A Flurry of Hope: Reflections on the IL DCFS Child Welfare Transformation Summit

A wave of curious excitement filled the Grand Ballroom at the Westin Chicago on October 17, 2016. Child welfare professionals from all over the state bustled into the space, some having driven hours to find out what this three day meeting would be about. An all-star cast of giants in child welfare occupied the stage at the front of the room. Caseworkers, supervisors, and administrator eagerly made their way to unassigned seats, surprisingly finding themselves parked next to judges and investigators and foster parents, further heightening the question that was looming in the air:

What were we all doing here together?

Those in attendance quickly realized that the crowd was varied and diverse in a way that they had never seen at a mass gathering called by the Department of Children and Family Services. Towards the front of the room, a table full of current/former youth in care seemed to hold V.I.P. status, as they reconnected like long lost family. Nearby, birth parents sat huddled together, looking on in nervous uncertainty as to why they had finally been called to the table. What could the Department possibly want from them? Or from the 500 people who were expected to attend the Illinois Child Welfare Transformation Summit? It seemed that nobody knew.

Director Sheldon quickly brought the concept of the Summit into focus. He informed the crowd that he and his team, along with Casey Family Programs, had gathered us here to tear down the walls in child welfare. For the first time in the history of the Department, the various players of the field and across disciplines were being called together—literally at the same tables—as partners in change. The Summit was yet another revolutionary idea born of this man and his administration.

Throughout the day, spectators watched as more and more tables had to be carried in. By day two of the Summit, it was announced that over 900 people had brought their voice. At the head of the table, government entities that have historically struggled to come into solidarity finally sat together— unified over a single cause: the cause of serving children and families. Represented alongside the Department of Children and Family Services was the Department of Human Services and the Department of Corrections. The Summit was the vehicle for announcing a long overdue partnership between DOC and DCFS.

In the three days that I spent in Chicago, I had the pleasure of hearing from powerhouses such as Governor and First Lady Rauner, John Baldwin (Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections), and the Honorable Rita B. Garmen (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois). New ideas were brought forth by various speakers that seemed to focus on the compassionate engagement of birth families. Over the course of these three days, the birth families in attendance appeared to shed their nerves and find their voices. They embraced their power to help direct a system that some have felt depowered by as far back as their own childhoods.

It was clear from the three days I spent in Chicago that big changes have and will continue to come to our state. The Summit was a forum to inform the gamut of child welfare professionals about what those changes will look like. These new policies are clearly laid out within a five-year strategic plan, geared towards shifting IL child protection to a strengths-based, family centered approach. In line with these new policies, the Department will operate from the stance that children are best served within the context of their birth families and that timely reunification is the preferred permanency goal.

This has always been the heartbeat of child protection in the state of IL, but this new plan will place much greater emphasis on making efforts to keep families from ever dissolving in the first place. The approval of the 1115 Waver—a document that will greatly expand mental health services for struggling families—gives substance to this vision.

The driving force behind this political shift is the current administration’s belief that every child deserves to grow up in a “family” type setting. Illinois is not providing that experience for too many of our kids. Data suggests that Illinois DCFS is underperforming every other state in regards to timely permanence. According to information collected by Chapin Hall, the medium length of stay in DCFS foster care is 33 months, with 21 months being the average length of stay until return home. The hope is to shorten that latter number to under 1 year. In situations where timely return home is not possible, the hope is to move more quickly towards alternative permanency options, like adoption. One tenet of the five-year plan is to help remove the barriers that cause delays in adoption processes.

DCFS has already taken clear steps to ensure kids are in more natural family settings, by reducing the number of kids in shelter care by 50 percent. Aggressive efforts are being made on a state and local level to increase a child’s chance of success in traditional foster/adoptive homes. Foster parents and child welfare professionals are being called together at the community level to form local tasks forces, with the intent of ushering in a long overdue initiative, known as Q.P.I. or the Quality Parenting Initiative. In its most basic form, Q.P.I. is an effort to “rebrand foster care.” The state’s hope it to recruit higher “quality” homes, led by foster parents who understand the immense importance of supporting a child’s connection to his/her birth family through “shared parenting.” We are moving to a time where foster parents will be called to make a strong commitment to see a child’s case through, from beginning to end, no matter the outcome.

Much of these changes will be enacted at a local level. Department heads suggested that it is high time we break down bureaucratic walls and return power to local communities, who the Department admittedly said “better know the families they serve.” These community based efforts will be implemented and analyzed in four different geographic regions around the state, which are being called “Immersion Sites.” These include Lake County, the counties of Rock Island, St. Clair County, and the counties surrounding Mount Vernon. Each immersion site has been appointed a leader, who will work to effectively implement these new practices within local venues.

In line with this move away from a depersonalized bureaucracy, April M. Curtis (Innovation Advisor to Director Sheldon and former youth in care) also led a workshop about the need to create a greater sense of “normalcy” for kids in DCFS care. As part of this “Normalcy Initiative,” children in care and their foster parents will be encouraged to use greater discretion in exercising the most basic nature of their relationship: that of simply being parent and child. Some of the red tape that prevents our kids from easily participating in extracurricular activities or engaging in “normal” childhood things, like sleepovers or internet freedom, will be torn down. Foster parents will be encouraged to find their voice as one “parent” of the child—to ask questions and to use discretion in decision making, as they would for a child whom is legally theirs. The hope is to allow children a more natural experience of growing up, which better parallels that of their peers.

As a former youth in care myself, a foster/adoptive mother, and a social worker who has been employed by the state, I couldn’t help but share in the zing of excitement that seemed to run throughout the Summit. But there are still many things to work out, including the haunting questions that those of us in child protection must never stop asking:

Where is the line? How do we ensure a sense of balance in a system necessitated by chaos and fallen lives? How do we protect the greatest number of children?

In an imperfect world, which calls upon a need for a system of child protection, we will never find a perfect answer to those questions. But we must never stop trying. We must be a system of motion— always striving for better outcomes—refusing to simply settle on whatever imperfect place we currently find ourselves in. Those in child welfare seem to be saying that we have settled for too long. We have ignored the grave outcomes for most youth who grow up in foster care. We have failed to ask enough questions about why that is.

Commissioner Lopez of the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, said it best. He said, “When a child comes into care, they shouldn’t think of it as their pathway to prison, but rather as their golden ticket.”

Statistics show that this is not the current nature of the Illinois foster care experience. Our children are largely going out into the world to make their homes on our streets or in our criminal institutions. These outcomes are weighing us down. Like the white flecks that settle on the bottom of a stagnant snow globe, so has lain our hope in recent years. It is high time we shake things up and watch the beauty of hope and transformation swirl all around us.

It is high time that I be able to look around my world and see more people like myself, rising above the bottom.