Group homes aren’t places where kids should grow up. You know it. I know it. The whole child welfare system knows it. But too often, we fall short in tackling the myriad factors that result in kids being placed in modern-day orphanages.
In an earlier post, I shared how our work in Baltimore led to an 89% reduction in use of group homes. I also promised to share some specific ways we made that happen.
Here are four things we did (and you can, too):
- Combine a strong mission with sheer will. As leader of the organization, I articulated a simple and understandable vision: Children belong in families. I was unwavering about this message and clear about how it would impact our work. Because we believed children belong in families, we were therefore going to reduce the number of children in congregate care.
The mission permeated everything I said and did. We maintained a constant drumbeat of gratitude and progress – drowning out other messages to keep our mission in sharp focus. And this mission wasn’t just talk. It was underpinned by an unrelenting commitment to making it happen. That required me to be physically and psychically present. It also demanded plenty of creative problem solving (more on that in a bit).
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- Use data to understand patterns AND individual situations. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we focused on remediation and prevention at the same time. Data played a key role. We used it to identify patterns and provide transparency from the macro level to the individual case level. Data helped us identify which kids were ready for adoption and pinpoint process blocks. Once we could see what was happening at the pattern level, we were able to organize effective actions at the child level.
But our “data” included more than raw numbers from reports or databases. We also used human-centered design techniques to collect qualitative insights from foster kids themselves. I routinely visited group homes to understand the rhythms of these kids’ lives. Most of all, I listened to them when they offered their perspectives – which often included clear solutions to their own needs.
- Be incredibly transactional. Data helps surface opportunities to make changes. Transactions are how you turn opportunities into reality. In Baltimore, we built transparent, step-by-step, if/then processes for every scenario we could think of. For example, if the macro-level data shows that you have a certain percentage of children under the age of 12 in group homes, you might set a goal of getting those kids into home by a certain date. From there, you work backwards to meet that goal and deadline. Along the way, we worked tirelessly to eliminate dead ends in completing those transactions. We wanted processes to be bullet proof – to have mechanisms for clearing every potential hurdle our staff might encounter.
For example, at one point, we experienced a delay in getting court approvals for placement changes. We investigated and discovered the roadblock: inability to schedule the necessary hearings. Digging deeper, we identified the actual root cause: not enough copiers to produce the essential paperwork. I wasn’t about to let photocopies keep kids in congregate care. So, within the bounds of applicable rules and protocols, I found the money to purchase a copier for the courthouse. Obstacle cleared. Goal met.
- Let your workforce do what they came for. There’s a pervasive notion that the child welfare workforce is too exhausted to take on this additional “burden” of getting kids out of congregate care and into families. I disagree. I don’t think caseworkers are tired; I think they are fatigued. These are two very different physical states that have very different remedies. When you are tired, you need to sleep. When you are fatigued, you need to move.
I think most caseworkers are fatigued from not being able to achieve the best possible outcomes. Becoming laser-focused on ending use of congregate care will make them feel energized and fulfilled. They will finally feel like they’re doing the work they came to do: help the kids in their care.
Ending congregate care is possible. Getting there requires you to abandon “business as usual” and move toward a whole host of problems, large and small. Solving them can be challenging – but the work is worth it. Our kids are worth it.
If you’d like to explore how you can tackle these kinds of problems in your jurisdiction, please reach out via LinkedIn or Twitter.