September 01, 2015

Strengthening Families in Baltimore City

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Sixty-nine percent—that’s the drop in the number of children in Baltimore’s child welfare system from July 2007 (6725) to March 2015 (1986). The number hasn’t been that low since the 1970s and represents a dramatic shift away from how Baltimore’s Department of Social Services (DSS) has traditionally done its work by separating families and placing children in foster care. Describing this shift, Molly McGrath Tierney, director of Baltimore DSS, said “This is just not going to be our business anymore.” 

Tierney is guiding child welfare reforms targeting permanency for children in the city’s foster care system and emphasizing intervening with families before crises requiring protective services. She shared her strategies and lessons learned at the 4th National Parent Attorney Conference, July 22-23, 2015 in Washington, DC.*

Keeping Kids from Care: 4 Forces

Four forces came into play to reduce the percentage of children in care in Baltimore, according to Tierney.

Preventing kids from entering care. The agency reduced child intake by 15% by resetting how it makes decisions upfront about removing children from families. Instead of automatically removing children, the focus is now: when is a situation bad enough that the child should be brought in? In many cases, less-intrusive approaches—such as in-home services—can keep the family intact while helping the family, said Tierney.

Focusing on family reunification and not moving the finish line. Tierney described a common challenge child welfare agencies face when working with families toward reunification. “We take someone’s kid because of neglect or abuse, and then we start working with the parent on a plan to reunify with the child based on those factors. As soon as the parent starts to get close to having the child returned, more requirements are added (get a job, the house isn’t big enough)—the finish line keeps moving.” 

Tierney stressed the importance of working with families on the issue(s) that brought a child into care and avoiding adding new requirements. “We’re not going to solve all of the world’s problems. You can be unemployed, broke – that’s not the question. We have to focus on resolving the issue that brought the child into care.” By working with her staff to understand the boundaries, Tierney has created an agency-wide discipline that streamlines reunification work. The results are telling: half the kids entering care in Baltimore go home and half go home in the first year, said Tierney.

Finding relative and kin caregivers. A new priority on finding family members, relatives, and others with ties to a child is helping identify potential caregivers for children in care. Records searches, prompt paternity establishment, and “Family Find” tools are strategies Baltimore DSS is using, said Tierney. These tools improve the agency’s ability to place kids with relatives or kin. Citing the benefits of relative placement, Tierney said: “We know that this dramatically reduces the trauma they’ve experienced by staying in a home they’ve already slept in with someone who loves them and makes it much easier to get home or get into guardianship.” Tierney noted that about a third of kids in Baltimore’s child welfare system go into guardianship placements. 

Speeding adoptions. Once the linchpin of permanency in child welfare, adoption—placing children into newly configured families with whom they have no blood ties—is a shrinking body of Baltimore DSS’s work, said Tierney. It is key to permanency efforts for some children in care, however. The agency’s attention now centers on reducing the time these children spend waiting for adoption. 

Being Proactive not Reactive

The reduced numbers of children in care should not be confused with the idea that the agency is serving fewer people, cautioned Tierney. “We’ve just changed the intervention. Our business in in-home services and family preservation is booming,” she explained. “We’re trying hard to intervene with families with much less force. In-home family preservation is the next game.” 

Too often, the trigger for child welfare agencies is when someone picks up the phone and calls child protective services. At that point, it’s too late, said Tierney. Now the focus is knowing before someone picks up the phone and intervening before something happens. Tierney is working to engage community partners to share information so DSS can intervene one-on-one with families sooner. The idea is to look at indicators that may signal when the agency could help a family before a crisis—e.g., kids under age 12 who are arrested, families who show up in the ER with a child requesting a psychiatric evaluation.

Finding Patterns

“The future of child welfare in Baltimore is not a one-on-one worker-to-family intervention, said Tierney. “I hope this will soon be in our past.” In its place, Tierney envisions the ability to identify patterns in the populations child welfare serves by analyzing data, then using that knowledge to craft solutions. 

As an example she described the ability to analyze the homes of origin of children in care over the last three years, then organize that information by zip code. She could then narrow down the top zip codes where children in care were represented and look for patterns. “Once I know it’s in that zip code, imagine that I can get a street-level map and look at where children were taken from their homes and the reasons,” she said. After studying the reasons—lack of supervision, substance abuse, domestic violence—she would look for patterns and whether services exist to address them. 

“It isn’t about knowing what I should have done in those homes, it’s about the map and where they are located in relation to the pediatrician’s office, the school, the rec center, churches, and so forth.” said Tierney. “I then need to be in conversation with those organizations to work together to keep kids safe,” she said. Using the agency’s influence, changes could then be sought, such as requesting a day care center be located at an intersection convenient to families.

Tierney sees this approach to serving families as the wave of the future for Baltimore’s child welfare work. Through these efforts, child welfare starts to be viewed as a different force in the community. “Instead of being the baby snatchers, we can be a portal for getting families the help they need,” said Tierney.

Sharing Lessons

Tierney shared the following tips for child welfare advocates interested in Baltimore DSS’s approach to child welfare reform:

Set clear expectations. While Tierney hears from staff at all levels of the agency and gets their input and ideas, she does not build consensus or look for buy-in when setting expectations. As the director of a $650 million agency serving 250,000 people, Tierney says her job as an executive decision maker requires her to set clear expectations. “The lion’s share of government employees just want to know what they’re expected to do,” she said. By laying out the expected transactions clearly—who’s going to do what, by when, and how it will be measured—in a very public way, staff have a clear understanding of what is expected. 

Hold a bright line on reunification. Keep the finish line from moving for every parent with a child in care. Be specific about what needs to be done to achieve reunification. Be clear on expectations and how you’re going to know if the parent has satisfied them. Bring new “asks” to the judge’s attention and shoot up a red flag when the finish line moves.

Expand forums for decision making. The court room as a forum for decision making doesn’t always work well in child welfare because of its acrimonious nature. Team decision making meetings provide a chance for parents and children to meet and make decisions with a facilitator and with guidance from others involved in the case. They represent a substantial shift in approach that child welfare agencies need to make, said Tierney. She cautioned against parent attorneys advising their clients not to attend these meetings for fear it will put them at risk and extend how long the child welfare process takes. This deems them uncooperative in the eyes of the child welfare agency, which is counterproductive, she said.

Move past case management to community change. Identify the areas in the community that most need attention and target them. In Baltimore, the greatest needs exist in a handful of zip codes. Efforts are best spent focusing on meeting the needs in these communities on the front end.

Reshaping Baltimore DSS’s approach to child welfare has not been an easy path, said Tierney. This is largely because the effort has been entirely internally motivated. Tierney noted that having some external pressure (e.g., court-ordered mandates) would have made some aspects of the process easier. However, Baltimore’s progress shows that it is possible to make real reform happen when the motivation comes from within the agency, clear expectations are set for working with families in the child welfare system, and new ideas are embraced about how and when to intervene with families.

Claire Chiamulera, legal editor at ABA Center on Children and the Law, Washington, DC, is CLP’s editor.

*Molly McGrath Tierney presented the luncheon keynote, “Lessons for Strengthening Families Everywhere from Baltimore City Child Welfare,” at the 4th National Parent Attorney Conference in Washington, DC, hosted by the ABA Center on Children and the Law’s Parent Representation Project.