The nucleus of the child welfare system is, by definition, an intrusive bureaucracy responsible for investigating abuse and placing children in foster care. Yet it is also a system intended to help families overcome potentially crushing difficulties, connecting them to all kinds of supports and services. These dual purposes can succeed to their greatest potential only if those working in child welfare build a high degree of trust with communities and involve them in critical conversations about how resources are used. The city's community partnership initiative can serve as a valuable tool for opening up the child welfare system, amplifying the voices of parents, young people and communities.
What follows are recommendations and solutions proposed by the Child Welfare Watch advisory board to strengthen the partnership initiative, advance greater community involvement in the system and improve the capacity of child welfare services to reflect the needs of the neighborhoods where they work.
THE ADMINISTRATION FOR CHILDREN'S SERVICES AND CITY HALL SHOULD COMMIT TO , AND INVEST IN , RESOURCES AND SUPERVISION THAT WILL ENABLE PARTNERSHIPS TO PRODUCE IMPRESSIVE RESULTS.
The current structure of community partnerships appears inadequate for the tasks at hand, despite the superhuman work of some liaisons and volunteers. Volunteer co-chairs and board members are essential, but they are working people who cannot be expected to staff programs that make a difference at a neighborhood-wide scale. Partnership liaisons are in many cases radically overstretched and limited in their capacity to achieve multiple goals.
A more effective structure would be based on adequate funding for small teams of skilled, focused staff who believe in and understand the mission of the partnerships, and can see its goals realized. If there were at least three staff members for each partnership, their team leader would be able to be more fully responsible for supervision, communications, community engagement and networking with local organizations, and for building ties with other government agencies in the neighborhoods. It takes a paid leader to act on opportunities and establish routines of engagement. The cochairs, volunteers and partner organizations can initiate and guide neighborhood connections that bridge child welfare with legal services, mental health supports, education advocacy, youth development programs, the city's Young Men's Initiative, and other programs. But it takes staff to realize and sustain them. The other two staffers would manage specific projects and objectives. For example, developing the corps of community representatives for child safety conferences through recruiting, training and supporting them. Also, recruiting and coordinating visit coaches.
Another option is a more flexible model for staffing each partnership that draws on the ACS field office, local foster care agencies and a lead community-based organization that represents and serves families. Each would assign a staff person to commit paid time to the partnership, with supervision varying according to the needs and strengths of organizations in each neighborhood.
Many frontline staff and supervisors at the ACS Division of Child Protection are invested in the child safety conferences as a valuable tool for working with parents and even preventing foster care placements. Supporting this work by substantially ramping up the use of trained community representatives could happen quickly with proper staffing of the partnerships; it's an opportunity that shouldn't be lost.
While ACS leadership has also sought to assign greater responsibilities for foster parent recruitment to the partnerships, this is a highly labor intensive task and shouldn't be cavalierly assigned to understaffed, overstretched partnerships. The surest way for partnerships to fail is to expect too much while providing too little funding and support.
THE ADMINISTRATION FOR CHILDREN'S SERVICES SHOULD BEGIN TRACKING OUTCOMES DATA THAT DEMONSTRATE THE PARTNERSHIPS' IMPACT ON FAMILY SUPPORT AND STABILITY.
Community partnerships are currently responsible for accomplishing five tasks, each of which is attached to a numeric goal. For example, partnerships are supposed to facilitate 40 community visits between foster children and their parents or guardians each year. While these goals can help to keep the partnerships focused on tasks, they don't necessarily measure their impact on families.
A few of the partnerships have attempted to track outcomes data that demonstrate whether families they serve are reunifying more quickly than others in the system, but these attempts are haphazard. The desired outcomes should be achievable and measurable. Are child safety conferences leading to more placements of children with relatives, rather than strangers, when community representatives are present? Are parents participating more fully than in conferences without representatives? Did the parents feel supported and understand what was happening? Do foster care case planners see quicker progress toward reunification when visiting is supported by a visit coach?
Due to the limits of funding and staff, partnerships tend to exhaust their resources attempting to meet the tasks set for them by ACS. While they will have to participate in supplying data, ultimately it should be up to ACS to organize the legwork required to track outcomes.
THE ADMINISTRATION FOR CHILDREN'S SERVICES OFFICE OF COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS SHOULD PROVIDE MORE SKILLED EXPERTISE, GUIDANCE AND FACILITATION.
The ACS facilitators for the community partnerships should be a source of stronger support and technical guidance for all of the partnerships. These facilitators already have substantial knowledge about the neighborhoods where they work; they should be able to apply this knowledge for morepowerful results. For example, they should help partnership staff set up effective data gathering and reporting systems, set up and facilitate committee work, foster the community planning process and provide expertise that helps the partnerships achieve their objectives. Valuable technical assistance can also be provided by outside organizations (paid by ACS and private funders) in collaboration with local groups.
