New Jersey Taps Implementation Science to Improve Child Welfare Practices

Posted September 26, 2017
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog newjerseytapsimplementationscience 2017

Using the prin­ci­ples of imple­men­ta­tion sci­ence, New Jer­sey is launch­ing an all-out effort sup­port­ed by the Casey Foun­da­tion to insti­tute evi­dence-based approach­es to improve out­comes in its child wel­fare system.

As a result of reforms enact­ed under a fed­er­al con­sent decree, New Jer­sey has made steady strides in reduc­ing the use of fos­ter care and boost­ing the share of chil­dren able to stay with their fam­i­lies over the last 15 years. But the kinds of ser­vices the sys­tem was set up to pro­vide for kids in fos­ter care don’t always match what’s need­ed to keep fam­i­lies togeth­er and thriv­ing. Under the lead­er­ship of Alli­son Blake, com­mis­sion­er of the Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies, the depart­ment launched a strate­gic plan in 2016 to shift its ser­vice array to pro­grams and prac­tices with a track record of success.

As part of the effort, for exam­ple, the depart­ment recent­ly expand­ed a pilot pro­gram that helps to pre­vent strug­gling fam­i­lies from liv­ing in the streets and keep their chil­dren out of fos­ter care. Keep­ing Fam­i­lies Togeth­er is a part­ner­ship between state child wel­fare and hous­ing offi­cials to help fam­i­lies fac­ing home­less­ness and oth­er chal­lenges to secure sta­ble hous­ing and sup­port ser­vices. Since its launch in 2015, 24 fam­i­lies have been housed and 49 chil­dren have remained safe­ly with their fam­i­lies as a result of the pro­gram, which is being expand­ed to serve 173 fam­i­lies in nine coun­ties. While it is too ear­ly to gauge long-term results, stud­ies of a sim­i­lar New York pro­gram launched in 2007 have shown fam­i­lies have made sig­nif­i­cant gains in reuni­fy­ing or remain­ing safe­ly with their chil­dren, improv­ing children’s school per­for­mance and reduc­ing involve­ment in the child wel­fare system.

This is the kind of evi­dence-based approach New Jer­sey offi­cials want to adopt statewide. But just because a pro­gram works in one site doesn’t mean it will work, or be sus­tain­able, in anoth­er. So the depart­ment is work­ing with the Nation­al Imple­men­ta­tion Research Net­work (NIRN), a key Foun­da­tion part­ner that worked in New York along with Casey Fam­i­ly Pro­grams, to make sure it has the skills and tools for suc­cess­ful implementation.

Just hav­ing the right pro­gram doesn’t mean you get the right results, because a lot has to hap­pen in the imple­men­ta­tion to get the out­comes you are seek­ing for the tar­get pop­u­la­tion,” says Bead­sie Woo, a senior asso­ciate with Casey’s Evi­dence-Based Prac­tice Group.

Says Blake: We real­ized we need­ed help in under­stand­ing imple­men­ta­tion sci­ence and the fac­tors that make pro­grams scal­able and sustainable.”

With sup­port from Casey and NIRN, New Jer­sey held a series of work­shops to gath­er feed­back from ten providers as well as an advi­so­ry com­mit­tee of child wel­fare lead­ers and researchers. The depart­ment used the results to draft a blue­print on the steps nec­es­sary to imple­ment the best mix of research-based practices.

Many providers are using evi­dence-based inter­ven­tions, but the goal of the blue­print is to deter­mine what the core com­po­nents are, why an approach works, how it works and how to imple­ment it across 800-plus agen­cies,” says Suzanne Barnard, direc­tor of Casey’s Evi­dence-Based Prac­tice Group. This is a whole dif­fer­ent way for pri­vate provider agen­cies to work with pub­lic agencies.”

Based on New York’s expe­ri­ence, the kinds of steps New Jer­sey is con­sid­er­ing include mak­ing changes in the con­tract­ing process with pri­vate providers to empha­size evi­dence-based prac­tices and putting a state team in place to sup­port providers in high-qual­i­ty imple­men­ta­tion practices.

Casey will show­case New Jersey’s work at a con­ven­ing next month. The bot­tom line is that we all want to do bet­ter, and this process allows us to be much more inten­tion­al in help­ing fam­i­lies achieve the out­comes they want for their chil­dren,” says Blake.

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