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Coordinating Foster Care Across the 3 Branches of Government

A new initiative in about a dozen states plans to improve the coordination of child services between the administrative, legislative and judicial branches.

Plenty of energy and money have been devoted to integrating health and human services on the IT side. It's energy and money that is worth investing, but it's hardly the whole story when it comes to integration in general. There are two other chapters that deserve attention: The first is interagency integration and the second is getting the three branches of government to work together more fluidly.

Anyone who has spent any time in human services knows that multiple agencies all own a piece of the puzzle when it comes to helping and healing people and families. Health, mental health, schools, substance abuse services, law enforcement, corrections, and departments of children and families all need to be working more seamlessly to solve problems that no one agency can possibly fix on its own. But in this column, I plan to focus on the lack of communication between the administrative, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Each too often operates in a vacuum, essentially unaware of the consequences of the actions of the others. And they pay way too little attention to what actually works when it comes to effective human services delivery. Governors propose, legislatures dispose and the judiciary tries to figure out the meaning of policy and regulation -- but not, typically, whether those policies and regulations are actually effective.

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So it is interesting and heartening that the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices is collaborating with Casey Family Programs, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Council of State Courts, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in supporting what's being called the "Three Branch Institute on Child Social and Emotional Well-Being." The initiative is aimed at engaging all three branches of government -- as well as the broader services and advocacy community -- to improve the well-being of kids in foster care. Numerous states are participating, from Connecticut to Tennessee.

That the courts are so intimately involved in the initiative is especially encouraging inasmuch as that's where a lot of the action in foster care ultimately plays out. Some judges are compassionate, caring and interested in working closely with front-line children and family service workers to find the best therapeutic and family fit for foster kids. But some judges just don't get it at all, and in some cases even view children and family services staff as, if anything, adversaries in what ought to be a much more cooperative venture.

In Tennessee, whose children and family services department has had a troubled past, the list of participating members in the institute is impressive, ranging from Dolores Gresham, chair of the Tennessee Senate Education Committee, to more than a half a dozen juvenile court judges, to the commissioners for the Department of Children's Services, Department of Health, Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services. to even the head of homeland security.

This group is meeting quarterly, and according to the Department of Children's Services, it "has set a highly focused agenda, including: developing a clear picture of how well Tennessee's child protection system works; a wide understanding of the complexities of child protection work; using standardized assessments by the courts and DCS to guide their work and to allow for uniform data collection; implementation of evidence-based practice alternatives to incarceration in juvenile justice; and allocation of juvenile justice resources to support community-driven solutions."

It is an ambitious and worthwhile agenda, on which Tennessee and the other participating states will be reporting progress and results in 2014. But the mere fact of this level of cooperation in very diverse states already suggests an increasing and welcome recognition nationally that children and family services isn't a one agency or a one branch of government issue.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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