The Art of Innovation in Foster Care

In early November, I will moderate a panel on foster care innovation at the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Conference (#REFCA2019) in Boston. The subject is timely, as it has become increasingly crucial for the private sector to step up and tackle social problems.

As I articulate in my book, Parents Under Pressure: Struggling to Raise Children in An Unequal America, the emphasis in public services has been to concentrate on efficiency and productivity rather than true innovations that address unmet needs and improve interventions. As a consequence, workers in child welfare and mental health have inherited large caseloads, poor pay and little training, leading to high rates of turnover that operate against the development of expertise and quality services. Rigid, antiquated social service infrastructures are crumbling under the weight of today’s complex demands.

Sorely required are more and better programs to support families struggling with poverty and mental health challenges, stabilize children in foster homes, and provide connections and material help to youth aging out of care. However, prevailing policies and philosophies neglect those priorities and instead extoll personal responsibility and resilience, as if either could furnish sufficient bootstraps to pull families out of hardship.

Innovative services are a necessity, albeit a challenging one. In the industrial sphere, seven out of 10 ventures fail within the first few years. The social service sector, on which vulnerable families depend, cannot bear that rate. New programs must be carefully calibrated to increase the likelihood of success.

At the conference, I am excited to preside over a panel of leaders who will discuss how they grew thriving, quality services to satisfy unmet needs by attending to the following principles and priorities:

Innovative programs must be viable and sustainable. From planning to implementing, innovation requires locating necessary resources, knowledge and connections. A stable infrastructure must be created, along with strong leadership and quality staff. Cultivating stakeholders in the public and private sphere who are willing to commit to a program’s ongoing funding and visibility is paramount.

Innovation requires an emphasis on cultural relevancy and collaboration. Stakeholders include clients who will be served as well as funders, community leaders and programs that support the endeavor. The voices of each must be considered and balanced. Multiple perspectives strengthen the creation, reach and usefulness of services. They allow for comprehensive understanding of the opportunities and barriers with which a program must contend. Collaborations are also essential for the generation of new ideas. Two minds are always better than one, as one good idea encourages another.

Innovative programs must be flexibly administered. To remain sustainable, programs must be able to shift gears in response to new needs, barriers and opportunities. Rigidity can doom a nascent enterprise, quickly rendering it outdated. As Kerry Homstead, community facilitator of Treehouse Communities, explains:

We pursue ongoing education, conversation, problem-solving and not giving up. If something doesn’t work, we go back, rethink and try something else. Next year will look different from last year because the kids are different. We need to be very adaptable. It’s an attitude.

We can all start on the path to innovation by coming together for #REFCA2019 and incubating new ideas and supports for those affected by the child welfare system.

#REFCA2019 is coming up November 1-2 in Boston. Click here to register!


Karen Zilberstein is the clinical director of the Northampton, Massachusetts Chapter of A Home Within.

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