A New Era of Family-Centered Practice

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The National Child Welfare Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice is a newly created center for training, technical assistance, and consultation funded by the Children's Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As a collaborative effort of Learning Systems Group (LSG), the National Association for Family-Based Services (NAFBS), and the National Child Welfare Association, the Resource Center seeks to develop and improve family-centered child welfare practice in state and tribal agencies across the country.

The founding of the Resource Center coincides with a new era in family-centered practice. Now the changes and challenges faced by families and family-centered practitioners have never been greater. This new era requires a shift in thinking about family-centered child welfare.

Child welfare policy often swings like a pendulum. At one end is concern for child safety and, at the other, concern for preserving the autonomy of families. At times, concern for child safety gives way to an interest in preserving families and the pendulum swings from one end to the other. This swing then "goes too far" and the pendulum swings back towards greater caution and a renewed emphasis on child safety. This can lead to weariness in child welfare-a feeling that the more things change the more they remain the same.

However, there is another way to look at this process. Rather than seeing child welfare reform as trapped by a choice between the two ends of the pendulum, an "either/or" framework, it is possible to see it as a "both/and" process of inclusion of both goals.

This next era in family-centered practice will not be shaped by exclusive decisions between child-focused or family-centered approaches-family preservation or foster care, reunification or adoption-as preferred solutions. Both approaches are needed to help solve the difficult and complex problems faced by the vulnerable families involved with the child welfare system.

Child safety does not stand in opposition to family-centered practice. In fact, keeping children safe, promoting life-long relationships with caring parents and guardians, and supporting the developmental needs of children at all ages can only be accomplished through the right kind of family-centered practice. This approach to safety, permanency, and well-being through family-centered practice defines the mandate of the National Child Welfare Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice.

Child Welfare Under ASFA

While safety has always been a core concern in family-centered services, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) makes the issue a focus of child welfare systems reform. The ASFA rules are explicit about service requirements for both safety and family-centered practice:

Child and family services must be designed to ensure the safety and protection of children as well as the preservation and support of families ...

When safety can be ensured, strengthening and preserving families is seen as the best way to promote healthy development of children.

Services focus on families as a strengths are identified, enhanced, respected, and mobilized to help families solve problems...

Most child and family services are community-based; involve community organizations, parents, and residents in their design and delivery; and are accountable to community and client needs (45 CFR 1357).

The principles of a family-centered approach articulated by the ASFA rules are clear. But so are other ASFA mandates. The legislation, as we know, also requires new standards of administrative efficiency intended to integrate child welfare to improve outcomes for children. It limits the applicability of "reasonable efforts," specifies the duration of reunification efforts, requires expedited case reviews and permanency plans, and enforces termination of parental rights when children are in placement for 15 of the previous 22 months.

These decisions create overwhelming pressure on frontline staff while at the same time substantially determining the reportable progress of states' efforts. The inherent risk is that, in meeting these mandates, state agencies will resolve difficult practice issues by administrative means. Agencies may unintentionally and implicitly shift toward a position that family-centered practice, while important and highly desirable, takes time that they cannot afford. This is especially worrisome because some issues related to child welfare may require more time than others. For example, substance abuse, which is involved in up to 80 percent of child welfare cases, is acknowledged by the best available research to be especially difficult to treat with short-term strategies.

Anticipated Challenges

This unintended conflict between administrative timetables and the requirements for family-centered best practice may hurt vulnerable families. There are a number of ways this could be manifested.

Lack of adoptive homes-Most obviously, children moving through a streamlined child welfare system may be freed for adoption without sufficient adoptive homes to accommodate them. A swelling population of children freed for adoption potentially poses a new crisis for the system. According to the most recent Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) report from the Children's Bureau, as of March 1999, 117,000 children were awaiting adoption. By contrast, the number of children adopted from the public foster care system in 1998 was 36,000.

Inappropriate arrangements-An over-reliance on partial solutions may cause a large number of children to be moved into inappropriate care arrangements. An immediate example is what has been called the "overselling" of family preservation. But the same could happen to any popular service innovation seen as promising results for a wider and wider population. The widening circles of family group conferencing and the growing extension of kinship care are potential examples.

System breakdowns-Breakdowns in the system resulting from a lack of coordination at different points along the service pathway could also hurt families. For example, inadequate attention to practice development at the front end of the system, when intact families can be stabilized or short-term placements can lead to reunification, could undercut the legitimacy of termination of parental rights (TPR) decisions. Good practice in the area of reasonable efforts makes good decisions about permanency a practical possibility-a possibility not subject to second-guessing that wastes precious months and years of childhood. Attention must be paid to the development of family-centered practice system-wide, based on consistent principles and fundamentals of practice.

