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February 2020Vol. 21, No. 1Primary Prevention Puts Families First in the District of Columbia

Written by Natalie Craver, program manager, Community Partnerships Administration, DC Child and Family Services Agency, Washington, DC

For over a decade, the District of Columbia's Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), under the leadership of Director Brenda Donald, has implemented strategic initiatives to reform the city's child welfare system, moving purposefully away from a system focused primarily on foster care placement to a system designed to strengthen families, support children in their homes whenever possible, and prevent the occurrence of child abuse and neglect in the first place. In 2012, CFSA developed the Four Pillars strategic framework, which has guided all activities across the child welfare agency and in building partnerships with our system partners, to improve outcomes for children, youth, and families. Each of the four pillars sits on a values-based foundation, evidence-based strategies, and specific outcome targets. The results of this decade of work and strategic framing include a 60 percent reduction in the District's total foster care population, from over 2,000 children in 2010 to under 800 children today. Important to this success is the often less overt, but crucial, work to support families with "upstream," or primary prevention, services and supports.

CFSA recognizes that as noted in Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner and special assistant David Kelly's recent article to truly move the needle we must address the root causes of why families become involved with child protective services and not just tackle presenting issues once families' struggles have become apparent to agency staff. Primary prevention has become a cornerstone of the District's prevention services continuum and continues to guide our actions as new legislation, such as the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 (Family First) and the Family First Transition Act and Support Act of 2019 (Transition Act), provide states with key opportunities to invest in evidence-based prevention services and supports to meet families' needs.

Family First provided the District with a valuable opportunity to bridge the end of our title IV-E waiver demonstration project with an on-ramp to developing a holistic District-wide prevention strategy. This was a powerful moment. The current created by Family First has carried us forward over the past year and a half, and we, like many other jurisdictions across the country, eagerly focused our attention and efforts toward developing and implementing a title IV-E prevention services plan (prevention plan). From the start, CFSA knew our prevention plan would only be truly transformative and achieve the support and engagement of citywide partners if coupled with a broader primary prevention plan. Thus, when CFSA launched its Family First Prevention Work Group a cross-sector group of government and community members in June 2018, the charge was clear: develop a citywide strategy to strengthen and stabilize families. Our work was not driven by Family First; rather, it leveraged new opportunities provided by Family First as part of a comprehensive approach to family and child well-being.

While we received approval of our prevention plan this past October, the constraints of the legislation required the District to take a critical look at how far upstream we could focus title IV-E funds. We needed to identify additional funding opportunities to support primary prevention. Family First services must be targeted to specific populations, known as "candidates" for foster care. CFSA's approved candidate definition (outlined in section 1 of our approved plan) extends to children and their families known to CFSA's "front door" and "front porch," allowing for secondary and tertiary services to meet the needs of families who have been involved with CFSA. Due to these limitations, the District decided we would need to invest locally to support families who are not already known to CFSA (families in CFSA's front yard) and bridge potential funding gaps (now met by the Transition Act) to maintain valuable programs not currently approved by the Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse.

District Mayor Muriel Bowser reinforced the commitment to primary prevention as a cornerstone of our child welfare practice with a companion initiative: Families First DC. In fiscal year 2020, Mayor Bowser dedicated nearly $4 million to fund 10 family success centers, also known as family resource centers, in targeted neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, where approximately three-quarters of the children and families served by CFSA live. At present, CFSA has selected 10 local community-based organizations as grantees to build family-strengthening supports upstream by cocreating a network of primary prevention services and resources with the families and community members living in these neighborhoods.

Families First DC has three goals:

  • Empower communities Neighborhoods and families will envision and create family success centers that will meet their specific needs. Community advisory committees will be established and employed to inform how community-based grants will be used to fill service gaps.
  • Integrate services The family success centers will be uniquely designed by each community to facilitate access to existing government resources and new initiatives tailored to meet families' needs.
  • Focus upstream The family success centers will focus on increasing protective factors and mitigating trauma to build on community and family strengths. Services will be designed to prevent crises through early engagement and respond flexibly to meet families' needs outside of a traditional office setting.

The remainder of this fiscal year will serve as a planning period for grantees to work jointly with each neighborhood's community advisory committee, CFSA staff, and our prevention work group leadership. Sites will launch in the communities in October of 2020, and program outcomes will be evaluated at the family, neighborhood, and community levels as part of our comprehensive prevention-services analysis.

While we have made great strides in improving our child welfare system and have enlisted the partnership of government and community stakeholders, youth, and families, we, alongside the Children's Bureau, recognize that we are charting new waters as we shift from the waiver project to Family First and deepen our local investments in primary prevention. As we move further upstream, we will continue in our commitment to implementing truly transformative initiatives to strengthen families in their communities and addressing root causes rather than just the imminent issues families face once engaged with CFSA to reduce the need for child welfare agency involvement.