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President signs Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act

October 18, 2011

Mersediez (center) and her mother, Michelle (left), have reconnected with the assistance of Tiffany Ross (right), a Youth Villages staff member in our Jackson, Miss., office. With the enactment of the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act, more families will be have access to in-home programs such as the ones Youth Villages provides.

Last month, President Obama signed legislation that could make a big difference for the children and families who need our help.

In part because of two years of advocacy by Youth Villages, Congress passed, and the President signed, the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act. The law reauthorizes waivers allowing states to use federal dollars for more than just foster care or residential services.

Because of this legislation, Youth Villages’ intensive in-home services can now be considered by our states for wider implementation in their child welfare systems. Some states may be able to use it for the first time. It gives the most effective child welfare programs, like ours, a secure funding stream.

Why is this important for Youth Villages?

In 1994 we changed the way we did everything at Youth Villages. Up until then, we believed the best way to help troubled children was to remove them from their often chaotic families and help them in residential treatment. Some children stayed with us for many years, raised by our counselors.

We found that many children couldn’t go home because there had been no change in their families — in the home, school and community environment. Those who did go home often failed. Although they were successful in our structured residential setting, they reverted to their previous behaviors at home. Nothing had changed there. They came back to us or went to other residential programs, psychiatric hospitals or jail.

We discovered that the best way to bring long-term success to children was to help their families. We established our intensive in-home services programs, brought counselors directly into the home, made them available 24/7. We did whatever it took to support parents and help them take responsibility for their children. We helped them develop the structure, safety and supervision practices needed. We taught them about their child’s emotional and behavioral problems and how best to manage them. Instead of treating parents as the problem, we saw them as the solution. It was revolutionary in 1994.

We found that this approach, what we call Evidentiary Family Restoration, works. To prove it to skeptics — and there were lots of them — we began tracking every child we helped at six, 12, and 24 months after they completed our program. We found that our success rates were double those of traditional services, and that the program cost a fraction of the amount paid for foster care, residential treatment or children’s psychiatric hospitals.

We began talking to officials in our home state of Tennessee and in other states, showing them our growing data base on our intensive in-home programs, urging them to do what works best for children: provide intensive research- and evidence-based help to their families.

As our data grew, we could tell state leaders that Youth Villages had helped thousands of children with serious emotional and behavioral problems and their families. We could say that our success rates were more than 80 percent, that our program was twice as effective as traditional services at one-third to one-quarter the cost.

But it was still hard to get states to implement our program on a broad basis.

Why?

The most common reason was a lack of funding. About 60 percent of the funding states use for their child welfare systems comes from the federal government through Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. That funding came with strings attached: It could be used primarily for buying a bed for a child in foster care or residential services. Services like our in-home program had to be paid for by the few state dollars available or from much smaller pots of federal funding. In most states, there simply weren’t enough dollars to fund programs like ours adequately – to provide the intense work it takes to strengthen a family and prevent a child from entering foster care or to reunite families separated for lengthy periods.

Youth Villages was among the advocates for IV-E waivers, for allowing states to use federal funds flexibly to develop innovative services that would reform their child welfare systems, help children find permanency quickly, reunite children who had been in foster care many years with their families. Congress had given permission for states to apply for IV-E waivers, allowing them to use the federal dollars in innovative ways, but waiver legislation had expired.

The Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act will give us the opportunity to help more children and families. Youth Villages’ intensive in-home services can now be considered by states for wider implementation in their child welfare systems. Some states may be able to use it for the first time. It gives the most effective child welfare programs, like ours, a secure funding stream for the first time.

Many states across the country are trying to bring reform to their child welfare systems. This law opens up new possibilities for them. There are more than 3.5 million children in child welfare systems across the country, 425,000 in foster care. Youth Villages believes that as many as half of them could go home if the right intensive help could be provided to their families.

This new law makes that help possible for more children in more states.

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