Similarly, the ACS Office of Family Visiting needs to provide more routine trainings to visit coaches, who are in short supply. These coaches are central to the partnerships' capacity to improve family visits for children in foster care.
THE ADMINISTRATION FOR CHILDREN'S SERVICES SHOULD HOLD FOSTER CARE AGENCIES ACCOUNTABLE FOR PARTICIPATING MEANINGFULLY IN COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS.
Partnerships have struggled to get many foster care agencies involved in their work. Even when agencies send staff members to participate in meetings and workgroups, buy-in does not necessarily filter up the ranks of the agency, or down through the frontline workers responsible for connecting families to partnership resources.
The result is that valuable programs are underutilized: Very few foster care agencies invite the partnerships' community representatives to family-team conferences, where they might be able to help parents participate more fully in making the decisions that impact their families. And partnerships often struggle to find families to participate in their visit coaching services, which allow kids and their parents to spend time together in community places like parks and libraries rather than antiseptic agency offices.
A more forceful commitment from foster care agency leadership is needed. They could designate a single person or position to coordinate referrals to partnerships. Agency participation in partnership programs should be incorporated in the ACS scoring system for evaluating agencies and determining their future funding.
PARTNERSHIPS SHOULD RECRUIT COMMUNITY RESIDENTS WITH EXPERIENCE OF THE CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM.
A defining characteristic of the community partnerships is that some of their work is guided and carried out by people who live in the neighborhoods the partnerships serve. Partnerships recruit, train and pay residents to attend conferences between ACS and families at risk of losing their children to foster care, and to host visits between children in foster care and their parents. These residents come from a variety of backgrounds and provide many different types of helpful support and expertise.
Community representatives with personal experience of the child welfare system can be powerful assets to the partnerships. Leaders of community organizations and agency caseworkers should help partnerships recruit potential new community representatives by identifying parents who have dealt with preventive services and foster care and who exemplify personal strength and a capacity for leadership. Parent-led organizations like CWOP have shown that they are invaluable in identifying, training and supporting community representatives who can stand on equal footing with professionals and demand that the premise of partnership be honored in practice.
NEW YORK CITY FAMILY COURT SHOULD CREATE DESIGNATED COURT PARTS FOR NEIGHBORHOODS WITH WELL-DEVELOPED COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS.
One of the New York City models for a comprehensive community partnership focused on child welfare was the Bridge Builders project in the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. For several years, Bridge Builders was associated with a special part in the Bronx Family Court, where a judge and his staff were devoted, three afternoons per week, to child welfare cases involving Highbridge families.
Attorneys, advocates and service providers say the designated court part facilitated families' progress through the system, because it created an infrastructure for a consistent set of attorneys and others to work together on a regular basis. It also allowed for regular contact between the court and Bridge Builders staff, who provided insight into families' circumstances and programs.
The Bronx Family Court has agreed to reestablish the special part for Highbridge. The Office of Court Administration should pursue similar initiatives in the other boroughs.
CITY HALL AND THE ADMINISTRATION FOR CHILDREN'S SERVICES SHOULD DEVELOP FORMAL, STRUCTURED MECHANISMS FOR OTHER CITY PROGRAMS AND AGENCIES TO PLAY A ROLE IN COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS.
Part of the original vision for community partnerships was that they would engage in foster care prevention, organizing communities to support struggling families long before child protection investigators showed up at their doors. In order to do this deep prevention work, partnerships need the active participation of other city-funded programs (including those within ACS) as well as other government agencies that come into contact with families every day, not only daycare and early education providers, but schools, drug treatment programs, after-school services, domestic violence counselors and so on.
The city should look to previous models of inter-agency collaborations, such as the Bloomberg Administration's early "One City / One Community" project, to create infrastructures for collaboration at all levels, from frontline staff to policymakers. In the long term, agencies that contribute from their budgets to the partnerships should recoup the savings garnered from efficiencies created by the partnerships.
COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS MUST HAVE ROOM TO DEVELOP THEIR OWN AGENDAS AND PURSUE GOALS THAT STRENGTHEN AND EXPAND NEIGHBORHOOD RESOURCES.
In the many neighborhoods where child welfare services are most pervasive, community partners are clear that their greatest passion is for strengthening services that will help struggling families be stable and safe. In East New York, for example, the local ACS-funded community partnership saw that many immigrant families were unaware of mental health services and resistant to discussing mental illness. The partnership not only produced workshops for residents and professionals, they also developed a booklet about mental health that has been distributed widely throughout the community. But with few resources and strong mandates from ACS about specific, targeted goals, such entrepreneurial initiatives are a strain. As the partnerships grow to more fully represent their original vision, they will be forceful advocates for the neighborhood resources that help keep families whole.