The above discussion focuses on self-evaluation for the purpose of improving the internal performance of the agency in the areas of policy development and implementation, program development and modification, building staff capacity, and determining if the outcomes being achieved make a difference in the lives of children, families, and the community. This discussion focuses on the use of data and techniques of self-evaluation to build operational capacity within the Childrens Safety Net which results in better outcomes for children and families. The notion starts with the premise that community partners will always do the right thing for children and families if they can be presented with the empirical foundations which indicate what needs to be done to achieve those outcomes. The members of the Childrens Safety Net are constantly surveying the environment to determine what the community desires, identifying the needs of children and families, allocating their scarce financial and human resources to meet those needs, monitoring their agencies performance, and providing feedback to the community to demonstrate the accountability for the resources granted to them. Childrens Safety Net leaders are busy and are faced with many decisions every day. Those who can show that their proposed initiatives have the best opportunity to result in these better outcomes have a greater likelihood of being heard and having those initiatives embraced.
What follows are three examples set forth to demonstrate this premise. The first occurred during Cuyahoga County, Ohios (Cleveland) initial attempts to launch the Family to Family Initiative in the East Cleveland area. The consultants for the Annie E. Casey Foundation collected and analyzed foster care data of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). One of their findings was that eighty percent of the children in foster care came from a relatively small number of zip codes in the county. One of these zip codes included East Cleveland. Val Randle, the community collaborative coordinator for East Cleveland, with the strong support of the DCFS used this data in two significant ways to increase the operating capacity of the Childrens Safety Net.
There were no foster homes in East Cleveland, yet a significant number of children came from that area. She used the data to show the formal and informal leaders of the community this information. She met with churches, groups, families, and organizations and presented this data. She also had the information to indicate where the communitys children were placed. Many were placed in the suburbs and some out of county. This made visitation between parents and their children difficult and, in some cases, impossible. It also meant that the community was losing one of its precious resources: its young people.
The community responded to the challenge. Families volunteered to become foster parents. DCFS supported Vals efforts by offering training in the community instead of at the central agency, offering training on weekends and after hours, and providing other flexible ways to support community families to become foster parents without compromising the safety of children. Today, East Cleveland boasts more than two hundred and fifty licensed foster homes in a community where many said it could not be done. Children are remaining in their neighborhoods in those instances when they cannot safely stay with their birth parents. They are able to attend the same schools, churches, and maintain contact with their parents. Foster parents work with the birth parents to mentor positive parenting skills, and celebrate birthdays, superior grade cards, and holidays.
The second instance involved the East Cleveland Schools. The schools were busy trying to provide a quality education for the communitys children with a dwindling tax base. Val met with the superintendent and principals and again used the data to show how many children were leaving the community while in foster care. She and the school leadership calculated the number of students and the amount of revenue which was being lost per student. When these two variables were totaled, they discovered that the communitys schools were losing approximately $750,000 annually due to children being placed outside of East Cleveland. Because of this new data, the schools became full partners in the implementation of the Family to Family Initiative. The data provided a win-win situation. Not only could the schools better accomplish their mission of providing a quality education for the communitys children by partnering with the Initiative, but they gained considerably more financial resources with which to meet their educational needs.
A third example of external applications of agency self-evaluation involves the courts and the placement of unruly and delinquent children into the foster care system. In Ohio (as in most jurisdictions), courts have four primary dispositions available to them. They can return the child home, sentence the youth to the juvenile or adult corrections systems, grant custody to the public child protection agency, or in the courts that have a service delivery system attached to the court (in addition to probation), provide court-directed community social services. As you can see, the courts alternatives are limited. Few have community social services other than probation. Few children commit offenses severe enough to warrant commitment to the juvenile or adult correction systems. Oftentimes, parents cannot or will not provide care for their teenage youth. This leaves the court with only one acceptable alternative: commitment to the children services agency.
An analysis of all children in foster care indicated that at least one in six youth who were in foster care were placed there as a result of an unruly or delinquent adjudication. In Ohio, this meant almost six thousand children were placed into the custody of a public children services agency due to delinquent or unruly acts (PCSAO Factbook, 2001-2002). These young people were often placed outside of their home communities at significant taxpayers cost because community foster parents oftentimes did not have the skill or desire to provide the care or meet the needs of a troubled teenager.
The outcomes for these children were often poor. Many remained in placement until their eighteenth birthday, left the foster care system, and either became homeless, went on to enter the adult corrections system because of legal violations, worked in minimum wage jobs, or returned home to their parents.
Counties began to collect the data to show these trends, including information about each child in foster care, the reason for the entrance into foster care, the cost of care, and the progress the child was making. This information was provided to the courts, county commissioners, and agency staff on a monthly basis. Awareness was heightened among all participants.
The courts and agencies often deal with children on a case by case basis. Because of this, there was little understanding of the cumulative financial and programmatic impact of the many individual decisions which had been made over time. Cases were not being investigated and assessed on a timely basis, children were not being safely reunified in a timely fashion, and other children were not being placed for adoption in a timely fashion because resources which would have gone to hire staff to do these functions were being spent on placements for unruly and delinquent youth who were having poor outcomes.
A number of courts, public children services agencies, and county commissioners began to develop mediation programs to address disputes between teenagers and their parents and develop alternatives to foster and residential care placements. Several children services agencies began to provide courts with financial resources to develop court-directed community-based service alternatives to out-of-home placement. The state of Ohio pursued a strategy called the “Family Stability Incentive Program” which financially rewarded counties that reduced their out-of-home placements. These financial incentives could be used to develop new community-based alternatives to foster care placement. A number of courts became certified to receive Title IV-E reimbursement for placements and administrative costs. This funding provided courts with new resources to develop community-based services including supportive services and community alternatives to placement. Other counties developed managed care agreements with private providers specifying outcomes for individual children, case reviews, predetermined length of stay, and contained costs for treatment. Through the collection and analysis of data, agencies, elected officials, the courts, and the members of the Childrens Safety Net saw a problem and developed a variety of interventions which began to address that problem. Is it solved? By no means. Is it better than before? Yes, and the data indicates that it is. Is there room to continue to improve? Absolutely. Are agencies and other stakeholders on the right road? Yes. Do the agencies need to continue tracking where they are going? Most certainly. Will they need to make other adjustments? Probably. How will they know what to do and when to do it? From the data.
This awareness, adjustment, and increase in operational capacity would never have occurred without first collecting the data, analyzing it, presenting it to the stakeholders who had the authority to adjust the system, tracking the results of the adjustment over time, and continuing to make refinements. Courts, county commissioners, members of the Childrens Safety Net, parents, and the community will make adjustments and do what is necessary to achieve better outcomes for their children if provided the data that demonstrates the need for change. Based on the focus group research discussed earlier and from feedback provided by elected officials, appointed officials, and parents who are themselves a microcosm of the general public, it is clear that the public expects no less.