Fifteen months ago, we set out to test a proposition: That with a modest injection of flexible prevention money, and thoughtful approaches to rethinking some decision-making, we could turn a child welfare system into a family well-being system.
We launched Rewiring in Colorado with curiosity, wondering what would happen if we found a way to shift sector focus from paying for services to buying outcomes. Could we actually bring the vision of a well-being system to life, in practice, and suggest pathways others might follow as well?
Fueled with philanthropic start-up capital, we offered one Colorado county’s child welfare leaders the opportunity to be liberated from the current but outdated child welfare programmatic and funding paradigms to see whether, once liberated, they could:
- Dramatically reduce the number of children and families who become child welfare involved in their counties; and
- Achieve better results for those who are child welfare involved.
There’s every reason to believe these are achievable outcomes and leaders across the country are already showing us how. Unfortunately, the existing funding paradigm works against these sustained successes. Rewiring is ultimately designed to address this and connect outcomes to funding flows. If we get better results for those children already in the system – saving considerable dollars – how might we invest those savings to keep fewer children and families from entering child welfare in the first place?
Then perhaps we could replace – rewire – the initial philanthropic dollars with sustained public financing so that results in the early counties could be replicated without the philanthropic fuel? Buying outcomes would be wired into future funding flows for all who need them.
What have we learned after just the first 15 months of experimenting and investing?
First, we bet on human services leadership teams to lead Rewiring, and that was our wisest decision. Leaders know what many of the local drivers into child welfare are, are thoughtful in the investments they are making to reduce child welfare involvement, strategic enough to invest beyond normal child welfare agencies and services for greater impact, and humble enough to know when to lead and when to de-center for the good of children and families.
The first investments being made center on a handful of key supports that the current child welfare funding paradigm, even with the addition of the approved evidence-based practices on the new federal prevention services clearinghouse, misses. Some of the things that most impact families aren’t neatly packaged as services or programs. Common themes include investments raising families out of poverty (a significant driver of neglect referrals), creating new connections and relationships to reduce family isolation, empowering community leaders in zip codes with high child welfare referrals to respond as a community to local needs, and reimagining ways of working with schools and parents-to-be to disrupt their possible paths to child welfare.
Liberated funding has, interestingly, fueled a shift toward asset-framing – what are these family’s strengths – rather than deficit-framing that too often happens when children, youth and families become child welfare involved. We are most excited about how leaders are weaving in real ways to listen to communities and inject the voices of those with lived experiences into decisions about financing and programming. Not surprisingly, addressing the disproportionality and inequity that have historically been baked into our systems and culture, have been at the center of those discussions. We are seeing shifts that capitalize on strengths as opposed to financing within the limited frame of needs and problems.
Second, Rewiring is finding ways to support families hurtling toward child welfare using modified, and less costly, community-based interventions. For example, Colorado’s Douglas County has about 2,000 children and families “on their radar” who can’t be supported using existing child welfare funding levers. Douglas fears that up to 48% of these families will be child welfare involved in less than two years.
Douglas County officials do not want to wait for another 960 families to fall into child welfare. Instead, they have harnessed Tennyson and Savio to support families now using family-specific enhanced triage and warm hand-offs to better suited agencies that empower families; earlier, accessible mental health care provided in homes and communities; parenting and crisis intervention support if requested; and connections to basic needs and financial supports that build on family strengths.
Not one family supported in this cohort, who are “at risk” of child welfare involvement, has become child welfare involved in the first nine months of analyzed data.
Third, Rewiring is latching onto the Family First brilliance behind pre-placement “assessment periods” and giving counties needed time to find alternatives to residential treatment. It is still too easy to put a child into residential, so Rewiring collectively makes it harder.
We know that when children end up in a residential placement, too often this marks the start of a pattern of multiple future residential placements. We’re trying to change that. Children at risk of longer-term residential placement are being supported for up to 30 days on the Tennyson campus, separate from our residential milieu, while county caseworkers, in partnership with Tennyson and others search for family and family-like alternatives. That time is proving invaluable, and caseworkers are finding much better options for children than residential and reducing the risk of future placements.
While some children have gone to foster homes, the majority have actually been placed with kin. Counties and Tennyson have expanded the ways all families – birth, kin, foster and adopt – are supported by building out extra supports to reduce isolation, keep families together, reduce police contacts and hospitalizations, and show real non-residential pathways for children who would have historically spent time at places like Tennyson.
This all boils down to a growing sophistication on understanding the finances that allow us all to examine how Rewiring has led to cost avoidance (achieved by keeping families safely out of child welfare) and cost savings (realized when children exit foster care or are safely moved to or placed in lower levels of care through “assessments” instead of residential treatment, for example). To illustrate, just the assessment period before residential treatment could save one county between $380,000 and $520,000 per year that could be invested in families, to stop unnecessary removals from families altogether, and to sustainably embed such practices at the local level.
Rewiring continues, with early clues illuminating pathways to greater impact, cost avoidance and savings that, when “rewired,”, just might change the face of child welfare by buying better outcomes.