Alabama's Comprehensive Child Welfare System Reform

By Walley, Page | Policy & Practice, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Alabama's Comprehensive Child Welfare System Reform


Walley, Page, Policy & Practice


On January 16, 2007, U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent issued an order of national significance. After 19 years of federal court oversight, Alabama's child welfare system not only met the high expectations of the court, but also demonstrated an unsurpassed ability to provide for the safety and well-being of children and families in distress. With that, he dissolved the R.C. v. Walley settlement agreement, making Alabama perhaps the first state to comprehensively exit such federal oversight.

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While the ruling has garnered national attention, the child welfare system created and maintained in Alabama is the story. The change of philosophy, employee training and development, caseload standards, citizen oversight committees, performance measurement, all undergirded with improved technology and additional financial and personnel resources, represents an epic metamorphosis. The work of employees, advocates, service providers, foster families and government officials committed to change and willing to abide by the law of the harvest--you reap what you sow; you reap later than you sow; and you reap more than you sow--has resulted in a bounty that few imagined possible 20 years ago.

In 1986, Jefferson County (Birmingham) Circuit Judge Sandra Storm ordered a child, initials "R.C.," into Alabama's foster care system. In what Storm described as a "nightmarish, long journey through hospital mental wards, psychotropic medication and separation from his family," R.C. experienced a shameful maltreatment that symbolized the shortcomings of an entire system.

At that time, a governor-appointed commission discerned that the average caseload of child welfare caseworkers in Alabama was 65. There was inadequate training for caseworkers, child abuse allegations left uninvestigated, antiquated equipment for caseworkers' use, and on and on. The child welfare system was failing Alabama's most needy. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the state on behalf of R.C. at the request of his father, and the state agreed to enter into a consent decree requiring radical improvement--or "conversions"--of its child welfare system in each of the state's 67 counties.

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While space does not allow for a comprehensive enumeration of what was done to transform from then to now, some cardinal principles and accomplishments merit special mention.

First, each county, under oversight of the state office, developed a system of care founded on the principles that: 1) children should live with their families when they can do so safely, 2) comprehensive services should be provided to children and their families, 3) regular family-planning meetings with the family and the individualized community support teams should be held with reunification, relative placement, or adoption as their focus, and 4) reports of child abuse and neglect should be rapidly investigated.

In addition, the state and each county developed citizen-composed quality assurance committees to review practice and outcome information related to the improvement efforts. Report cards for each county's child-welfare performance were created and permanently and publicly posted on the Department of Human Resources' web site. The report card consists of a four-level ranking of the respective county's performance over a six-month period based on the following indicators: 1) Safety -- cases of abuse/neglect, or CANS, pending, prevention assessments pending more than 90 days, and response time of initial contacts on CANs received; 2) Permanency -- no compelling reasons/termination of parental rights 15 of last 22 months, TPR petitions overdue greater than 90 days for children with adoption as the permanency plan; 3) Qualitative Items (from reviews of cases by County QA Committees) -- average child and family status rating, average system performance rating.

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Employee professionalism was enhanced by a tiered social-work classification. …

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