What does it take to design programs that keep children safe?

What does it take to design programs that keep children safe?
By Sherri Levesque
Project Director, Child Welfare
May 10, 2022

How we’re supporting efforts to make sure children and their families are safe and thriving

Carlos* is hoping to celebrate his 13th birthday at his uncle’s home with his cousins and grandmother. He has been in foster care for his last two birthdays, while his mother has tried to get the help she needs to care for him safely. Carlos is depending on the child welfare agency responsible for his care to help make this happen. And yet, child welfare agencies like Carlos’s continue to struggle to improve outcomes for children and families.

In the U.S., national data from the last round of federal reviews showed that only 42.7% of children in foster care were able to safely leave for their permanent homes in 12 months or less. The stories and statistics are sobering: families often do not receive the specific services and supports they need to keep children safe in a timely manner.

Here are four considerations child welfare organizations should take into account to increase their effectiveness.

Don’t operate in a vacuum

Agency leaders should rely on the structure of standardized approaches that can be applied consistently and efficiently, but with sufficient flexibility to meet each family where they are. There's no need to reinvent the wheel here: agencies can take advantage of existing evidence and lessons learned, such as those found on the Child Welfare Information Gateway, to identify and implement approaches that will work best for their communities. For example, using proven implementation methods to roll out a new safety and risk assessment framework will lead to better outcomes for children.

Invest in technology that supports and accelerates your mission

The resource that child welfare programs can never have enough of is time. The right technology, married with the mission, can create more time by wasting less—more time for staff to engage in critical person-to-person engagement, and more time for families to use available resources rather than struggling to get them. Children can get back into families faster when families get the support they need to care for them.

Child welfare programs need support with system modernization processes that focus on user needs and identify workflow pain points and gaps, such as the rapid digital transformation work of the Office of Child Care. By leveraging technology to streamline process, you can ensure it doesn’t get in the way of progress toward better outcomes.

Prioritize engaging directly with families and incorporate their perspectives

Agencies haven’t spent enough time asking families what works for them. Child welfare programs, encouraged by federal guidance, are increasingly finding innovative ways to engage youth, families, and caregivers in shaping and improving the programs intended to keep them safe and supported. This does require an investment of time and resources to prepare both staff and families to partner in this way. With the right support, agencies can ensure that the infrastructure required for this engagement is “baked in” to program design from the ground up, so that it consistently informs everything you do.

Lead with data

Lastly, despite collecting more and better-quality data about child welfare services and the families and caregivers who receive them than ever before, programs are often not able to use that data effectively to make sustainable improvements. Leaders often operate in crisis mode and struggle to step back and see beyond the crisis in order to make the most informed decisions about what works for children and their families. Using data visuals like in the PDF linked below can help leaders and agencies plan more strategically and engage others to help them.

Go to ICF

For example, federal data illustrates trends in child welfare reporting and investigations across the country. Similar visuals can help programs look at trends in their own services and the characteristics and needs of the families they serve.

Our team brings experience and understanding of what works to a broad range of programs that serve children, families, and caregivers. There is no easy recipe for delivering effective services that keep children safe and families thriving. But combining these foundational elements with resources, knowledge, and experience can yield the results for children that we all strive for.

*Carlos is based on more than one individual from our work with children and families.

Meet the author
  1. Sherri Levesque, Project Director, Child Welfare

    Sherri is a child welfare expert with more than 30 years of experience helping federal, state, and local welfare agencies improve outcomes for children and families. View bio

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