A Three-Branch Approach to Child Welfare Reform

When the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities released its groundbreaking report this past March, it helped launch a national dialogue about child safety, and most importantly, shifted the current narrative around maltreatment-related fatalities in a significant way.

For many who work in child welfare, the priority has long been to simply manage the crisis in the system that emerges when a child dies or is severely injured. The commission’s work is helping states rethink their approach to safety and focus more on prevention and evidence-informed policy and practice changes, rather than taking a reactive approach that promotes a culture of blame and shame in the child welfare system.

That shift is one of the reasons why the Three Branch Institute is dedicating its efforts this year and next to improving child safety and preventing child maltreatment-related fatalities.

The Three Branch Institute, a technical assistance effort that was founded in 2009 as a partnership among the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, Casey Family Programs, the National Center for State Courts and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, has helped dozens of states work across the three branches of government to address the most pressing child welfare issues.

Past Three Branch Institutes have focused on strategies to safely reduce the number of children in foster care, enhance permanency for older adolescents and enhance the social and emotional well-being of children in foster care.

This year’s focus on child safety and the elimination of child fatalities due to abuse and neglect includes both children known to the child welfare system and those at risk of child welfare involvement. By aligning the work of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government in select states, participating states develop an integrated and comprehensive approach for addressing those pressing issues.

Eight states were selected to participate: Alabama, Kentucky, Maryland, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. States were selected based on criteria that required applicants to provide a clear description of the issues the state is facing with regard to the safety of children known to the child welfare system, present a clear vision for what they wanted to achieve through the Three Branch Institute and propose a strong state team comprised of officials from the executive, legislative and judicial branches with the influence and authority to bring about practice and policy change.

The Three Branch Institute to Improve Child Safety and Prevent Child Fatalities, which will take place over 18 months, began with a kick-off meeting in July 2016. Teams will develop initial action plans by October of this year and then shift to an implementation phase in December that will continue through 2017.

The Institute will provide technical assistance to support the states in the following areas:

  • Research and background about current policy efforts and opportunities to advance child safety and stabilize families;
  • Presentations from experts on topics such as using administrative data to assess and intervene with families at risk of child welfare involvement, using evidence-informed strategies to help prevent child maltreatment, identifying ways to strengthen, coordinate and enhance existing safety efforts through cross-system collaboration and leveraging federal funding and policy opportunities; and
  • On-site consultation provided by the National Governors Association and its partners in this initiative.

Many of the policy and practice areas already identified by the states align with the recommendations of the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. Some of the areas of interest identified by states in the early planning phase include:

  • Predictive analytics to support efforts to identify children at risk of removal and entry into foster care;
  • Court practices that recognize toxic stress in families and emphasize trauma-informed care with a goal of keeping families intact to the extent possible;
  • Data sharing and data integration across agencies;
  • Plans for safe care of infants affected by substance abuse;
  • Developing partnerships between child protection, law enforcement, education, health care providers and other stakeholders outside of child welfare that interact with children and families; and
  • Adopting a “culture of safety” in child welfare, an environment where systems learn from past mistakes and tragedies rather than simply hitting the reset button.

The long-term goal is to promote effective policies and practices that improve the safety and well-being of children, while helping participating states embrace the notion that ensuring the safety and well-being of every child is a shared priority objective for each branch of government.

At the end of this initiative, the Three Branch Institute partners will disseminate lessons learned to help other states more effectively coordinate the work of the executive, legislative and judicial branches towards child welfare system reforms that will eliminate child abuse and neglect fatalities, prevent child maltreatment and stabilize families in need of services.

Alexandra Cawthorne is Senior Policy Analyst for the National Governors Association’s Economic, Human Services & Workforce Division. In this capacity, she provides technical assistance to governors’ human services policy advisors and agency leaders on a range of human services policy and practice areas including child welfare, family economic security, juvenile justice reform, family homelessness and improving service delivery systems.

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