• September 2019
  • Vol. 20, No. 7

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Laying a Foundation: Child Welfare Agencies and Courts Working Together

Written by the Children's Bureau's Capacity Building Center for States and Center for Courts

The vision of the Children's Bureau begins with recognizing that the child welfare system is much more than the child welfare agency alone—it includes many other agencies and organizations that touch the lives of children and families and affect the outcomes they achieve. . .It is a vision that cannot and should not be possible to achieve without the support and partnership of the legal and judicial community.
    —Jerry Milner, Acting Commissioner, Administration on Children, Youth and Families (2018, para. 6)

Child welfare agencies and the legal community can best support the children, youth, and families they serve by working with each other and with their communities toward a common goal and vision. Bringing that vision to life and improving outcomes requires that agencies, courts, and stakeholders proactively collaborate to find sustainable solutions to the systemic challenges they face (Kelly, 2019).

This article presents strategies to help agencies and courts work together to address common challenges, and provides an example of how one state put some of these strategies into practice.

Strategies for Joint Planning and Improvement Efforts

Joint planning is the first step in putting a shared vision into action and working together to achieve shared goals. To begin the process, agency and court staff can do the following:

  • Collaborate with one another and with other stakeholders to create a shared vision for child welfare in the jurisdiction, which can serve as a foundation for plans that are developed, such as the Child and Family Services Plans, Annual Progress and Services Reports, Program Improvement Plans, and Court Improvement Program (CIP) Strategic Plans
  • Hold regular meetings with stakeholders (e.g., frontline staff, CIP staff, parents' attorneys, parents, children's attorneys, youth) to discuss common challenges and review data
  • Adopt formal communication guidelines that clarify how information will be regularly shared among participants
  • Develop a data-sharing agreement to facilitate information exchange; while such agreements may require addressing technical challenges and privacy and confidentiality issues, they can be accomplished if all parties are willing (see the Additional Resources below for more information)

Joint Planning to Improve Permanency: An Example

Putting these strategies into practice requires a willingness to share responsibility and find collaborative solutions to challenges.

One state's Child and Family Services Review results, like those of many states, showed challenges around timely permanency. This was demonstrated by many children continuing with a goal of reunification well beyond 12 months in care and extensive delays in finalizing adoptions. The agency believed this was the result of delays in the court process, while the courts felt that the agency often did not provide needed services to families until too late into the case.

To address these challenges, agency and court staff, with the support of the agency director and chief judge, convened a workgroup that met regularly to find a solution. Together, they analyzed agency data, and the court was able to start a new data-collection process to evaluate continuances. The workgroup included program and field staff, court administrative and CIP staff, the court-appointed special advocate state program staff, and parents' and children's attorney leadership.

The workgroup agreed to develop a mediation process that would occur early in the case to resolve preliminary disagreements about the case plan, thus increasing opportunities for reunification and avoiding multiple continuances that could delay the permanency timeline. The workgroup established referral criteria and an implementation plan, and the court was able to hire a part-time mediator to support the program.

The state is hopeful that this strategy will not only improve its ability to move children to permanency more quickly but also set the stage for further collaboration on other shared priorities.

As Acting Commissioner Milner notes, the work of supporting families and keeping children safe is the joint responsibility of the child welfare agency and the legal and judicial community. When child welfare agencies and courts proactively plan together to address common challenges, they can advance program and practice improvements that avoid or minimize the trauma of temporary placements for children and families.


Kelly, D. (2019). Beyond the table: The need to work with courts and the legal community in improving outcomes for children and families. Children's Bureau Express, 19(10). Retrieved from https://go.usa.gov/xV8rH.

Milner, J. (2018). Reshaping child welfare in the United States: Lawyers as partners in prevention. Retrieved from https://www.americanbar.org/groups/child_law/resources/child_law_practiceonline/january-december-2018/reshaping-child-welfare-in-the-united-states--lawyers-as-partner/.

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