LAWRENCE — Researchers at the University of Kansas have secured an $8 million, five-year grant to strengthen families across the state by helping prevent children being placed in foster care and increasing reunification and adoption rates for those children already in the system.
The grant was awarded to the KU School of Social Welfare by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. School of Social Welfare researchers will collaborate with Kansas Department for Children and Families, KVC Kansas, Saint Francis Ministries and the Kansas Court Improvement Program. The project is the third for the partners, dating to 2007. Research has shown previous collaborations have led to improved reunification rates for families.
“This project is exciting because we’re adding new components and broadening our expertise,” said Becci Akin, associate professor of social welfare at KU and principal investigator. “We are building on a long-standing public-private-university collaboration, which provides solid footing for expanding to new strategies and collaborators.”
DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel added, “By working together, we have a great opportunity to enhance our current use of data, strengthen social work practices through evidence-informed coaching and better Kansas support families. These strategies are vital to help prevent children from entering the foster care system and improve reunification and adoption rates.”
The program, Kansas Strong for Children and Families, will be guided by frameworks for successful implementation, beginning with a nine-month planning period. Project collaborators will work together to analyze local data and re-assess the proposed targeted populations, strategies and outcomes. As proposed, the program will strengthen social work and organizational practices and improve child outcomes through five specific goals. Goal one is to implement an interagency collaborative using data systems and continuous quality improvement to promote safety, permanency and well-being. Collaborators will develop an interagency collaborative and implement enhanced data systems that work to integrate information from child welfare and courts.
The second goal is to establish and implement a skills-based coaching system for public and private child welfare workers across the state. The skills coaching system will concentrate on the priority topics of parent and youth engagement, risk and safety assessment, relative/kin connections and concurrent planning. Training and coaching will be delivered statewide in multiple formats to supervisors who will then deliver coaching to frontline child welfare workers.
“Coaching is an evidence-based strategy for supporting high-quality practice and, thus, an exciting enhancement to the work of these collaborators,” Akin said.
The third goal is to focus on courts and strengthen practices for supporting and engaging children and their families. Jody Brook, associate professor of social welfare and director of KU’s Center for Children and Families, will lead the effort, which includes developing and using data systems and continuous quality improvement processes for tracking information to promote improved permanency outcomes. Collaborators also plan to install new court engagement strategies, such as trauma-informed courts, in which court personnel involved in family cases develop and enhance practices to center safety and well-being. The program also proposed judge-to-judge coaching from judges who are versed in trauma-informed courts.
“We know that child welfare system practices and outcomes are largely influenced by court system. It is our goal to develop engagement strategies to strengthen the collaborative capacity of these two important family service systems and use data as a cornerstone of this collaboration,” Brook said.
Goal four will determine the effectiveness of Kansas Strong for Children and Families and identify strategies for successful program implementation across the state and sustainability.
"The Kansas Strong evaluation will make use of a variety of research approaches and methodologies to ensure the results are robust, and can directly inform child welfare practice and policies," said Andrew Zinn, associate professor of social welfare, who will lead the evaluation.
The final goal is to develop and disseminate practical and useful products for the field of child welfare. The products will take numerous forms, including brochures for consumers, toolkits for practitioners, policy briefs for policymakers and webinars for administrators. Taken as a whole, the products will inform the child welfare field about specific stages, steps and activities in adopting and sustaining a collaborative, data-driven system.
Kansas Strong for Children and Families proposes to serve three target populations: Children and families involved with in-home services, foster care and adoption. In all three populations, the partners plan to focus on improving outcomes for African-American youths as they are disproportionately represented in the Kansas foster care system, and for children who have high risk factors, including age, removal because of parental substance abuse, neglect or disability.
The collaborators proposed to work with at least five courts in the first year, adding more in subsequent years. They will partner with service providers across the state. Improving data available for providers, offering coaching and helping courts assist families all will help the goal of preventing children from entering foster care when possible and improving reunification and adoption rates. An increasing body of research shows children and families have better outcomes when foster care can be avoided or stay times reduced.