Meeting the Management Challenges of Reunifying Families

Timely housing assistance is crucial, but it can be tricky to overcome institutional barriers.
January 29, 2019 AT 6:15 AM
Woman hugging a small boy.
(AP/Stephen Spillman)
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

Public administrators in human services are acutely aware that structures of service delivery rarely align smoothly for families with complex challenges. I found during my time with Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare that there were, indeed, families with six or seven county caseworkers, often not communicating as a case team.

Despite heroic efforts in many local agencies, too often this continues. The institutional barriers to addressing the needs of such families stem from the very complexity of the families' situations, inadequate training and time for caseworkers, financial limitations, and regulatory restrictions commonly acknowledged as "siloes."

And nowhere is it more difficult -- or urgent -- than for families involved in the child-welfare system. Safe reunification of families whose children are in out-of-home placements due to neglect or inadequate housing can be delayed by the family's inability to secure safe and affordable housing. Children and their parents may spend months apart despite being ready to be a family again.

Federal, state and local agencies have tackled the problem through a variety of strategies that aim at producing housing subsidies as soon as families are ready to reunite. When Philadelphia's Department of Human Services announced a pilot program called Rapid Rehousing for Reunification last year, I took a closer look at the problem nationally and discovered myriad pitfalls to successful innovation.

Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, probably knows more about this topic than anyone. Her earlier leadership role in advocacy at the Child Welfare League of America led to the creation of the Family Reunification Program, a special set-aside of federal Section 8 vouchers awarded competitively to public housing authorities. Some 330 communities have participated, and more than $100 million has been awarded to support families in the child-welfare system since 2009.

Time-limited housing assistance from other sources has also been deployed, but can trigger other risks requiring proactive management at every step. White points to a Washington, D.C., cash rental-assistance program which, under pressure to move more families out of shelters, terminated assistance before families could pay market-rate rents. Only 40 percent of families were able to sustain their rents at the end of the rapid rehousing support. Analysis suggests that time-limited stipends might work for some families, but not for ones with chronic, complex challenges.

Generating early cash to support housing assistance for reunification also offers an opportunity for agencies to direct downstream savings to the earlier housing intervention. But this rationale is a hard sell in many public agencies. Connecticut has appropriated directly for cash supports for reunification, and according to White, is "getting it right." New Jersey and Washington state have prioritized rapid rehousing for reunifying families. Informal or direct recognition of the savings from other child-welfare expenditures is an important impetus.

It's clear from the successes as well as the failures that tying the pieces together is as much the innovation as the provision of housing assistance itself.

Many things have to fall into place. The child-welfare, housing and homeless-assistance leadership must be aligned in their priorities and willing to shape the direction of their sprawling bureaucracies. Reuniting families are still fragile and often require continued support services from overworked caseworkers drawn to more urgent needs. If families have found housing with short-term financial assistance, they risk a "cliff" and a return to crisis if the head of household has not returned to work with sufficient income to pay the rent or a Section 8 voucher is not available. Unrealistic expectations of financial independence or family stability can set hard-won progress back to the crisis point.

Back in Philadelphia, the head of human services knows this well. Cynthia Figueroa, who headed a major nonprofit community service agency before becoming commissioner of the city agency, has forged close ties with the director of the city's homeless services, herself a long-term and respected advocate for affordable housing. Figueroa secured philanthropic dollars to pilot the Rapid Rehousing for Reunification program, and is working to ensure family financial success as the pilot continues. Depending on how the families do, she's prepared to make room in her budget to take the program to larger scale.

As is often the case in social-service intervention, money may be essential, but is rarely the only key to successful innovation.