Family First adjusts IV-E funding so that States can provide more preventive services and reduces funding for residential group homes. It is intended to encourage Agencies to enable more children to remain in the home, and for children that are removed to place them in less disruptive settings. These laudable goals are at risk due to a child welfare capacity crisis that has agencies straining to efficiently work with families and leads to more kids in care and kids in care too long. Until there is more capacity, Family First won’t work.
There is a capacity crisis in child welfare. There is more work to do in a given week than there is time available. This is due to a broken system of process and practice that contains far too many inefficient, uncoordinated, bottlenecked tasks and CYA steps that make it nearly impossible to complete with quality in the time allotted. In the States where Change & Innovation Agency have performed analysis, we see that workers are being assigned 60-80 hours of new work each week. It’s not possible to keep up without taking shortcuts or working unsustainable overtime. It leads to system failures such as high backlogs, exceeding practice deadlines, safety concerns, and high turnover of staff due to burn out.
Two key symptoms of the capacity crisis are the increased number of children in care, and longer duration of placement. When an assessment is received from Intake, we see a bias to remove the child from the home due to the lack of caseworker capacity. The risk of leaving a child at home and taking the time and effort to stabilize is higher than the decision to place the child in a foster home and move to the next assessment and the next safety decision. Once a child has been removed, the capacity crisis delays reunification. Lack of services and lack of task coordination and follow-through after decisions are reached drive additional months in care.
Family First generates even more work for the caseworker. A child that remains with the family or kin requires more intensive services, more home visits and more attention to the safety plan. Given the capacity crisis, the caseworkers don’t have the necessary additional time to provide the services. Even with funding for 3rd party services, the fundamental time necessary to arrange the services and to follow-up will be impossible for many staff to handle. The risk of harm to children will increase. In our work, we hear that caseworkers are enthusiastic regarding the goals of Family First, but they fear that they may not be able to effectively serve the children, and kids will get hurt as a result.
Only by addressing the capacity crisis up front – before changing practice – can the goals of Family First be achieved. At Change & Innovation Agency, we have a unique, proven approach to improve capacity. We work with teams of caseworkers to make the work of child welfare visible to all, and then streamline the processes. We do this by focusing on the time it takes to complete a process, while not reducing the time necessary for quality casework. This can dramatically improve throughput, while improving how services are provided and activities are managed.
With increased capacity there is the opportunity to dramatically reduce the elapsed time for key case activities, reduce the time a case is open, and get families reunified faster. At that point a successful implementation of Family First is viable. Caseworkers can confidently keep more children safely at home and provide the necessary services for family stabilization. Family First can only be a successful program when it is operating inside a system where the work and available hours are in alignment. Let’s get started before it’s too late.