What if the child welfare system could move beyond child placements and achieve long-term, positive impact for children and their families? While the staff at the Catawba County Department of Social Services can't just wave a magic wand, they are creating a big shift in the way they serve foster children and families — in ways that they believe will strengthen both short- and long-term outcomes for kids.
"Working on this project is like having a real-world laboratory, where we can take a shared theory of improving the child welfare system and turn it into a work in progress," says Beth Brandes, assistant director.
Opportunity for Improvement
A veteran of the field, she sees plenty of opportunity for improvement.
"Child welfare is a window through which families and children pass, and historically, it has been quite fragmented and focused mostly on child safety and foster care. But now, we have an opportunity to stop and really address well-being needs. When families interact with the child welfare system, it needs to be as much about prevention as intervention. We need to reinvent the system to be more comprehensive in supporting families, including everything from mental health to economic supports."
Nationally, there is a push toward creating permanent placements for children in need, whether with adoptive families, relatives, or through reunification with the original family. Studies published by the Child Welfare League of America and other organizations have begun to highlight the importance of addressing a broader scope of needs for children and families engaged in the child welfare system.
Alignment with National Efforts for Child Well-Being
"Our project aligns with other national initiatives that focus on the well-being of children," explains Brandes. "In addition to just working toward permanence, we have the opportunity to look at the quality of permanence. For example, if an infant is in foster care because she was born to a cocaine-addicted parent, what do we need to know about attachment for that infant? What about potential future health concerns or learning abilities? What do we need to do to promote long-term positive outcomes for children in reunified families, in kinship and adoptive placements? Finding the answers to questions like these becomes our responsibility. We must support both the children and the caregivers' long-term needs."
Brandes and her colleagues are currently working to design ways to measure outcomes in terms of attachment, education and life skills after a child leaves foster care.
"We have the potential here to identify true strategic intervention points, focus on the variables that make them optimal, and create opportunities for every family's long-term engagement," says Brandes.
"Ultimately, we hope that we can provide models for replication in other counties and states, and capture our lessons learned to inform the work of child welfare agencies across the country."