• October 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 7

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Transforming South Carolina’s Approach to Child Welfare

Written by the South Carolina Department of Social Services and The Children's Trust of South Carolina

The concept is simple. South Carolina can keep families together and children out of the child welfare system if it makes sure the state's families have the resources, skills, and abilities to provide nurturing home environments.

The reality, however, is more complex, and it will require innovative shifts in how South Carolina approaches child welfare. The focus must be on a preventative system that boosts family well-being and supportive communities rather than one that is reactive to individual cases of trauma and violence.

South Carolina is one of four jurisdictions participating in Thriving Families, Safer Children: A National Commitment to Well-Being, a national program to redesign child welfare. The program is being developed by the U.S. Children's Bureau, Casey Family Programs, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Prevent Child Abuse America to create more just and equitable systems to break harmful multigenerational cycles of trauma and poverty to benefit all children and families. 

It takes all of us working together to prevent child abuse, and this project puts those words into action. 

The success of families and children is dependent upon nurturing environments. For South Carolina to make this transformation to a more proactive approach, it must increase the protective factors around families and ensure resources are available within communities and that those resources are truly accessible to families regardless of race or socioeconomic status. It will incorporate a holistic view of child development and family well-being, while preventing child maltreatment and unnecessary family separation. 

South Carolina partners are eager to be part of this cutting-edge national program, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about increased stressors to families and made them more fragile. The partnership in South Carolina is being led by the South Carolina Department of Social Services (SC DSS), with Children's Trust of South Carolina as a primary partner. Additional partners include the Department of Children's Advocacy, South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, and other state agencies and organizations.

SC DSS director Michael Leach has been a strong advocate for strengthening families and creating a system that promotes true prevention since taking over leadership of the agency in 2019. "Having South Carolina chosen as one of the four demonstration sites in the entire country shows that SC DSS is making progress in serving our state's children and families. There is no better time than right now to move our state from a reactive child welfare system to a system that enables greater, more fluid interagency coordination and collaboration in serving families," Leach said.  

As the South Carolina lead for the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting program and the Strengthening Families Program, Children's Trust leads much of the evidence-based prevention work in the state. "Our focus on discrete programs that use two-generation strategies to work with individual children and their families has been very effective in South Carolina," Children's Trust chief executive officer Sue Williams said. "However, they have been available to only a fraction of the families who could benefit from them. Now is the time to build upon what we know prevents abuse and neglect and scale our impact."  With support from state and national partners, this is a long-term project and will work up and down the socioecological model to significantly expand efforts and impact. "This is a marathon and not a sprint. We will be at this for a number of years before we see sustainable change at the family and community levels," Williams added. 

The effort will also assess the economic and social conditions that influence the health of families and engage a wide variety of stakeholders across public, private and philanthropic sectors. The ultimate goal will be that all families, regardless of race/ethnicity or socioeconomic status, can readily access help when and where they need it.

Key elements of the work will include the following:   

  • Partnering with diverse groups of nonprofits and community-based organizations to ensure a robust array of services are available and ready for families
  • Removing the stigma parents experience when seeking assistance and shift the mindset to one that normalizes help-seeking behaviors 
  • Engaging parents so that the work is informed by those who have direct experience with the system 
  • Establishing family resources centers in communities across the state to ensure communities are networked to support families seeking help 
  • Providing more services that meet families where they are, including in their homes and with early intervention programs 
  • Fostering a greater understanding of adverse childhood experiences to increase the understanding of how important it is to address potential trauma before it can occur and create positive childhood experiences that build resilience for children and their families

Department of Children's advocacy director and state child advocate Amanda Whittle sees this national initiative as a great opportunity for South Carolina. "Thriving Families provides continued momentum for South Carolina's efforts to improve outcomes for children and families," Whittle said. "Child welfare practitioners, parents, community partners, volunteers, and other caring and supportive adults can help transform South Carolina to a child and family well-being system that is grounded in urgency, empathy and sustainability with this new endeavor."


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