Leading With Evidence: Documenting Progress With Data and Evaluation
More communities are seeking to harness the promise of evidence-based strategies to build a better future for children, families, and communities. Child welfare agencies also feel an urgent and growing need to continually improve outcomes. The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the William T. Grant Foundation recently brought together child welfare administrators and researchers from across the country in a two-day symposium to meet these objectives. “We wanted to give participants an opportunity to establish a shared language and framework for using research and evidence to drive policy, and to explore ways to overcome the barriers that so often impede the effective use of that evidence,” said Suzanne Barnard, director of the Casey Foundation’s Evidence-Based Practice Group.
As participants at the Leading With Evidence symposium discussed, shifting to evidence-based strategies requires building relationships, changing the culture and earning trust.
While many evidence-based programs and research exist to help child welfare administrators achieve better outcomes, some areas of child welfare policy and practice still need a higher level of evidence. One of those areas is decision making in removing and placing children. Evaluating promising practices to inform better decisions is the first step to filling this gap.
Missouri’s Department of Social Services, for example, wanted to improve its outcomes for children and families by making its work culture and decision-making process more inclusive and family centered. In so doing, years ago they adopted Team Decision Making (TDM), a practice developed by the Casey Foundation that aims to make the best possible decisions about child placement by more fully engaging family and other key stakeholders in those decisions.
Even though the state department believes TDM is improving child welfare outcomes, the agency has come to realize the need to document progress through data and evaluation, and to incorporate these values into expansion plans. In partnership with the Foundation, the Missouri Department of Social Services is now planning a systemwide scale up of the new approach within the state’s “transformation zones,” but not all at once. This more deliberate expansion plan comes with a strong commitment from welfare agency leaders to evaluate the new sites, improve the TDM data collection and reporting system and strengthen the implementation process with fidelity.
The Missouri initiative is a strong example of how a child welfare agency can demonstrate its commitment to understanding and meeting the needs of families and making more informed decisions through the use of data, evaluation and research.
“We have a lot of buy-in right now from our stakeholders,” said Julie Lester, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Social Services and a presenter at the convening. “But we still need to rigorously evaluate our efforts and be able to show whether our strategies really do work for families, so we can make the case to our policy leaders and legislators.” Another clear lesson: researchers, practitioners and decision makers need to work together more closely to make real and sustained improvements in the lives of children and their families.