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September 2019Vol. 20, No. 7The Child Welfare System Consists of More Than the Child Welfare Agency

Written by Vivek S. Sankaran, clinical professor of law, University of Michigan Law School

When families come to the attention of child welfare agencies, they often have a multitude of challenges to address. They might lack housing. Or they may present with mental health issues. Or they may be consumed by substance use. Or they may be victimized by domestic violence. The list is long.

No single entity alone can address these issues. Rather, a community partnership—consisting of the agency, the courts, lawyers, foster parents, clergy, other parents, older youth, and many others—must work together to help guide family members through a difficult moment in their lives.

Yet, traditionally, we've looked to child welfare agencies to "solve" a family's problems or come up with another solution. When data reveal poor outcomes for kids in foster care, we blame agencies. When a tragedy involving a child occurs, we replace agency directors. When children are unnecessarily removed, we castigate child protective services workers. Despite knowing that only a true community partnership will achieve the outcomes we want for children and their families, we have resisted that approach. Instead, we continue to work in our silos.

This past year, the Children's Bureau launched a pilot project—on which I was invited to participate—to change this dynamic. Because the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was not in substantial conformity with federal child welfare measures, our state was required to develop a Program Improvement Plan (PIP) to address the deficiencies. Traditionally, the responsibility to develop this plan fell squarely on the agency.

But this year, the Children's Bureau encouraged a different approach. Over 50 stakeholders—including workers, lawyers, judges, foster parents, and others—gathered together for 5 days to discuss the root causes of our outcomes. A strong contingency of federal officials also attended the meeting. The group, guided by research and data, brainstormed different solutions to the problems, eventually narrowing down the conversation to several priorities that would guide the development of the PIP. For example, stakeholders agreed that the system could not achieve good outcomes without strong legal representation for parents. They also agreed that foster parents should be encouraged to engage with birth parents and that the state needs to figure out how to deliver quality services to families and retain workers. Then, they developed detailed plans to move forward on these issues, which formed the basis of our PIP. In other words, this plan was not developed by a few agency workers holed away in an office in a remote government building.

Now, the hard work of implementing these ideas begins. But unlike other years, the responsibility to do so does not rest solely on the agency. Rather, as a result of this process, an entire community is invested in making these changes happen and will own whatever successes and failures result. Through this process, we learned that the child welfare system consists of far more than the child welfare agency. We are all part of the system, and through this recognition, we will be able to better serve families.