By Expanding Family Support, South Carolina Aims to Reduce Use of Foster Care

Posted January 11, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Mother and daughter

South Car­oli­na is lead­ing an ambi­tious statewide effort to trans­form how it meets the needs of young peo­ple and their fam­i­lies. Instead of respond­ing after fam­i­ly prob­lems occur, the Depart­ment of Social Ser­vices (DSS) is build­ing up its capac­i­ty for pre­ven­tion, pro­vid­ing ear­li­er sup­port and ser­vices to build fam­i­ly strength and avert the need for involve­ment from the child pro­tec­tion system.

The approach, part of a nation­al mul­ti-year pre­ven­tion effort called Thriv­ing Fam­i­lies, Safer Chil­dren, led by the U.S. Children’s Bureau, the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, Casey Fam­i­ly Pro­grams and Pre­vent Child Abuse Amer­i­ca, pro­motes col­lab­o­ra­tion across gov­ern­men­tal enti­ties, com­mu­ni­ty-based agen­cies, the faith com­mu­ni­ty and fam­i­lies to devel­op solu­tions. The ini­tia­tive engages young peo­ple and fam­i­lies to learn first­hand about their con­cerns. Then, by col­lab­o­rat­ing with com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions, providers, the judi­cia­ry and oth­er part­ners, the pro­gram can pro­vide tai­lored sup­port that meets the unique needs of families.

It is a new day in South Car­oli­na. We are look­ing at what is impor­tant to our com­mu­ni­ties,” says DSS State Direc­tor Mike Leach. Over and over again, peo­ple are telling us that strong fam­i­lies are crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of our state. So, we need to work with com­mu­ni­ties dif­fer­ent­ly. Let’s strength­en fam­i­lies. Let’s help them heal on their terms.”

Karen Bryant, DSS deputy state direc­tor of child wel­fare ser­vices, says the state is work­ing toward three goals:

  • reduce the num­ber of young peo­ple it brings into fos­ter care by build­ing up pre­ven­tion strate­gies avail­able in the community;
  • sup­port kin­ship care­givers, so that — if chil­dren and youth must live apart from their par­ents — rel­a­tives have the means to pro­vide them with love, sta­bil­i­ty and sup­port; and
  • dri­ve down use of group place­ments (some­times called con­gre­gate care), as research shows that chil­dren and youth thrive in fam­i­lies, not in insti­tu­tions or group homes.

Thriv­ing Fam­i­lies, Safer Chil­dren com­bines resources from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and phil­an­thropy to help juris­dic­tions devel­op solu­tions that suit their com­mu­ni­ties — solu­tions that pro­mote equi­ty, focus on fam­i­lies’ needs and seek to boost child- and fam­i­ly well-being.

South Car­oli­na was select­ed as one of the first juris­dic­tions for Thriv­ing Fam­i­lies based on the com­mit­ment of part­ners through­out the state to com­plete­ly change the way they work togeth­er and with youth and fam­i­lies at the table as full part­ners,” says San­dra Gas­ca-Gon­za­lez, vice pres­i­dent of the Casey Foundation’s Cen­ter for Sys­tems Inno­va­tion. I am eager to see how their promis­ing ear­ly efforts at build­ing new rela­tion­ships, chal­leng­ing their own men­tal mod­els and shar­ing deci­sion-mak­ing pave the way to trans­form how chil­dren and fam­i­lies are treat­ed and served.”

Changes being imple­ment­ed in South Car­oli­na reflect a broad­er nation­al con­ver­sa­tion about reform­ing child wel­fare sys­tems — includ­ing the fed­er­al 2018 Fam­i­ly First Pre­ven­tion Ser­vices Act, which seeks to increase access to cer­tain pre­ven­tion ser­vices and lim­it the use of group placements.

In South Car­oli­na, DSS is pro­vid­ing new sources of sup­port for kin­ship care­givers and build­ing out its child and fam­i­ly team meet­ings to involve par­ents and rel­a­tives in solv­ing prob­lems to meet their needs. Among the ben­e­fits: the abil­i­ty to care for chil­dren in fam­i­lies, not insti­tu­tions — a key DSS pri­or­i­ty. My hope is that all teenagers like me can find a fam­i­ly,” says Majd Abdul­lah, a mem­ber of the state Youth Advi­so­ry Coun­cil, who spent time in group facilities.

While con­gre­gate care may still be used for youth who need short-term treat­ment for spe­cial needs,” says Bryant, we’re step­ping up efforts to make sure kids are with fam­i­lies, not in facil­i­ties, because they need the love and con­nec­tions a fam­i­ly brings.” The need is par­tic­u­lar­ly urgent because of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. In the last half of 2020, DSS saw a 10% drop in the num­ber of teens in child wel­fare group facil­i­ties statewide.

South Carolina’s suc­cess depends on two things. One is cul­ture change, accord­ing to Leach. His agency and com­mu­ni­ties statewide are begin­ning to think dif­fer­ent­ly. We shouldn’t build our­selves up as know­ing what’s best for fam­i­lies,” says Leach. We should sup­port fam­i­lies to be their best.” The sec­ond is part­ner­ship — espe­cial­ly with young peo­ple and fam­i­lies and those who know them best with­in the com­mu­ni­ty. The shift we are under­go­ing is com­pre­hen­sive — it can­not be real­ized by DSS alone,” Leach says.

Ma’Lajah Lewis For­man agrees. Lewis For­man spent time in a group facil­i­ty and has lots of ideas about how DSS can do bet­ter by young peo­ple and fam­i­lies. Now a mem­ber of the youth advi­so­ry coun­cil that advis­es DSS, Lewis For­man says, No one ever asked me before about how the sys­tem could be better.”

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