Rewiring child welfare in Colorado: getting ahead of the family crisis

By Ned Breslin

(Originally published July 30, 2019, by The Chronicle for Social Change

Open any case history of a child at Tennyson Center for Children and your heart breaks.

The depth of trauma each child has experienced is significant. Unfinished journeys of children bouncing from hospitals to foster homes to residential placements with no real end in sight is infuriating. Permanency plans seem more focused on getting something – anything – in place rather than really establishing a sustainable pathway for successful permanency. Children who we hoped to finally be “out” of the system heartbreakingly return, as case histories retell with startling regularity.

But what troubles me the most are the missed opportunities along each child’s bumpy path prior to becoming child welfare involved; moments in time where alternatives could have been explored. Alternatives that could have led to better, less traumatic paths and healthier outcomes – often not only for the child but the family as a whole.

Paths that would have kept children out of Tennyson.

Re-Imagining Pathways for Children and Families

A collaborative is emerging in a host of Colorado counties that imagines new pathways for children and families, circumventing child welfare involvement. The collaborative dares to advance a comprehensive and audacious vision with practical field experience in which the recently passed Family First Prevention Services Act is just one critical component to leverage in support of fundamentally rewiring the way the sector finances child welfare.

The collaborative is focused on reducing the number of children and families entering child welfare and on translating field lessons from diverse participating counties into new routes for public and private funding; ultimately paving the way to brighter pathways for families. The collaborative intends and expects to show how investing earlier — and differently — in a family’s journey can lessen trauma and lower costs to families and society while elevating the inherent and unique strengths of communities profoundly.

Speak with any human services caseworker and they will lament the moments when they meet a family in trouble but can offer no recourse other than to inform them that their situation has not yet become severe enough to warrant help. The hard truth is that this family needs to “fail” and disintegrate even more visibly before the system can actually act and deploy resources, despite the best efforts of caseworkers to offer support.

And caseworkers worry that, without support, these families will in fact fail and return for services – more traumatized and more fractured. Soon-to-be released data collected by county child welfare departments suggest that over 40 percent of the families they feel compelled to screen out will become child welfare involved within two years.

A world that truly tackles maltreatment will never achieve its objectives until the real and perceived constraints surrounding “medical necessity” and “imminent risk” are reconsidered. That is precisely what our collaborative is undertaking in Colorado.

We are unleashing a two-pronged strategy that targets at-risk families more comprehensively by asking simple questions: What could sector agencies accomplish if funds were liberated from the constraints of “medical necessity” and “imminent risk?” How could they invest, and who might they partner with to achieve stability and health for families?

We begin by targeting the families described above who are in trouble but not yet in crisis. We will introduce them to a host of nonprofit service providers and trusted, non-sector allies such as faith communities, Boys & Girls Clubs, and community-based organizations to build a network of support for families in danger of child welfare involvement.

We value evidence-based practices, and we also understand that successfully and sustainably diverting families from child welfare requires us to think, and invest, at a broader and more thoughtful level. The goal is to prove that tapping into existing community support systems creates deep, lasting support for families and communities that strengthen families and mitigates the risk of crises.

Community support and strength diminishes the isolation many families face and that puts them at risk for a host of negative outcomes. Focusing on economic, transportation and housing stabilization lessens grinding daily stresses. Providing services that address the roots of maltreatment, abuse and neglect can reverse the cycle of multi-generational trauma.

In addition to the above work, our collaborative will invest in preventative work that focuses on families with children prenatal to 3. We are exploring a wide range of options that, through multi-year philanthropic funding, we believe will not only demonstrate impact at scale but also clarify the costs of these new interventions and inform a roadmap of sustained public and private investments.

The Colorado rewiring initiative hopes to model and prove impact across diverse counties, showing how different investment and programmatic options can truly reduce inflows of families into child welfare at lower cost to society, and at greater positive impact for families and communities. We hope to translate those lessons into sustained public/private financing that consequently enables others to finance and spread this work across the state and beyond.

The sector needs field-tested, scalable roadmaps tied to fiscal reform, and child welfare players need the freedom to invest in new ways, taking advantage of earlier opportunities to help families create better lives.

Lives that, one day, do not include journeys through Tennyson.


Ned Breslin is the president and CEO of the Tennyson Center for Children.