The Family First Prevention Services Act, which became law in 2018, has set off a flurry of conversations between child welfare agencies and multiple public and private organizations as they envision a bold new world that includes supporting families and preventing child maltreatment. But under the new law, these key players are still hampered by requirements to measure success in a way that subjugates the stories of cause and effect into the narrow parameters of success or failure.
What if instead the federal government, states and foundations in unison committed to examining indicators relevant to the traditional child welfare goals of protecting kids, but then went farther to include child and family well-being? They would be asking how well are we doing in relation to improving the experience before and after a family finds their way at the doorstep of the public child welfare agency. That might lead to information vital to determining which strategies and interventions are working, and at what scale to actually move the needle of progress and whether we should limit ourselves to evidence based-approaches.
Within the context of the recent Family First driven collaborations, fresh ideas about policy and practice have the potential to emerge from the full array of services and supports for kids and families. But our preventive practices and data collection need to be aligned. For each family we must start to record the type and intensity of the service; who and how many people are being served; and how the agencies and families measure the success of each service. In addition, these more inclusive measures could provide needed insight about which families are most likely to be under stress, what the life experiences of those parents and children are, and how many do we need to reach to enhance the life experience of the most challenged among them.
These measures – things like healthy births, family income, food security, and affordable housing, and the indicators within the Protective Factors Framework – are not new to child welfare professionals. But we still have not clarified how these measures factor into the day-to-day practice for child welfare agencies. That’s why we remain comfortable with the narrowly focused reports on maltreatment, or out of home placements or the average length of time it takes to complete an adoption. In other words, our conversations about child and family safety and well-being with our partners are bold and audacious, but in our daily service delivery, we remain mired in our singular, outdated practice approaches that that are measured at the point of family collapse and system failure.
Focusing on the wrong data will likely make Family First another rhetorical exercise in child welfare, instead of sparking substantive changes in safety and well being. This situation is reinforced by the fact that the primary funding for public agencies, government and in some cases foundations remain wedded to those old-school measures.
All of this reminds us that we don’t really have a child welfare or well-being system – what we have is a response in the form of social control. We offer families a menu of services and when that is insufficient, there is the potential for the removal of a child to a foster or group home. That approach gets quantified in our version of win or lose columns. Even evidence-based programs can be limited in what data they yield, especially if they do not tell us the story behind the results. Without more context, this does nothing in the aggregate to improve the well-being indicators of communities most at risk.
The data that we utilize in child welfare should reflect what we value – child safety, capable and self-sufficient families and communities rich with social capital. Thus, in their development of prevention programming with other partners, child welfare agencies need to consider specific strategies and interventions that lend themselves to measurements of child and family well-being.
There is a story in Buddhism that says, “…the great path has no gates, and thousands of roads enter it. When one passes through this gateless gate, he walks freely between heaven and earth…” We must break away from the belief that there is only one path to success in helping families. The next evolution of child welfare depends on creating and implementing practices that are not limited to singular measures of success.
Paul DiLorenzo is the interim executive director of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance.