Molly Tierney has observed state-supervised, locally administered child welfare systems from two vantage points: as head of a city agency and as Accenture’s Child Welfare Lead in North America.

“This model can be a challenge,” Tierney says. “The state sees things one way and they're right. The counties see things another way and they’re also right.”

In working with the State of Ohio, Tierney observed that Assistant Director of Human Services Kara Wente and her team are excelling at making the model work. Tierney invited Wente to share her insights on engaging with and delivering value to counties. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

Molly Tierney: Kara, I’ve noticed that you’re finding a pathway to partnership with Ohio’s counties. What’s making that possible?

Kara Wente: I think the most important part of any relationship is recognizing your role. Yes, we have to do the job of state supervision. But our role is also to build relationships and offer value to our counties – whether that's interpreting a policy or providing guidance or helping in the workforce space.

For example, while I don't hire for counties, I can provide excellent training to make them feel supported. I can provide some ideas around retention or job sharing. That's some of what we're doing now: striving to alleviate administrative burden for locals because we want them in the field, working with families and kids and making sure they're safe.

We also have two strong county partners in the Ohio Job and Family Service Directors’ Association and the Public Children Services Association of Ohio. We generate a lot of ideas working with those associations and their executive committees.

With these relationships, it's not the state coming up with an idea and pushing it to the county. Instead, we’re talking to them, hearing their needs and saying, “OK, here's what we may be able to do. Help us prioritize.”

MT: What have you noticed about how the counties are responding?

KW: At first, we probably over-engaged and over-communicated. We continue to communicate frequently because we want them to keep hearing the same message. We want them to know that we're not just here to supervise. We're here to support. And we hope that when we do have to supervise, we get good results.

Most importantly, we keep letting them know that we’re willing to try things, evaluate and change course. We have never expected to get it right the first time. We do a lot of phased approaches and pilots as a way of building buy-in, showing ROI and demonstrating that we’re willing to make changes if something doesn’t work.

"We’ve leaned into our sister agencies… We have pulled those partnerships into our children's service space. They've pulled us into theirs. And that has yielded some really good outcomes from the standpoint of prevention."

— Kara Wente, Assistant Director – Human Services, State of Ohio

MT: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way?

KW: I spent many years in the public assistance side, where I always steered clear of children's services. Candidly, children’s services used to scare me. I’ve now realized that had I been involved earlier on, I would have seen the connections and the fact that public assistance is a pivotal, almost preventive service for child services. So, one of my personal epiphanies has been to eliminate those siloes in my own mind.

Breaking down siloes across agencies has been another lesson. We’ve leaned into our sister agencies, including Medicaid, mental health and addiction services, and developmental disabilities. We have pulled those partnerships into our children's service space. They've pulled us into theirs. And that has yielded some really good outcomes from the standpoint of prevention.

We’ve learned that we don’t have to be the experts at everything. Our state agency partners have multi-systemic therapy and family functional therapy and great ways to set that up. Our Department of Health also has great initiatives like Help Me Grow, Parents as Teachers and Healthy Families America. And our Department of Youth Services has some of the evidence-based practices we’re leaning into for our Family First work.

MT: Imagine it's 10 years from now. Everything has gone perfectly with your organization. What does child welfare in Ohio look like?

KW: I want to see our network grow, which sounds somewhat odd because you usually want your caseload to shrink. Let me clarify: I want my custody caseload to shrink. But I want the families I'm engaging with to grow – and I want our cross-collaboration efforts to be robust at the state level.

I want the community networks to be thriving, with families proactively reaching out for whatever supports they need. Families know they can come to their local community hub to get help with work, healthcare, childcare or behavioral health services. When families get engaged sooner, we can significantly reduce the number that reach the point where we’re taking custody.

Molly Tierney

Managing Director – Public Service, Child Welfare, North America

Kara Wente

Assistant Director – Human Services, State of Ohio


Human services: Lead with impact
The power of practice
From reaction to prevention

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