Cross-system effects-The development of family-centered practice must also address the potential for cross-system effects. For example, parents who may be stressed or troubled may still find the responsibilities and rewards of caring for their children their greatest motivation for changing themselves. To traumatize children and parents with poorly handled removals, difficult-to-meet service plan requirements, or unnecessary TPRs in ways that lead to social or psychological breakdown may result in increased distress and danger in already vulnerable communities. Solving one problem by creating one, or two, or three others is not a viable strategy for long-term social development.

Need for community partnerships-The interaction of various reform policies requires attention. Single mothers working full time often cannot support children with adequate food, clothing, and shelter, not to mention child and health care. The relentless stressors of everyday life can increase risks to children, especially in the area of neglect. Forward-looking child welfare initiatives will take notice. To maintain even minimal legitimacy, family-centered practice must include comprehensive community initiatives and partnerships, and it must develop community-based family support networks that help vulnerable families make ends meet. If a little bit of support from an informal support network helps a parent hold on to a job, steers someone away from a former peer group of substance abusers, or provides an outlet for the inevitable frustration of parenting, then agencies whose mandate is safety and well-being need to be involved in ways that are respectful and helpful from families' perspectives.

Other challenges-Family-centered development must be a sustainable response to family need. For example, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) surplus dollars (currently used for some family support) will only last so long. An economic downturn or re-allocation could change the current formula, perhaps sooner than we might anticipate.

The study of the process of implementing major policy reforms makes clear that the intended consequences of any reform are only one part of the story. Over time, unintended consequences can play a larger role in the long-term success or failure of reform. Part of the challenge at this time is to make sure we are laying the groundwork for the long-term development of family-centered practice in child welfare and not laying the foundation for the next generation of child welfare litigation. One conclusion is plain: we cannot afford not to pursue the best family-centered practice approaches available.

The Role of the Resource Center

The activities of the National Child Welfare Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice focus on several areas key to creating effective family-centered child welfare practice within the challenges of ASFA:

1. Developing integrated practice through training and technical assistance in fundamental and specialized family-centered practice skills for staff working directly with families. This work includes the role of supervision and management in supporting family-centered practice development, assessing agency readiness for family-centered practice reforms, and facilitating agency credentialing for family-centered service workers.

2. Providing technical assistance and consultation on all aspects of the development of community partnerships to protect children and enhance their well-being. Core strategies include defining and building teamwork, facilitating neighborhood resident participation, understanding the role of culture and cultural competence, establishing the means to integrate resources and services, identifying and coordinating informal resources, increasing accessibility, emphasizing primary prevention, and focusing on community development.

3. Implementing best practices in family-centered child welfare through a variety of program models, including family preservation, family support, family reunification, and family conferencing.

4. Disseminating information on family-centered service and practice innovations that promise to support and develop best practice.

Addressing improvements in frontline practice in complex settings requires consistent and sustained technical assistance and staff development strategies. These strategies must draw on diverse consultants, trainers, and technical assistance providers who have a sound understanding of child welfare priorities for long-term development. This approach to substantive reform requires time as well as an understanding that reform is best accomplished in the right measure and at the right time.

The Resource Center reflects this vision for a new era in family-centered practice. Training, technical assistance, and consultation strategies acknowledge the specificity and the diversity of state and local jurisdictions. Services are tailored to reflect local priorities. The Resource Center is developing a diverse and comprehensive network of national training and technical assistance consultants to allow for an appropriate match of consultant to work site.

We are also committed to developing innovative approaches to delivering training and technical assistance, including establishing peer-to-peer technical assistance opportunities when there is mutually advantageous work to be done across sites. This approach can be particularly useful with cutting-edge innovations in practice and service where participants are "building the plane as they are flying it." Innovative approaches will also include consumer involvement, which is critical to designing a system that works for families. This technical assistance strategy will be aimed at identifying, recruiting, and training consumers to participate effectively in community-based change efforts.

We invite your participation in the Resource Center's work. If you would like to contribute to the new era of family-centered practice, you are invited to contribute ideas for peer-to-peer exchanges, offer your thoughts on learning exchange opportunities sponsored by this publication, and apply to the Center's consultant network (for an application, please write the Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice or contact us at

The challenges of the current era in family-centered practice are great and the risks are high. The National Child Welfare Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice has a full and ambitious agenda to help meet these challenges. But a project can only be as good as its vision...and its people. Join us in helping to build this network. Learn with us, teach us, and share your knowledge, experience, and thoughts.
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