An organization representing hundreds of the nation’s largest youth-serving agencies endorsed the Obama administration’s push to put child well-being on par with the traditional priorities of child welfare, safety and permanency.
The Alliance for Children and Families, a Milwaukee-based group representing more than 350 private providers around the country, championed the concept in a July policy paper entitled “Realizing Permanency, Well-Being through Authentic Engagement.”
“I now believe child well-being is, and should be, our paramount goal,” said Alliance CEO Susan Dreyfus in the report’s Foreword, adding that “safety and the experience of permanency are inherent in the well-being of a child.”
In April of 2012, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) issued a memorandum to state and tribal child welfare systems, stating the administration’s belief that social and emotional well-being should be the driving force in child welfare.
It is decidedly a departure from the traditional vision of child welfare, which is to maintain families whenever possible and otherwise ensure permanent alternatives.
From the memorandum: “To focus on social and emotional well-being is to attend to…those skills, capacities, and characteristics that enable young people to understand and navigate their world in healthy, positive ways.”
Recent ACF funding solicitations for direct service projects frequently ask applicants to describe the ways in which they will prioritize well-being.
Some child welfare experts question the appropriate role of the child welfare system in well-being.
“I think of well-being as part of the mix…but we have to be careful not to let our standards of well-being dictate intervention or decide when to remove or return kids,” said Mark Testa, a leading child welfare researcher and professor at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work. “I’m still uncertain what public child welfare’s role would be.”
The alliance report this month also voices support from Alliance members for increased attention to “family finding,” the process of locating any family members who might help a child who is removed from her parents.
The report urges providers to:
Participate in a movement and advocate for child welfare policy and practice in which fit and willing relative placement is the presumed interest for a child until there is absolute proof to the contrary.
Policy and budget should include supports for training for child welfare staff, relative search, authentic engagement and supports for relatives providing placement in equal standing to, if not greater than, non-relative adoption and placement
“As a former state child welfare director, I have long wondered why a values-driven strategy like Family Finding is not used more widely,” said Dreyfus, who previously led the child welfare system in the state of Washington.
The Alliance recommended that private providers develop ways to measure their “authenticity” in prioritizing a values-based system, and that they should engage in “macro-level” advocacy.
The Alliance used case studies of five member organizations to demonstrate the qualities and priorities in the report, including The Children’s Village (CV). In five years, the New York provider has gone from 98 percent residential contract revenue to 50 percent, with the new funding coming for community-based services.
Children’s Village CEO Jeremy Kohomban said the expansion of its family engagement and community services started with the leadership of its board of trustees, which raised money for seed programs in the community that CV was later able to convince New York City to fund.
Additionally, he said, it was critical for he and other agency leaders to win the “hearts and minds” of CV’s staff, who had until then focused on residential care.
“We were well-recognized for residential, but they needed to understand why there was criticism of our work,” Kohomban said. “If we had gone to them and said, ‘The commissioner doesn’t like residential care,’ we’d have seen the typical anger over the idea that somehow their work is insensitive and that hundreds of years of [residential] work had been devalued.”
The report was done with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and is the byproduct of a meeting that the Alliance held with members in December of 2012.
John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of the Chronicle of Social Change