Academic journal article Child Welfare

Building Learning Organizations within Public Child Welfare Agencies through Internal Research Capacity

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Building Learning Organizations within Public Child Welfare Agencies through Internal Research Capacity

Article excerpt

Historically, child welfare has oriented toward complying with state or federal policies and responding to advocacy groups or events, with less understanding on how to achieve desirable child and family results (Testa &Poertner, 2010). Recent innovations support a shift to strengthening child welfare's evidence base and results focus. The advent of administrative data systems within most public child welfare agencies supports a greater capacity to understand child and family needs and agency practices, and use this information to shape policies, programs, and services designed to improve outcomes. The Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) measures states' performance on standardized measures of casework quality and outcomes and follows through with agency program improvement plans (Children's Bureau [CB], 2012). To support best practices for states, tribes and courts, the CB established a network of capacity-building centers and is promoting the evaluation and dissemination of evidence-based practices (EBP) (Testa et ah, 2014). The CB further directed states and tribes, to establish continuous quality improvement (CQI) systems with a specified structure (Administration for Children and Families (ACF), 2012) and a problemsolving process taught through a nationwide academy (CB express, 2014) aimed to improve outcomes.

As a baseline in 2012, the National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement (NRCOI) conducted semi-structured interviews with CQI leads in 26 states. In discussing their CQI systems, state staff highlighted their case review process often with the assumption that case reviews equaled CQI processes. State training for CQI staff focused primarily on the case review process with very limited skill building in data analysis or use. Despite differing CQI efforts, respondents expressed a strong desire to move toward a more improvementbased approach but labored to strategically introduce and use data and realign limited resources for comprehensive CQI systems. Based on experiences with helping eight states broaden their CQI efforts, staff from the NRCOI (Winter/Spring, 2014) identified three themes. First, states needed consistent leadership and communication about the purpose of CQI as CQI systems evolve over time. Although all eight states had a case review process, they struggled to use case review data to drive improvement, to integrate case review results with other administrative data and to portray a consistent picture of performance across administrative and case review data. Third, all states struggled to use data reports and conduct analysis to inform program improvement.

Improving agencies' ability to manage for results has also been addressed in numerous GAO reports (see summary, GAO, 2013) and is the focus of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993. Actualizing this vision has been difficult. Among 148,300 surveyed managers in federal agencies, only 37% reported having an evaluation in the past five years on any project they were overseeing (GAO, 2013). Compared to other federal agencies, the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO, 2013) cited the ACF as having a mature evaluation structure, a rigorous evaluation approach and better integration of research and practice than most federal agencies. ACF embeds expectations and funding for program evaluation into grant initiatives and hosts conferences for dissemination of research findings and best practices.

Although these efforts are still maturing, the child welfare outcomes report for 2008-2011 (CB, 2013) showed variability in outcome measures, but flat trends in achievement of important national standards. While adoption timelines improved and the use of institutional placements declined, numerous challenges were identified such as placement stability, services to children with disabilities, and the plight of adolescents in foster care. The report concluded that the national child welfare-related data systems were insufficient to provide deeper analysis of many challenges, and encouraged the "field to further review and address the issues" (p. …

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