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September 2019Vol. 20, No. 7Louisiana: A Program Improvement Plan Made Successful Through Agency and Court Collaboration

Written by Rhenda Hodnett, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., assistant secretary, Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, Child Welfare Division; and Mark Harris, court improvement program coordinator, Pelican Center for Children and Families, New Orleans, Louisiana

Approved by the Children's Bureau (CB) within a record-breaking 78 days, Louisiana's Program Improvement Plan (PIP) includes bold strategies purposefully aligned with CB's vision to shift from a child welfare system that is reactive to one that is proactive in addressing child maltreatment. The disappointing outcomes in round 3 of the Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs) left Louisiana stakeholders disheartened. At the same time, it created a sense of determination and urgency to make substantial changes in how the child welfare system meets the needs of the children and families it serves.

The timing of Louisiana's CFSR aligned perfectly with CB's effort to revise the process for creating a PIP. Louisiana volunteered to participate in CB's pilot program, which was designed to forge strong collaboration among stakeholders and critical thinking around root causes and strategies that would result in a meaningful change in the way children and families experience the child welfare system. In preparation for the onsite meeting, Louisiana received assistance from the Capacity Building Centers for States and Courts, which facilitated a series of engaging and collaborative meetings with a vast array of child welfare stakeholders. These meetings focused on a deeper exploration of data, root-cause analysis, and the development of a theory of change. In March 2019, this strong conglomerate—which included 68 individuals representing federal and state agencies, parents and youth with lived experience in the child welfare system, service providers, and legal stakeholders—convened for an intensive 4-day meeting. Not only did the participants have access to qualitative and quantitative data provided by the CFSR final report, the state agency, and the courts, they also were able to share lived experiences and hear perspectives from a variety of stakeholders who interact with the child welfare system. As diverse stakeholders committed to working together to transform the system, resolve overcame disappointment, and consensus regarding strategies and joint ownership among stakeholders became evident. Five cross-cutting themes emerged, which all participants agreed should be the areas of focus for real change: assessment and safety decision-making, engagement, workforce development, service array, and quality legal representation.

There is strong confidence in Louisiana's ability to implement the PIP successfully because the essential stakeholders were part of its development from the beginning. Legal stakeholders actually assumed leadership for two of the five PIP strategies: service array and quality legal representation. Like the child welfare agency, courts make life-altering decisions that affect families for generations; thus, collaboration and coordination between the courts and agencies are critical to truly strengthening the safety, well-being, and permanency outcomes for children and families.

My Community Cares (MCC) is one of Louisiana's innovative PIP strategies that aligns perfectly with CB's vision to improve child welfare outcomes through community-based, collaborative programs that give families access to critical services in supportive, culturally relevant, and prevention-focused environments that enhance protective factors. The CFSR data and discussions among stakeholders clearly demonstrated that families who encounter the child welfare system are often not getting the adequate services and supports needed to address underlying issues and strengthen their parental capacity to prevent maltreatment. Participants hoped that more children could remain with their families, return to their parent's custody, or be placed with relative caregivers more expeditiously when provided appropriate, individualized, and readily accessible trauma-informed services and supports.

MCC is a multitiered, multidisciplinary grassroots approach designed to empower communities to intentionally and collectively care for their children and families. With judicial leadership, the Louisiana Court Improvement Program, other legal stakeholders, and the Louisiana Department of Child and Family Services will collaborate with local communities to build and support their capacity. Core components of the model include the following:

  • Convene community teams at the neighborhood level to create a shared vision and ownership of desired outcomes and enhance coordination and collaboration within their communities
  • Establish a comprehensive continuum—from prevention to treatment—of accessible services
  • Assemble a state-level team to advocate for policy and law changes, build the capacity of each parish to implement MCC, and address statewide systemic challenges and gaps in services

This is a bold vision for Louisiana, but we believe that together we can create communities where children and families are safe, stable, and self-sufficient, one family and one community at a time.