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September 2019Vol. 20, No. 7Making Progress in Child Welfare

Written by Ashley Malefyt, founder, Ottawa Fosters, Ottawa County, Michigan

It's no secret that the way we approach child welfare needs an overhaul.

Ask any foster parent or frontline worker and they'll tell you, without hesitation, about the long list of things that they feel need to be changed to do their job effectively. I am a foster parent of 10 years. Over those years, I've learned quite a lot. I have also developed a great deal of opinions. So, I was thrilled to be invited to join the conversation at a Program Improvement Plan (PIP) meeting. PIP meetings are designed to allow states to analyze what they're doing well, find out what needs improvement, and come up with a plan to make positive changes in policy.

At this particular PIP meeting, Michigan became the first state to partake in a different way of tackling the PIP process: a method using focused problem solving. For this pilot method, many stakeholders, representing all the different aspects of child welfare, came together over 4 days to dream up a new approach for better outcomes. Participants were encouraged to be creative, share ideas, and give push back directly to those who have the greatest influence over the Michigan child welfare system. Federal agents, judges, attorneys, frontline workers, foster parents, parents, and youth formerly in foster care were invited to the table with the idea that we all want the same thing: to be able to provide services to achieve safety, stability, and permanency for the children and families we serve and to figure out how to better accomplish that.

We wrestled over why Michigan is not achieving timely permanency. We talked about the barriers to providing meaningful services, starting with accurate and prompt assessments. We discussed workforce development and questioned why caseworker turnover is so high. I overheard a conversation about quality legal representation and how to make sure that every child and their parent have someone fighting for them in court. However, my favorite dialogue was about how to engage the community and foster parents in this process in a more relevant and significant way.

It would be far too idealistic to think that all the issues in child welfare and family services were discussed and solved during this meeting. But I can tell you that it seemed most, if not all, of the participants walked away feeling refreshed, empowered, and encouraged. Relationships were made, ideas were shared, and important work was done.