Delaware is headed into year three of a major push to overhaul how it delivers children and family services, an initiative strongly supported by Gov. Jack Markell and ably directed by Vicky Kelly, the director of the Delaware Division of Family Services. The theme of the overall reform is family engagement, including a strong push on structured decision-making.
It's an overhaul that was long overdue. Even long-time, top-level Division of Family Services (DFS) staff admit that a whole lot of what is considered state-of-the-art practices in children and family services had passed Delaware by. That combined with a classic, very cautious approach to dealing with families in crisis -- the system was inclined to pull kids first and worry about whether removal was actually justified later -- meant that way too many kids were being hauled into state custody unnecessarily.
Initially the lift was daunting, says Delaware DFS Deputy Director Shirley Roberts, as it involved more than a dozen separate initiatives. But the department is already showing improvement in key areas of performance, from raw numbers of children in foster care to a reduction in the number of teens entering care.
Unlike some other states in which major and successful reform efforts have been launched, Kelly tried to de-emphasize the "top-down" approach to change. Instead of new policies coming by decree, mini task forces made up of staff from every level of the division vetted and shaped new initiatives. Her approach was to let staff test new ideas to see which ones took rather than pushing sweeping mandatory change. It dovetailed perfectly with her overriding message: She wanted a wholesale shift in doing business from one of focusing on compliance -- following procedures and filling out reports properly -- to one where staff could get back to practicing their profession.
Staff has clearly bought in. In sitting down with front-line caseworkers and supervisors, the general message was that reforms were going to stick. The more family-centered, community-based, data-informed and social-work-driven approach is taking hold.
Of course, it's not all good news in Delaware. It's clear that while staff back the overhaul, they're feeling stressed by new and ever-more complex cases. The scourge of heroin has hit, and multigenerational poverty and dysfunction are as challenging as ever, and the decision whether to remove kids or not is still the toughest one that front-line workers face.
But a positive set of stars have aligned in Delaware. With two years to go in his administration, Markell has proved himself to be a strong advocate for DFS, even doing "ride alongs" with caseworkers and spending a day with the state's hotline workers. It's very unlikely that the work the state has done to upgrade and update its policies and procedures will be undone.