Transforming the child welfare system in California

Providing for the safety and protection of children is perhaps the most critical and challenging function performed by government. What could be more important than the responsibility of protecting children at risk of abuse, neglect or even death? The provision of child welfare services is a nuanced and complex undertaking — balancing the right of parents to raise their children with the responsibility to protect children, the most vulnerable among us.

Since the inception of child welfare, California has struggled with this charge. Navigating the delicate balance of child protection and parental rights has resulted in complex policy. There have been notable tragedies, despite the state’s best efforts.

Throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, policies intended to keep children safe led to thousands of children being removed from their homes and placed in foster care or group homes. The results were disastrous, a system ill-prepared to meet the needs of the children entrusted to it, as families that could have been preserved were torn apart. During this time, solutions were proposed to reform the child welfare system, most of which ended up as reports never fully examined or implemented.

With the inception of wraparound services in the late 1980s, child welfare began to change. Wraparound was initially developed as a means to maintain children with the most serious emotional and behavioral problems in their homes and communities, rather than place them in residential treatment or group care. A new emphasis on supportive services to families, including the support of kin and relative caregivers, began to demonstrate that in many cases families could be preserved rather than separated. These changes set the stage for a reinvigorated effort: to re-examine the best ideas for reform in child welfare and creatively envision a new path forward.

This effort brings new urgency, as well as increased accountability and examination from the press and the public. While urgency in child welfare is not new, what has changed is the leadership of a new administration. Ideas such as mandatory accreditations of child welfare agencies, integrated mental health services and permanency as an absolute standard for every child have been put forward with new promises of excellence and efficiency. This effort is being led by Director of the California Department of Social Services Will Lightbourne.

Prior to his appointment, Lightbourne led innovations that are among the most important in the history of California’s child welfare system, including the implementation of the first wraparound programs. Wraparound, along with other initiatives, has led to the reduction of placement in out-of-home care for foster youth by providing critical support for families who want to care for their children but did not have the necessary resources to do so.

Under Lightbourne’s leadership, his agency has been transformed. Recognizing that traditional methods of reform have been ineffective, he brought together interests from across the state in a consensus-building process that has resulted in creative, solution-focused innovations with buy-in at every level, including his own staff. These innovative solutions include: significant reform of systems that access and deliver mental health to foster youth resulting from a federal class action lawsuit; the expansion of mental health services to any youth with Medi-Cal; the reduction of congregate care and the increase of permanency for youth in care to name a few.

While child welfare reform in California is still in its infancy, Lightbourne’s work has been significant. He’s done so in the background, without recognition for his creativity or leadership, demonstrating that success belongs to no single person. While some failures persist in the system, Lightbourne has persevered — quietly committed to leading California in the monumental endeavor of affecting real change in child welfare reform.

Ken Berrick is chief executive officer of Seneca Family of Agencies, which helps at-risk children and families throughout California overcome life’s toughest challenges, and co-author of the book “Unconditional Care: Relationship-Based, Behavioral Intervention with Vulnerable Children and Families.”

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