University of Vermont

University Communications

All in the Family: UVM Helps Overhaul Child Welfare in the State

Gale Burford, professor in social work and director of the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership, and his colleagues are helping the state implement a cutting edge, family-centered initiative designed to produce better outcomes for children navigating the foster care system. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Gale Burford, professor in social work and director of the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership (CWTP), has long advocated for more inclusion of family members when determining the best place for a child in the foster care system to live. The Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) has been in the process for several years now of adopting a more family-centered, inclusive model that emphasizes family and children's rights and responsibilities, and is working in partnership with the University of Vermont to implement it.

Such a major philosophical shift requires changes in policy and practice, something the state is currently working on integrating into its new plan. It's relying on the CWTP in the College of Education and Social Services for training, feedback and evaluation. With help from a federal grant, DCF, a longtime partner of the CWTP, has hired additional employees who are partnering closely with staff at the CWTP regarding quality assurance and evaluation.

“This is a tectonic shift in thinking about child protection, a new way of doing business,” says Burford. “There’s an entire generation who thinks child services' job is simply to take children away from families. The protection of children is a community responsibility and shouldn’t be reduced to a social worker pushing their way into your life. It’s become much more about engaging people as partners in making their own plans, rather than doing investigations, taking children into custody, and then telling people ‘This is what you are going to do if you want your child back.’ For a whole lot of reasons, dating back to shifts in federal policy in the 1980s, child protection became an overly risk averse, fear-driven practice that focused on compliance to ensure safety in children."

Despite the public image of social workers in child protection constructed during that time, Burford says that "evidence from our evaluation of the changes Vermont is making shows that most people who end up having a social worker involved with them in child protection and youth justice feel respected and report that they got needed help."

Keeping it in the family

One of the key elements of the new approach is to include as many extended family members as possible when deciding where a child should live. The main idea behind "kin-care” is to keep children within the extended family unit whenever possible. Too often children “age out” of the system at 18 and end up homeless, incarcerated, without needed education or job-related skills, and only then go searching for their biological families. Preliminary data shows that the average number of children in state custody has dropped from about 1,600 per day to around 1,000, with many more children and young people either staying with their parents or with kin.

"This is being accomplished while the state continues to achieve high evaluations on safety measures for children," says Burford. "For many children, safety can be achieved by working closely with families. The shift in practice necessitates greater support for those kin who step up to the plate."

Burford says opponents of the more family-centered approach contend that it compromises the safety of children by not being more aggressive in removing children from potentially dangerous situations where re-abuse might occur. He argues that the results on the tail-end need to be weighed as potentially more damaging. “If I take your child away from you and keep them in state care until they’re 18, I may show good safety measures because they’re in a home or facility, but this can come at a high price in loss of permanent connections with family," says Burford, who hopes to turn the CWTP into an institute or have it attain training academy status to help make the effort more visible and sustainable. “The problem is that when you let young people go at age 18, when the money runs out, too often they end up undereducated, unemployed and going into the mental health or corrections systems."

"Now we’re looking early on to other family members to create or preserve connections even if the child has to stay in foster care, because young people need lifelong connections, and the system hasn’t done well in the past because we’ve cut off those connections while the child is in the care of the state. There wil never be enough high-quality foster and adoptive homes for all the children who need them. States must work closely with families, including interested grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives, in addition to recruiting and training foster parents.”

Burford started collecting data on the use of family engagement strategies in Vermont in 2006 to assist in developing training in the new approaches. After initially encouraging the partnership to offer training in these approaches to districts that were willing to take them on voluntarily, the state formalized this direction in 2010. With the help of a grant from the Northeast and Caribbean Child Welfare Implementation Center, the state Family Services Division has provided leadership and support to all 12 districts in the state to transform practices. "This has been a big shift in thinking for country and state governments who have been running on this very narrow investigative, blame-focused path since the early 1980s,” says Burford, adding that Vermont has taken on a "top-to-bottom shift" in its policies and practices.

“Gale is a national guru on family group conferencing, and under his guidance the Child Welfare Training Partnership has provided invaluable research, data and training in this area for the state,” says Cheryle Bilodeau, policy and operations manager and juvenile justice director for Family Services and former training coordinator with the CWTP. “UVM provides the state with model fidelity and helps us evaluate how our practices are working.”

Getting back to the basics of helping families

Sarah Gallagher, former coordinator of the CWTP partnership as an employee for the state, now coordinates the program as an employee of the university. In this role, she manages training programs for social workers and supervisory staff, including a three-week orientation that incorporates the central practices of engagement strategies such as family group conferencing for partnering with families in a more respectful, courteous tone.

The CWTP, funded through Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, DCF, UVM and separate grants and contracts, also provides targeted, skills-based training and consultation for teams in districts, which are assigned a CWTP training coordinator to cover such topics as management consultation; team development; strategic planning; family safety planning and family group conferencing; case consultation; and collaboration and coalition building for culturally sensitive, community-centered child and family practice. It also provides training for foster, adoptive and kin parents who are required to complete an 18-hour "Foundations for Kin, Foster and Adoptive Families" training course.

Ruth Houtte, director of a district office of the Family Services Division, participated in training to implement family group conferencing in her St. Johnsbury District Office. Her staff reported that family group conferencing helped “establish or reestablish family relationships, increased the options available to families, opened the lines of communication between the families and the agency; and led to positive outcomes that would not have been possible using a traditional child welfare approach.”

Gallagher recalls a time earlier in her career in the 1980s when an explosion of referrals due to newly enacted mandated reporter laws, increased awareness of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and a reduction in the number of social workers forced the state to adopt a case management model, and court intervention took over. She's looking forward to returning to a system that puts children first and allows her to have a positive impact on families.

“Working with families...is the reason I got into social work in the first place," says Gallagher. "This approach isn’t ‘keep children in the family at all costs and by any means.’ It’s designed to empower families by providing resources to support their child and keep them safe.”