Designing, developing and delivering services to families in need are among the most important activities of child welfare and related state agencies. While that work doesn’t come without challenges, what’s even more daunting is the experience of many families in finding the right service at the right time. Too often, I’ve heard parents describe the maze that makes up any service array as a “secret club” to which they don’t have the password. And yet, there is no more important time to get this right than when family stressors are mounting.
How, then, can states develop the most effective service system so families can more easily identify—and access—the help available to them?
The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 offers a framework that promotes critical outcomes, including keeping far more children safely at home with their own families. It also reinforces the importance of ensuring that the right services are available at the right time to meet a family’s need. The opportunity to develop a true prevention plan in response to Family First offers great hope for families and practitioners alike.
Bringing the Family First framework to life requires four key ingredients:
- Partnership with families, practitioners and partner agencies,
- Analysis of strengths and gaps within a system and service array,
- Interventions with demonstrated success and
- A method for continuously measuring outcomes.
By its very name, Family First is designed to put children and families at the center of what we do and how we do it across human services. Who better than families to serve as key stakeholders informing the design and strategic investment of prevention services? Families know far sooner than others when stressors are impacting them. Sadly, system designs to date have resulted in children and families often “failing up” into higher levels of care, resulting in a long journey to stability and calm. In other words, instead of gaining access to services as an important safety net to mitigate growing stressors, families gain access to intensive services only after a crisis occurs. The impact is costly both from a family well-being and an economic perspective.
While prevention is an idea everyone can agree on, developing the right service system is complex. States need to be armed with—and regularly examine—a range of metrics for continuously assessing community strengths, needs and gaps.
Family First includes a way to categorize service types: promising, supported and well supported. At its core, it speaks to the value of knowing what works. Funding has limitations as does the level of patience a family can tolerate if referred to services that can’t meet their needs. States’ investments must consider the needs and reflect a set of services with evidence of success. However, as a field, we must acknowledge we haven’t developed a full array of well-supported interventions for all circumstances. Furthermore, we’d be remiss if we put all our eggs into this one basket.
What we do have is a workforce dedicated to the development of innovative and effective models that result in key outcomes across diverse populations. If the current service array works well but only for specific cohorts, we need to examine why and invest in interventions that result in everyone being better off.
Regardless of whether the intervention has already been determined to be well supported or is an emerging practice with positive outcomes, it is critical to adopt a continuous quality assurance approach. Such as approach promotes a rigorous assessment of all interventions. When interventions yield improved outcomes for specific demographic populations or for specific sets of conditions, they may not have achieved the level of rigor to be categorized as well supported. However, it would be a missed opportunity to dismiss them altogether as the field continues to evolve and we learn that a one-size-fits-all approach is unrealistic.
Children and families deserve our best thinking grounded in data both for what and where we invest.
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