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Partners in Progress: Improving Outcomes through Systemic Change

Published: January 28, 2003
Child and Family Services Reviews, Foster Care
Publications related to the CFSRs

Presentation by Joan Ohl at Annual Meeting of States and Tribes

I want to thank you all for coming here together in Washington for these few days to discuss one of the most important and visible initiatives that the Federal government has undertaken in recent years to improve child welfare services in the country - the Child and Family Services Review.

Last year, when many of you were here to discuss the reviews, we had completed reviews in the first 17 States. We have now reviewed 32 States and have approved 12 program improvement plans on our way to reviewing all States, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico by early 2004. We have learned many very important lessons through this process, and this meeting provides us an opportunity to share what we have learned with you, and for you to share with us the knowledge and experience that you have gained thus far.

We have entitled this meeting "Partners in Progress," knowing that we all have critical roles in this tremendous effort. We are very fortunate to have here our partners from nearly all the State child welfare agencies, the country's largest cities, the tribes with whom we collaborate in this process, and our technical assistance providers from the National Resource Centers. We are all partners in this effort, and we must use our partnerships effectively if we are to see the progress in child welfare that we anticipate resulting from the Child and Family Service Reviews.

During the past two years, the attention of the entire field of child welfare has been drawn to the Child and Family Service Reviews because of the opportunity the reviews present to have such positive effects on the outcomes of child welfare services for children and families across the country. This effort also has the attention of Congress, which authorized the Department of Health and Human Services to re-vamp its methods for reviewing State child welfare programs in 1994, and continues to follow our progress in implementing the reviews. And, as many of you know quite well, the reviews have drawn the attention of the media as more and more States undergo reviews, and as information from the reviews becomes public knowledge.

While this attention to your work and to the findings of the reviews may create some anxieties for us, I believe that in the long run all of the attention is a good thing. It is good because, in a time when we routinely hear and read about so many tragedies that occur in child welfare programs across the country, we have this opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to evaluating ourselves critically and to making improvements where they are needed. It is good because we can use the reviews to acknowledge not only those parts of our programs that need improving, but also what we are doing right to serve children and families. And, finally, it is good because we have, through the CFSR, an opportunity to demonstrate that we can take on even the most challenging problems in child welfare when we work together as partners toward common goals.

We are at a crucial point in the Child and Family Service Review process. Until recently, our efforts have been primarily focused on gathering information through the reviews. Now, we must turn our attention to how we use that information to improve the ways we serve children and families through meaningful Program Improvement Plans. This is the most important part of the process. What you do now with the knowledge you have gained, and will gain, through this process will probably be the most important factor affecting the quality of child welfare services in the country for years to come. If we use the information only to make short-term fixes, while failing to address the underlying practice issues that affect the outcomes for children and families most directly, then we will surely not see the kind of results from this process that we are all hoping for. In fact, we know that there are no easy answers to the very complex issues facing child welfare.

Through the Program Improvement Planning process, we are looking for true systemic changes that will lead to lasting improvements in the way that we operate our programs. You will hear much about systemic change throughout this meeting, and that is what we are striving for as we move forward. By systemic change, I am referring to changes that target:

  • the culture of child welfare agencies in the country,
  • the values and beliefs that underlie the way we work with children and families,
  • the ways in which we work together with our partners in each State who are so essential to the work we do,
  • the capacity of our agencies to support good practice and positive outcomes, and most importantly,
  • the day-to-day practice of child welfare in the field.

If we settle for anything less than this kind of change, we will not be taking full advantage of the opportunity before us, and we will not send the message to the public that we are indeed serious about reforming child welfare in this country. At the same time, we know that achieving systemic change in child welfare is neither quick nor easy.

We recognize that States throughout the country are facing budget shortfalls and tight resources on many fronts. Other factors, such as highly publicized child deaths and other tragedies affect the direction that States take in changing their programs. These factors make it all the more important to develop and use the partnerships that you have within your States to make the most of the resources and the talents that you have available.

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