Child Welfare League of America Conference Focuses on “Raising the Bar”

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Bryan SamuelsARLINGTON, VA – More than 500 child welfare professionals are here this week attending the Child Welfare League of America annual conference. Christine James-Brown, president and CEO of CWLA introduced the event’s theme of raising the bar and achieving excellence at a plenary session Monday morning. Discussing the organizations’ new National Blueprint for Excellence in Child Welfare James-Brown said “the dream for the Blueprint is that we as a field feel embraced by the community.”

Throughout the four day conference attendees will hear more about the Blueprint, a guide to improving practice that emphasizes collaboration and the role communities should play in achieving better outcomes for children and families. They will also network with colleagues, learn about emerging research and promising practices, and have the opportunity to advocate to legislative staff on vital child welfare issues.

Research drives practice improvement

Bryan Samuels, commissioner of the Administration on Children Youth and Families, of the Department of Health and Human Services, also moderated a panel discussion at the conference on the implications of neuroscience for child welfare practice. Safety, permanency and well-being have long been child welfare goals, he said, but practice has focused on safety and permanency, and implicitly hoped to produce well being outcomes. 

Samuels told attendees that while his agency is now trying to focus more explicitly on well being, “what you hear this afternoon will convince you that these are not three distinct goals.” Instead, he said, each is essential to meeting the primary goal of making children and families better off for having been served by the child welfare system. 

Dr. Joan Kaufman, director of the Child and Adolescent Research and Education Program at Yale University spoke after Samuels, sharing research findings on the impact of early adversity on children’s brain development. Changes in children’s brains resulting from abuse and neglect can be long lasting, but are not permanent, she said. Healthy relationships, enrichment opportunities and child and birth parent services are key factors in helping young people overcome early adverse experiences, Kaufman concluded.

Other panelists discussed studies of how substance abuse affects maternal behavior and research on children placed in foster homes instead of orphanages. Multiple presenters talked about the connection between adverse experiences in childhood and health and well-being issues later in life. They echoed the idea that changes in the brain can be overcome, but emphasized that there are key periods when this can happen — for children, early action is key. 

Lobbying for change

Participants in the conference’s Hill Day will also be emphasizing the importance of early childhood experiences.  Supporting universal pre-K is one of the key points of this year’s Hill Day, an opportunity for attendees to speak directly to key staff in congressional offices about child welfare issues, says Tim Briceland-Betts, director of Policy and Federal Affairs for CWLA. Participants will also ask for a fair budget and an end to sequestration, and will advocate for enhancements to mental health services for youth in out of home care to be included in upcoming gun legislation. 

 Both child welfare professionals and foster care alumni will have the chance to make their voice heard on Capitol Hill, said Briceland-Betts. “This is where federal policy is determined, this is where challenges are met, this is where issues are brought to the national discussion,” he added. 

CWLA’s conference wraps up on Wednesday with a presentation on“Advancing Community to Raise the Bar.”

Lisa Pilnik, JD, MS, is a freelance writer, consultant, and co-founder of Child & Family Policy Associates, a Maryland-based consulting firm.

Photo: Bryan Samuels, Commissioner, Administration on Children Youth and Families, moderates a panel discussion on neuroscience. Photo by Lisa Pilnik.