There are an astonishing number of state and local children and family services agencies currently operating under some sort of federal court oversight -- 21 in all, according to the American Public Human Services Association. Of those, a handful have been under federal oversight for more than 20 years.
So it begs the question: Why have some jurisdictions languished for so long, and what does it take to regain system independence?
First, and perhaps most fundamental, some states don't seem to really care; there is no sense of urgency or pride, so systems just stumble along doing business as usual. In those cases, it's really a matter of leadership, says Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children's Rights, a children and family advocacy group. Strong leaders who honestly want to improve life for their state's children and families will naturally move quickly toward resolving cases.
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In states where cases languish, some form of reintervention by the courts always takes place, requiring that a state children and family services system spend more on training, staff or infrastructure. But if a system's heart isn't in pursing an honest path toward measurable improvement, throwing more money at the problem doesn't fix much. You don't want compliance, argues Lustbader, what you're after is a genuine interest in improvements in the lives of children and families.
Second, the terms and conditions that administrations three and four times removed may have agreed to in order to end oversight may be almost impossible to meet. Under the gun and anxious to move the process, states may have at the outset agreed to do things -- like significantly improve time to permanency, for example -- that realistically may be very difficult to do, even for high-performing systems.
Third, a lot of states are still struggling with information technology systems that may not be getting them good, timely information in a form that allows them to make smart, targeted policy and management changes.
There is at least one state that I'm familiar with, however, that does seem to be taking their federal-oversight status seriously. That's Connecticut, which has one of the longest and saddest records in the country: 22 years of oversight. Gov. Dannel Malloy has thrown his support behind Commissioner Joette Katz (one of Governing's 2012 Public Official of the Year), who has completely overhauled how her agency goes about working with families and children that come in contact with the system.
Connecticut's approach is working because Commissioner Katz's focus hasn't been on pleasing the federal monitor, but on actually improving outcomes for the state's children and families. Katz and company clearly get that it's not the federal monitor who they're serving -- although that's not to say they're not keenly aware of how they're doing in the 22 areas listed under their agreement with the courts.
Connecticut's success is also due in large part to its data czar Fernendo Muniz, who, among other things, helps oversee the state's Statewide/Tribal Automated Child Welfare Information System. I think I can honestly say that Muniz is the first high-level state children and family services official I've ever heard say that they are satisfied with the state's system for collecting and analyzing data. "I have a little, tiny office called the office of research and evaluation," says Muniz. "They crank out a lot of data for us." Reports, he says, that are both routine and customized and can be generated by individual districts, allowing for intrastate performance comparisons.
The tricky part, says Muniz, has been convincing staff at all levels that "the commissioner isn't going to usen the data to hammer them over the head." It's a constant concern. "So if you send out even a seemingly benign question like, 'Hey, why do you think your adoption numbers went down last quarter?' and it's panic."
But the message is getting out: Data is a policy and management tool, a means for asking good, targeted questions about performance. With answers, come improved policies and procedures and better performance. The results are evident: The state has seen truly impressive improvements in areas ranging from dramatic reductions in the use of congregate care, to significant increases in kinship placements, to a huge reduction in removals in the first place.
Don't be surprised then, if at least one state works itself out from under federal oversight this year. If it does, it's a classic case of a state winning its freedom not by focusing on what the federal monitor wants, but by doing what's best for families and kids.