Lessons Learned: Home at Last (Fall 2010 Trust Magazine Article)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Glee Holton

11/19/2010 - “I entered Florida’s foster care system at age 13. Over the next five years, I lived in 12 group homes. I had no opportunity to build a relationship with a mom or dad and no one to offer the guidance I sorely needed to transition from being a teenager to an adult. At 18, I was told that I was an adult and had to leave the group home. With nowhere else to go, I entered a homeless shelter on my 18th birthday. I was still in high school and afraid to ask for help.”

That is the story of Tyler Bacon, whose experience epitomized many of the problems in the nation’s foster care system. Foster care is designed to serve as a temporary safe haven for abused and neglected children—a short-term refuge where children may take shelter until a permanent home can be found. In practice, however, like Tyler Bacon, too many children wait for years to be returned to their birth families or be sent to new permanent homes and too often spend their childhood in the system. In 2002, nearly 600,000 children were in foster care where, on average, they would spend three years and live with three different families. Moreover, approximately 20,000 of the oldest foster children were “aging out” of the foster care system each year, beginning their adult lives without the benefit of a safe and stable home environment.

Recognizing the urgency of the problem, in 2002 Pew’s Health and Human Services program (now called the Pew Health Group), developed a new initiative to improve the system. The effort aimed to address two root causes of the problem in foster care. One was the undesirable incentive created by federal financing policy, in which the federal government provided states with matching funds for foster care expenses but not for adoption expenses. The other was the lack of accountability among state and local court systems for moving children quickly and effectively to permanent families.

Pew staff designed a three-part strategy that included a commission to convene key stakeholders to analyze the problems and develop policy solutions regarding federal financing and court accountability measures; communications and outreach to educate key policy makers, diverse public stakeholders and the media about the issues and advocacy activities to create support for the policies recommended by the commission.

The first phase of the strategy, the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, was launched in 2003. A year later, the commission released 10 recommendations on reforms for the court system and federal financing, and Pew provided financial and strategic support to grantee organizations to conduct communications, outreach and advocacy activities in support of these recommendations.

In 2004, Pew’s transition from a foundation to a public charity had a significant impact on the foster care strategy. The move meant that Pew was able to move beyond funding to directly operating its own campaigns. So, starting in 2006, Pew established internal projects to directly manage the initiative. Pew did, however, continue to fund and partner with field organizations to maintain a coalition focused on the same goals of reform. After the conversion from foundation to charity, Pew’s board approved direct lobbying activities. This proved to be a critical element of the strategy. It allowed the campaign to play a strong “inside game” in which staff leveraged their considerable legislative experience and expertise to cultivate congressional champions and working relationships with congressional staff. Ultimately, as the evaluation found, staff’s fluency with the processes involved in working on Capitol Hill turned out to be a key factor in the campaign’s success.

In 2008, Pew’s Planning and Evaluation unit launched an evaluation of the organization’s efforts in foster care. The evaluation sought to identify progress the strategy had made toward its objectives, understand the contributions of Pew and its partners, and identify lessons that could be broadly applicable to Pew’s work. Planning and Evaluation recruited two senior professionals who together had expertise in foster care as well as experience in public policy, advocacy and evaluation. The lead evaluator, Tom Novick, of M+R Strategic Services, had more than 30 years of experience in public policy issues at the state and national level and led notable campaigns throughout his career. The second evaluator, Mark Nadel, was an academic director at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, and held senior positions at the U.S. Social Security Administration and U.S. General Accounting Office.

The evaluation identified several aspects of the campaign that were fundamental to its ultimate success:

  • The nonpartisan and interdisciplinary membership of the commission, as well as the quality of its work product, ensured that the commission and their findings carried credibility for stakeholders. The significant effort that went into publicizing the commission’s work proved critical to ensuring that it was disseminated to appropriate audiences, including advocates and policy makers at the state and federal level.
  • The foster care strategy demonstrated the importance of a campaign’s ability to identify individuals or constituencies who care about the campaign’s issues, conduct effective outreach to reach those groups, and activate and expand the base to advocate for reform. For its work in the courts, the campaign cultivated important champions among key judicial leaders, creating a catalyst for change in the courts throughout a number of states. In the federal financing arena, the strategy targeted and gained the support of specific policy makers whose influence would prove crucial to the passage of the final bill.
  • The campaign attracted media coverage designed to gain the attention of both the public as well as particular legislators. The campaign also organized and executed engaging, high-profile public events that involved the direct participation of children in foster care. Their presence put a human face on the issues.
  • The campaign brought together groups of adoption, foster care and relative guardianship advocates who did not frequently work together and rarely coordinated with each other, and helped forge consensus on a single set of goals. Pew also worked as an effective coordinator, providing expertise, funding, communications support and policy analysis that sustained an effective public presence with a unified message.
In sum, the evaluation found that Pew played a decisive role in advancing significant reforms in foster care at the federal and state levels:

  • Pew encouraged reforms to help local and state courts move children more quickly through the foster care system and into safe, permanent families. These changes include

    • increased collaboration between child welfare systems and the courts;
    • strengthened judicial leadership on improving court performance in foster care cases; 
    • greater opportunities for children to have a direct voice in their own court proceedings; and 
    • policy changes requiring courts to track foster care cases and stay accountable to measures that ensure responsible management of cases.
  • Pew’s efforts were crucial to the approval of federal funding—$100 million over five years—granted to states for making improvements in handing foster care cases.
  • The 2008 enactment of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act incorporated several reforms that were recommended by the commission, including federal funding to support placing foster care children with relatives; eliminating income requirements for parents to receive federal assistance when adopting children in foster care with special needs; bypassing states and providing federal funding directly to tribal governments that operate child welfare programs; and permitting states to use federal funds to continue services for older youth in foster care, guardianships and adoptions until the age of 21.
In 2008, the country was in the second year of a divided government— a retiring president of one party and a Congress with majorities in both chambers from the other party. With the federal government dominated by extreme partisanship and a virtual gridlock between the executive and legislative branches, the conventional wisdom among veteran political observers was that little of significance would pass. The passage of reform in that moment of history was a major success and a critical step toward improving the prospects of hundreds of thousands of children in foster care.

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