Boston Foundation releases report on possible change models for Massachusetts Dept. of Children and Families

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Boston – As the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families struggles with ways to get on top of an unsustainable caseload and shortage of staff, a new report highlights the key levers for change that other states that have experienced similar crises have used in order to move forward.

The latest report in the Boston Foundation’s “The Utility of Trouble,” released today at an Understanding Boston forum, is titled From Crisis to Opportunity: Child Welfare Reform in Massachusetts. It compares the practices of the Commonwealth’s Department of Children and Families with those of similar state agencies across the nation and recommends five areas for possible reform. It was prepared by a Washington D.C.-based think tank, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, for the Boston Foundation and Strategic Grant Partners.

“There is general agreement that DCF has much work to do in order to effectively serve the state’s children,” said Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation on the report’s release. “We hope that rather than piling on to the critiques already leveled against the agency, we have been able to surface some ways that states in similar situations have been able to reinvent their child welfare systems.”

“The numbers alone demonstrate why the Department of Children and Families is failing its clients and the Commonwealth today,” add Joanna Jacobson, Founder and Managing Partner of Strategic Grant Partners. “But unacceptably high caseloads, inefficient data systems, low accountability and low morale are not permanent conditions. This report not only demonstrates that the issues we face today are fixable, it gives a number of models that can be used to chart a path of reform.”

Recent studies from the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) among others have noted the sharp increases in foster care placements, unsustainably high caseloads, issues with resource allocation and lack of actionable performance data at Massachusetts DCF. Rather than revisit those, the report seeks to highlight those states and agencies that have implemented significant reform when faced with similar scenarios.

The report highlights five key levers for change, and provides examples of how other child welfare agencies have developed innovative methods to address them.

Levers for changes, models to examine

The Center for the Study of Social Policy researchers, led by Judith Meltzer, Deputy Director, cited five levers for needed change and explored examples in which states and organizations implemented reforms. Among them:

  • A Leadership Team with Vision, Talent and Experience:
    All of the examples of successful child welfare reforms CSSP researchers witnessed involved the work of a high quality leadership team who understand the agency’s mission and values and work in concert with others to produce results.

    In 2008, Anne Marie Ambrose, incoming commissioner for the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, made developing a strong leadership team with a shared vision of reform. Building and sustaining the work of this leadership team and ensuring that their goals were shared throughout the agency — with middle management, front line workers and contracted providers — continues to be a focus of Philadelphia’s leadership, but has already reducing the number of children in placement and increasing permanency for children and youth.

  • Effective Use of Reliable Data to Drive Change:
    A child welfare system cannot achieve strong outcomes for children and families without a consistent practice of collecting utilizing data to inform and direct the delivery and management of services.In states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Indiana, the development and adoption of stronger data systems have allowed caseworkers to more effectively understand relationships, trace cases and direct resources as needed. The development of tools, however, must be aligned with training and other processes to to support improved case practice and outcomes for children and families.

  • Strategic Workforce Investments:
    To ensure that the workforce is successful, all staff (public agency and private provider) must be provided with appropriate preparation and adequate ongoing support that includes quality and accessible training, supervision and resources.

    Massachusetts’ unsustainably high caseloads are well publicized, and the Patrick Administration has pledged to get caseloads to recommended levels. That is a necessary first step, but hiring more workers will not be successful in reducing worker turnover and stabi- lizing the workforce if the hiring is done in isolation from other improvements such as improving training, supervision, supports for workers, relationships with private providers and the court, and the overall climate and culture of the work environment.

    Agencies such as the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency, which made a commitment to training and skill coaching as integral to the implementation of a Trauma Systems Therapy (TST) model, have provided classes or online modules, coaching and clinical case supervision to case-carrying social workers, supervisors, managers and administrators. That type of investment is critical to the ultimate success of the workforce investments.

