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December 2020Vol. 21, No. 9What Relentlessness Looks Like in the Nation's Capital

Written by Brenda Donald, director, District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency

The District of Columbia (DC) Family First Five-Year Prevention Plan is titled "Putting Families First in DC." It's so much more than a title. It's a value statement embedded in an agenda that has taken the DC Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) from being just a foster care agency to a family strengthening system. The premise is simple—we believe that families want their children to thrive, but sometimes things get in the way. When my own kids were young, my prayer was that they would be happy, healthy, and safe. I fundamentally believe that all parents want the same for their kids, and I have embedded that principle into the fabric of CFSA.

The families we serve are complex; the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against them. When I joined CFSA many years ago, it was apparent that the breaking points that bring families to the agency's attention were often predictable. So, with the support of other city leaders, we have made it our goal to identify these potential breaking points early enough to help place families on a different pathway. If we reach families before things fall apart and connect them to a helping healing system, they have a fighting chance.

How do we do that? In addition to establishing a comprehensive family support system, it was critical to build the organizational infrastructure necessary to know when and how to intervene when children are in danger. It's a "both ... and" strategy. 

At CFSA, we established the Four Pillars, a values-based framework that guides our agenda:

  1. Front Door: Children deserve to grow up with their families and should be removed only as the last resort. The goal is to narrow the front door into the system by meeting families in the "front yard" or on the "front porch" and connecting them to community-based services.
  2. Temporary Safe Haven: Foster care is a good interim place for children to be cared for while we work to get them back to a permanent home as quickly as possible. Planning for a safe exit begins as soon as a child enters the system.
  3. Well-Being: Children should leave foster care better than when they entered. Every child has a right to a nurturing environment that supports healthy growth and development, good physical and mental health, and academic achievement.
  4. Exit to Permanence: Every child and youth exits foster care as quickly as possible for a safe, well-supported family environment or life-long connection. Older youth have the skills they need to succeed as adults.

The Four Pillars framework stands on a foundation that includes the agency, the community, and the broader system. I often say of CFSA, "We are the child welfare agency; we are not the child welfare system." That system comprises birth and foster families, associated governmental agencies, the courts, community partners, and the numerous stakeholders necessary to support and stabilize vulnerable families.

Our relentless adherence to the Four Pillars has yielded worthy outcomes. When CFSA rolled out the framework in 2012, we had 1,700 children in foster care. Today, we have approximately 700, and the percentage of families we support in their own homes has increased from 45 percent to 65 percent. 

So, how do you do this? All jurisdictions are different, and while there is no magic recipe, CFSA has seen results with these essential ingredients:

  • Clearly articulated core values embedded throughout the system. CFSA staff and all our partners understand and are invested in the Four Pillars. We are intentional in using them to guide our performance metrics, training, and promotional materials.
  • The organizational infrastructure to support the values. A "narrowing the front door" declaration in favor of keeping children with their families requires a solid infrastructure with proven risk and safety decision-making tools, training, reasonable case loads, and continuous quality improvement to ensure that the narrow front door does not become a revolving door. 
  • Cross-agency collaboration. In the District, our families' needs and opportunities to receive support span multiple public agencies, including mental health, human services, employment services, public health, education, and housing. We use data to map where our families live and with which agencies they engage, and the results are not surprising—same kids, same families, same neighborhoods. It presents a compelling argument for joining arms across the system and working collaboratively on behalf of families.
  • An investment/reinvestment strategy. As CFSA's foster care population has continued to decline, we have redirected the savings to invest in building the capacity of neighborhood-based nonprofit organizations. This has been a long-term strategy that began over 20 years ago, and it's critical to our ability to support families where they live. 
  • Leveraging federal resources. We used our title IV-E waiver experience, which was primarily focused on prevention, as an on-ramp to the Family First Prevention Services Act. It did not result in an immediate infusion of new federal money, but our strategic choices will allow us to stretch funds for continued reinvestment in upstream prevention and supportive services.
  • Family and constituent voices. Admittedly, CFSA added this important ingredient a little late, but over the last few years, we have intentionally incorporated birth family and youth voices with these additions:
    • Our PEERS birth parent unit consists of full-time employees who not only work with other birth parents toward reunification but also advise on policy and practice.
    • Our Youth Advisory Council gives older youth a platform to advocate for and influence preparedness and transition plans.

Being relentless for families means being mindful of new threats and challenges. The events of 2020—the pandemic, economic devastation, and racial and social injustices—have and will continue to impact the families we serve for a long time. The family support and strengthening systems we are building must be designed to meet families where they are and take them where they want to go. They deserve no less.