Child Welfare

Transforming the child welfare system through Family First Prevention Services and Safe Babies Court Teams TM

September 29, 2020 | Ohio

Transforming the child welfare system through Family First Prevention Services and Safe Babies Court TeamsTM

September 29, 2020

By Kim Eckhart, KIDS COUNT Project Manager

When babies and toddlers come into contact with the child welfare system, they deserve the best possible outcome: a safe, nurturing and permanent family. The science of early childhood development has shown that children who live in safe and supportive homes have the best chance for healthy development throughout their lives. As we work to transform the child welfare system to improve outcomes for children, two complementary initiatives offer a path forward: Family First Prevention Services (Family First) and Safe Babies Court Teams (Safe Babies).

We are in a moment to think creatively about Family First implementation

Both the Family First and Safe Babies initiatives have arrived in Ohio at an opportune moment because of the DeWine Administration’s exceptional vision and leadership on children’s issues.  For Family First to be as transformative as it promises to be, implementation efforts must be guided by state leadership and informed by research driven strategies. Family First focuses on preventing child maltreatment and painful separations through evidenced-based interventions– mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, and in-home parent skill-based services. It provides services for families before children are placed in foster care, whereas previous child welfare approaches only offered services afterward. As federal legislation, Family First opens up funding on a scale that could impact thousands of families in Ohio. Implementation is daunting, not only because it requires 88 county-level children’s services agencies to shift their practice significantly, but also because the state must comply with specific criteria, and interventions must be formally included in a federal clearinghouse. Though daunting, successful models like Safe Babies are paving the way forward.

Safe Babies offers a comprehensive framework and infrastructure to implement Family First

Safe Babies is equally transformative in its approach to serving children ages zero to three. In Ohio, there are over 17,000 open cases for children ages 0-3 years old. This October, three new counties, Cuyahoga, Montgomery and Scioto, will adopt the Safe Babies approach with leadership from Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio, Groundwork Ohio and the national team at ZERO TO THREE, adding to the existing effort in Lucas County. Through community-wide collaboration led by the judges who oversee child maltreatment cases, children ages 0-3 and their families will receive focused attention that recognizes individual strengths and challenges. Interventions are offered to meet the unique needs of each child and parent.

The Safe Babies model is practical, neutral, and evidence-based

Practical In practice, Family First implementation can only take place one family at a time. Each Safe Babies team assesses families’ strengths and needs and offers evidence-based interventions to meet those individual needs and strengthen their ability to support positive growth and development of their child. All Safe Babies work is trauma-informed and assists parents in “unpacking their trauma suitcases” so they can heal and support the healthy development of their own children. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) screening is used to assess family risk and the team respects parents’ experiences prior to involvement with child welfare. In short, Safe Babies asks parents “What happened to you?” not “What did you do wrong?” Of the participants in Safe Babies sites throughout the U.S., a staggering 63% of parents had four or more ACEs; one in six had from eight to all ten ACEs.

Neutral A key element of the Safe Babies approach is the neutrality of the Community Coordinator, who convenes the Safe Babies team. This role is independent from the Public Children’s Services Agency and communicates directly with the family, judge, defense attorneys, court appointed special advocates (CASA), as well as the caseworkers and the prosecuting attorneys. This approach allows parents to be connected to treatment through someone who isn’t taking a side in the case against them. An unfortunate dynamic of the child welfare system is the adversarial relationship between the children’s services agency and parents. Parents may experience “assigned treatment” through a lens of punishment rather than a process for healing past trauma and learning new skills, especially in light of the systemic racism that we are finally confronting. As was stated so candidly by the Public Children’s Services Agency of Ohio, “we as the Board of Trustees and Staff cannot shy away from the reality that many African-American families and people of color view the children services system through much the same lens as they view the police.” The Safe Babies approach provides someone who will walk with parents through their case without this adversarial dynamic. Community Coordinators in Ohio, and their community team members, will have ongoing training in implicit racial bias and will be provided opportunities to reflect on the systemic reasons that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the child welfare system.

Evidenced-based Safe Babies offers a proven strategy for implementing a model that is closely aligned with the goals of Family First. Babies in this program reached permanency about a year faster than children in a subsample of infants and toddlers from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Wellbeing (NSCAW). More were reunified or placed with relatives than in the NSCAW sample. They were also well cared for: Maltreatment recurrence in closed cases since April 2015 is 0.7%–far below the national standard of 9.1%. Safe Babies is effective because babies in the program found the safe and supportive homes they need to thrive: 84% of children with closed cases reached permanency within a year, double the national standard expectations established by the Children’s Bureau of 41% and well within the one-year time limit on services mandated by Family First. This approach is recognized by the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare, lending support to a proposal to have it added to the federal clearinghouse used for Family First. Research is ongoing and we are hopeful that Safe Babies will be included as a promising practice within the federal clearinghouse of evidence-based practices.

Ohio should seize these two opportunities – Family First and Safe Babies – to reorient the child welfare system and invest in families before maltreatment occurs, build parent capacity, and promote child well-being in the face of adversity.