Research of Note for December 2006 – January 2007

Print More

Child Welfare: Improving Social Service Program, Training and Technical Assistance Information Would Help Address Long-standing Service-Level and Workforce Challenges
U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)
Available at

All 50 states have failed to fully achieve “substantial conformity” on outcome measures ensuring the safety, well-being, and permanency of children in their child welfare systems, according to the GAO.

The office recently surveyed the child welfare agencies of each state and the District of Columbia in order to determine the challenges the agencies face in trying to meet Child and Family Services Review performance standards, how they’ve tried to overcome those challenges, and whether federally supported training and technical assistance has helped them,

The agencies said their top three challenges are providing an adequate level of services, recruiting and retaining caseworkers, and finding appropriate placements for children.

They also identified three challenges of growing concern: children’s exposure to drugs, an increased demand for services for children with special needs, and changing demographic trends that will create more need for staff to learn how to deal with different cultures.

But even though nearly every state said the technical assistance provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was “helpful,” the GAO found that state initiatives to address the most common challenges and their underlying factors often missed the mark.

For example, while nearly all states reported trying to improve staff retention, only two reported specific initiatives to address dissatisfaction with caseworker supervision – which 28 states identified as a contributing factor to high turnover.

The GAO also determined that the federal government cannot determine or report, in any systematic way, the extent of child welfare services available to children and families at the local level, nor the amount of training and technical assistance being provided to states. It cited two reasons: the lack of a comprehensive national resource reporting system, and HHS’ failure to make its resource centers follow technical assistance reporting requirements.

According to the report, that absence of complete and timely information limits the ability of HHS to determine how best to allocate resources, and therefore to help states fully address pressing child welfare concerns.

The GAO made three recommendations to HHS:

• Develop an Internet-based search through the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) for information on federally supported child welfare service programs, and provide access to that information to state and local child welfare staff and providers. The CFDA is updated at least twice a month.

• Require all HHS technical assistance providers to enter training and technical assistance data into the department’s Technical Assistance Tracking Internet System (TATIS).

• Establish policies and procedures to ensure that complete and accurate data are reported in a timely manner to TATIS.

In its written rebuttal comments, HHS agreed with only one of GAO’s recommendations: to establish policies and procedures regarding the input of TATIS data.

The department disagreed with the recommendation to modify the CFDA, stating that “it was misleading to assume that state challenges could be significantly met or appreciably altered by a list of resources.”

GAO responded in the report that its survey found that some caseworkers remain unaware of federal resources, such as health and housing services, available in their locales. It said that “caseworker awareness and referral of children and families to existing resources is an important first step in meeting the challenge to provide an adequate level of services to them.”

Juvenile Justice Bulletin: Lessons Learned From Safe Kids/Safe Streets
U.S. Office of Justice Programs (OJP)
Available at

A final evaluation of the federal Safe Kids/Safe Streets (SK/SS) initiative yielded an information-packed, four-volume report that was released in 2004.

Let’s face it: Few of us read it.

But the OJP – convinced that the lessons from this ambitious, multi-site study of community-wide efforts to reduce child abuse and neglect were valuable and widely applicable – has released this condensed, more reader-friendly version.

“I know collaboration was the watchword of the ‘90s … but it really does work,” said Frances Gragg, the SK/SS project director for Westat, the research firm that conducted the study.

From 1997 to 2003, SK/SS provided financial and technical assistance to five sites to strengthen and improve collaboration among their juvenile justice, criminal justice and child welfare systems. The awards ranged from $750,000 in Toledo, Ohio, to $4.1 million in Huntsville, Ala.

“You’re all battling over the same population and resources,” Gragg said of various youth-serving systems that don’t collaborate. “If you quit battling … it’s like collaboration just becomes a way of doing things.”

Although the five sites had some flexibility in program design, each was required to meet four key criteria: systems reform and accountability; an enhanced continuum of services, from prevention to treatment; improved data collection and evaluation across systems and agencies; and prevention education for the community.

The results were impressive.

In 2003, from 50 to 67 percent of local stakeholders reported improvements in providing multi-agency responses; educating the community; improving services for families at risk; decreasing community tolerance for child maltreatment; and leveraging resources across public and private agencies.

But the broader lessons learned about community collaboration are the real treasures of this report. Here are Gragg’s top three:

• Understand the time required to plan and realize a system reform agenda.

“All of this takes time, and the notion that you can plan it in a weekend is not possible. … We say anywhere from nine to 12 months,” Gragg said.

The report suggests developing detailed timelines for accomplishing key activities and achieving specified outcomes, and allowing eight to 10 years to complete the initiative.

• Develop a balance – rather than a tug of war – between investments in service provision and system reform, and keep that at the forefront.

“Sometimes you have to provide [a direct service] in order to get people to the table, but … you need to be thinking about how that feeds into a systems reform agenda,” Gragg said. “Maybe the service itself doesn’t, but maybe that’s what you develop your collaboration around.”

The report suggests that communities develop an explicit rationale for service initiatives that asks: How will the service improve community or systemic policies and practices? What will it take to sustain this service? If the service is unlikely to have systemic impact, what other objective will it serve?

• Have a willingness to rethink what you propose.

“When you’re trying out new initiatives, some stuff just isn’t going to work, and you need to be willing to rethink it and go in another direction,” Gragg said. “Where that occurred in SK/SS, they ended up with some remarkable successes.”

The report discusses the importance of bringing local evaluators on board early to assist in planning, and reaching out to nontraditional partners for input.