  • Aligning the Service Array with Child/Family Needs and Outcomes:
    States must begin their work with a sound functional assessment that identifies family strengths and needs and integrate those comprehensive assessments into case planning, paired with efforts to help the family to engage with and receive high quality evidence-based services and community supports.Child welfare workers in Massachusetts are not service providers – they assess needs and then refer children and families to provider partners who have the skills and expertise to deliver services. Thus, the need to support providers is critical, as is the need for innovation in how states utilize service options found to be most effective. The researchers note 22 states are using federal waivers to better utilize promising practices such as trauma-informed therapeutic services, parent education and mentoring and/or family preservation/ stabilization services. 

  • Accountability for Outcomes (both Quality and Quantity):
    Development of a robust continuous quality improvement function that collects clearly defined, commonly understood and consistently measured quantitative and qualitative data to measure the impact of services and interventions is a key lever for producing and sustaining change.

    In Tennessee, then-commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, Viola Miller, used performance-based contracting to alter the placement landscape and improve permanency outcomes. The three main standards – reduction in the number of days a child is in care; increase in the number of permanency exits; and reduction in reentries – have been used to award performance-based incentives to effective providers, and resulted in a reduction of foster care expenditures by approximately $20 million, which was made available to providers to repurpose for additional services.

Simultaneous action on these levers is essential, the researchers conclude.

“Just as the child welfare agency cannot act in isolation of other agencies, providers, the community and families, focusing on one change lever alone will not produce success. Nor will the desired results and renewed public trust occur overnight — but beginning with a collaborative commitment and approach to the work can enable multiple stakeholders to come together and hold each other mutually accountable to launch and sustain the commitment, energy and resources necessary for substantial and sustained reform.

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The Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, is one of the largest community foundations in the nation, with net assets of some $1 billion. In 2014, the Foundation and its donors made more than $112 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and received gifts of nearly $112 million. In celebration of its centennial in 2015, the Boston Foundation has launched the Campaign for Boston to strengthen the Permanent Fund for Boston, Greater Boston’s only endowment fund supporting organizations focused on the most pressing needs of Greater Boston.  The Foundation is proud to be a partner in philanthropy, with nearly 1,000 separate charitable funds established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. 

The Boston Foundation also serves as a major civic leader, provider of information, convener and sponsor of special initiatives that address the region’s most serious challenges.  The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), an operating unit of the Foundation, designs and implements customized philanthropic strategies for families, foundations and corporations around the globe. For more information about the Boston Foundation and TPI, visit www.tbf.org or call 617-338-1700.

Strategic Grant Partners (SGP) is both a foundation and a pro bono consulting firm. The SGP Mission is to partner with outstanding leaders with game changing ideas that improve the lives of struggling individuals and families. SGP’s goals are to: incubate promising ideas in Massachusetts with the potential for effectiveness; invest in Massachusetts nonprofits with evidence of effectiveness; help Massachusetts organizations with demonstrated effectiveness to disseminate their learnings and/or scale up their models for national impact; invest in national organizations with proven effectiveness expanding into Massachusetts; and invest in work that alters public systems in ways that are directly tied to positive changes for children and families. For more information, visit strategicgrantpartners.org or call 857-202-6230.

The Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) is a national, nonprofit organization recognized for its leadership in shaping policy, reforming public systems and building the capacity of communities. For more than 30 years, CSSP has influenced and supported elected officials, public administrators, families and neighborhood residents to take the actions they need. Based in Washington, D.C., CSSP translates research and new ideas into strategies for on-the- ground implementation. We use the knowledge from those real experiences to better inform the next generation of ideas, programs and policies. CSSP’s goal is to make sure low-income children can learn, develop and thrive with the support of strong families in safe and healthy communities. To achieve this, CSSP focuses on those who face the most significant barriers to opportunity, including ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants and refugees, families in poverty and families in contact with intervening public systems (e.g. child welfare, juvenile justice). For more information, visit cssp.org. or call 202-371-1565.