In March, Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families gained approval under the Family First Prevention Services Act to connect with new federal funding aimed at preventing the use of foster care in more child welfare cases. Its plan included an interesting detail: The state is planning to support a community-based organization that will help steer some reports away from its surveillance-oriented hotline, known as the Careline.
Funding for this venture — described wonkily in the Family First plan as a Care Management Entity (CME) — has already been included in the state’s budget negotiations this year, and department leadership are confident it will secure about $1.5 million for this venture.
“We want to go further upstream and serve families without having them become known to us … and really do prevention in a more robust way other than cases accepted,” said DCF Deputy Commissioner of Operations Michael Williams.
The idea is that reports of concern that do not rise to the level of abuse or neglect would come to the CME from schools or child care centers, law enforcement officials or the community. Parents could also come directly in search of help.
The CME would then be empowered to run point on reaching out to the family in question and connecting them with supports, including but not limited to the new services included in Connecticut’s Family First plan. And none of these would be considered open cases, according to the Department of Children and Families (DCF).
The majority of calls to abuse and neglect hotlines are not screened in for investigation, because they’re found to be unrelated to maltreatment. Under this plan, Connecticut intends to urge reporters to contact the CME if a call they make gets screened out, but the Careline will not be directly transferring those reports.
“We want to have a centralized place to go no matter where [a family] presented in our system of care and in our community,” said JoShonda Guerrier, administrator of clinical and community consultation and support services for DCF.
Other states have conveyed in their Family First plans a desire to make the services available beyond those families who are actually investigated or assessed by a child welfare agency. New York, for example, laid out a second phase of implementing Family First where other human services agencies focused on housing, substance abuse or mental health could refer families over.
Where Connecticut is perhaps unique — Youth Services Insider has read many, but not all, of the approved Family First plans — is a pathway to getting support to families without any direct contact with the government.
“We want to be a little further upstream, so there doesn’t have to be a report to us. The CME is outside of us,” said DCF Deputy Commissioner Jodi Hill-Lilly.
It is not entirely surprising to see Connecticut exploring a new path for reports. Before the coronavirus pandemic, DCF permitted child welfare researcher Kelley Fong to embed with its investigative social workers, studying how their investigations started and unfolded.
Fong’s report on the experience found a process where professionals — particularly police, school workers or hospital staff — saw the reporting process as the only way to get families help, even if they didn’t think children were actually in danger.
“They didn’t think kids were in imminent danger,” Fong told Youth Services Insider. “But calling the Careline launches this really terrifying experience for families, as DCF staff themselves recognize. So it seems quite helpful for mandated reporters to have another entity to reach out to, separate from DCF, so families can get service referrals without a DCF case and all that entails.”
From the parents’ perspective, Fong found, finding out that a teacher or a doctor called the abuse and neglect hotline sowed distrust, even in cases where they said they benefited from help provided after the call was made.
Community perception is unquestionably a driver of the plan for the CME.
“Selfishly, we want to leverage a public-private partnership to help change our image,” said Williams. “Through this, we’ll be able to show that we do more than remove kids, or make mistakes by leaving kids home.”
Some critics of the child welfare system have called for entirely dismantling the reporting process and an end to mandated reporting, while others have called for support systems that are untethered from agencies that conduct investigations and removals.
“The effort to create some distance between the agency and community providers is … a critical step to destigmatizing help-seeking and creating conditions where families may be feel safer in seeking services,” said David Kelly, a director at Family Integrity & Justice Works, which specializes in consulting with child welfare systems that want to make wholesale changes in their process.
Just down the interstate from Connecticut, Rise, a New York City nonprofit for system-involved parents, recently proposed the concept of a standalone community support system that would have nothing to do with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, which oversees child welfare and juvenile justice operations.
Rise’s plan would use peer supporters that would accompany parents to appointments and facilitate regular restorative justice circles to “build relationships and support for parents and Peer Supporters in their community,” and generally ensure that parents who sought help or advice were getting it.
The Connecticut concept is not that austere from the system. As distanced as agency leadership wish to be from reports received by this entity, the CME staff will be mandated reporters. If they feel that a family’s situation does involve abuse or neglect after engaging with them, a call to the state hotline would be made.
And the state agency, as the conduit of federal funds, will be involved in getting federal reimbursement for referrals and evaluating the performance of its new partner. It will also have to ensure that safety assessments are done for any family that receives the services funded in part by the federal government under Family First.
It will be critical for the care management entity to be viewed as being truly independent — not just “DCF staff with a different lanyard,” if the agency wants it to be perceived differently in the community, said Fong.
“If the CME is just a ‘pre-DCF,’ a service that leads into a DCF case, it will generate the same sense of anxiety and distrust among families,” she said.
Which organization fills the role, and their existing reputation, will be a big variable. Williams said the leadership are clear on “what we don’t want” the CME to look like.
His description accentuates how challenging it might be to find the right group. It will not be an existing service provider working with DCF, Williams said, because DCF does not “want it to be stuck in a particular kind of industry mindset, meaning they’re mental health only, or, you know, they’re an educational entity or anything like that.”
“This likely will not be a mom and pop entity,” said Guerrier. She highlighted one skill DCF sees as crucial to winning the bid: “utilizing technology in a way that is innovative, so families don’t have to keep repeating themselves.”