LAWRENCE — Researchers at the University of Kansas have received a $3.7 million grant to help transition from a child welfare system that reacts to problematic home situations to one that provides resources and meets needs to prevent children from being removed from their families.
Researchers in KU’s School of Social Welfare and Center for Public Partnerships & Research received a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families to implement the Universal Prevention for Strong and Thriving Families, or Family Strong project. They will work with the Kansas Department for Children and Families and three community partner agencies to bolster universal community-based programs in southeast Kansas.
The goal of the project is to demonstrate a model of a community support system that addresses and alleviates family stressors before they become crises that result in contact with the child welfare system. The grant is one of six to establish Family Support through Primary Prevention sites across the country.
Key partners of Family Strong include Kansas Legal Services, Kansas Children’s Service League and the Family Resource Center (The Center) in Pittsburg. The project will initially work with community partners to determine strengths and gaps in existing systems, build enhanced partnerships, refine plans to ensure alignment with the goals of the community, and introduce new services and supports to assist families in need.
“The project is designed to be responsive to the needs of southeast Kansas and to build on the many strengths of the region to ensure the system of community-based support for children and families is comprehensive, connected, equitable and accessible to families,” said Kaela Byers, associate research professor of social welfare and principal investigator.
Children are often removed from families when adequate supports, resources and training could help address issues that initiate family contacts with agencies like Child Protective Services, according to researchers. Partners will begin by expanding and introducing new services at the Family Resource Center. The Center will serve as a hub for these services, also reaching into other surrounding counties in the region. For example, the team plans to expand the existing Family Response Advocate program to five additional counties, providing universal case management services to resolve needs before they escalate. Through the program, families will receive community-based support and service navigation from response advocates, including help resolving crises, avoiding evictions, paying bills and meeting other basic needs. The Center will also introduce a new preventative legal services program, providing access to free, quality legal consultation services to navigate issues such as Medicaid eligibility, housing insecurity and other legal needs affecting children and families.
Family Strong will also work with families and communities to reduce stigma around help seeking and accessing support. The team will promote the use of the 1-800-CHILDREN warm line, connecting families to support services and directing calls for basic needs to community agencies rather than Child Protective Services. This will be paired with a grassroots outreach and public health campaign promoting support for children and families as a community value and supporting the statewide efforts to become a mandated supporter state.
“As a family experiences crisis, there is a potential for ripple effects downstream, and those ripples can often be assessed as neglect,” said Meghan Cizek, assistant director of KU’s Center for Public Partnerships & Research and co-investigator.
Additionally, the project will boost the Integrated Referral and Intake System, known as IRIS, in southeast Kansas, a closed-loop referral system that connects family-serving agencies to streamline the referral and service coordination experience for families and ensure referrals result in service connections. Researchers described the process as a “warm handoff” between providers, ensuring families are connected with someone who can address their needs, instead of simply providing a phone number.
“We’re looking to change the philosophy of how we respond to family needs to reacting with support and sharing resources,” Byers said.
Cizek added “We want to change that, and our partners will help spread the message in a grassroots way. No one should be punished for being a family struggling to make ends meet. We want to keep families together.”
As a requirement of the federal demonstration, Family Strong includes an evaluation of the project’s initiatives to determine their effectiveness and expand the knowledge base about proactive approaches as the norm in family services. Jared Barton, assistant research professor at KU and lead evaluator of Family Strong, said, “The Family Strong initiative presents an exciting opportunity to understand the effectiveness of and build evidence for universal prevention programs supporting the well-being of children and families in a comprehensive way. Not only are we are examining outcomes for individual families, we’ve also designed the evaluation to examine its impact at changing systems, organizations and community norms.”
The team will also identify community members to serve on a steering committee, including people who have successfully accessed resources to address family crises. These key partners will be integral to every aspect of the Family Strong project, from planning to disseminating the results.
“Meaningful involvement of our partnering communities, including families with lived experience, is crucial to achieving our overarching project goal of transforming the Kansas child welfare system. Not only will we be illuminating families’ experiences within the system, but we will also produce high-quality and truly relevant research” said Whitney Grube, KU associate researcher and co-investigator.
The project will partner with Allen, Bourbon, Cherokee, Crawford, Labette, Montgomery, Neosho and Wilson counties. Kansas Department for Children and Families data has shown that southeast Kansas has disproportionate levels of out-of-home foster care placement for children compared to the state population. Rates have also increased nationwide in recent years.
“The Family Strong project will allow us to be more intentional in developing systems and community structures that prioritize prevention over placement, keeping children and families together,” said Becci Akin, associate professor and co-investigator.
“Every child deserves the opportunity to be part of a permanent and loving family,” said U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran. “I’m pleased to see KU leading the nation in creating innovative approaches to produce better futures for children in the foster care system.”
Image: Twente Hall, home of the KU School of Social Welfare. Credit: KU Marketing Communications.