data to the forefront of child welfare functions. They've helped to focus much of our attention and discussion on key practice issues, such as engagement of fathers, quality caseworker visits with children and parents, maintaining parent-child relationships during foster care episodes, and others.

Our child welfare system is better because of the CFSRs.

Yet, the CFSR and PIP processes have not attained our original vision for driving major improvements needed in child welfare so that our children and families experience it in ways that are more satisfactory. It is clear to me that we—both the federal government and the states—need to own our parts in the lack of progress and that we need to reconnect the CFSRs and PIPs to our vision.

A few months ago, we began developing a very different approach to PIP development—one that addresses the major barriers to timely PIP approval and includes broad, bold improvement strategies. Three states—Michigan, Louisiana, and Maryland—stepped to the front of the line to try out the new approach. The pilots brought together representative teams of stakeholders, including parents and youth who had first-hand experience with the states' child welfare systems, for a week of onsite PIP exploration and development. The work of the teams was facilitated by our technical assistance providers and built on pre-onsite work while setting the stage for the remaining post-onsite work. In all three states, the results were approvable PIPs within regulatory time frames as well as the promise of a better child welfare experience for our children and families. These results were not achieved through the efforts of three faint-of-heart states unwilling to engage and to share responsibilities, but by three states that were bold and brave in committing to meaningful paths to improvement.

I am very optimistic that we can embark on the CFSR and PIP processes in round 4 with a renewed sense of hope and commitment to the original CFSR vision. It will take leadership at the federal and state levels to ensure that the vision serves children and families as they deserve to be served and to make sure that compliance is not our primary motivating factor in making our child welfare system fully responsive to the needs it was designed to address.