Posted Thursday, June 27, 2024 by Brittany Traylor

New Ideas and Innovations Aiming to Fill the Gap in Child Welfare

“Even when child protective services is engaged, proactive help is rarely forthcoming. Despite the good intentions of system administrators and caseworkers, the cumulative result is too many families — and millions of children — dangling on the fringes of security and stability. This story is not destiny. The key is to modify the child welfare paradigm from one of reaction to one of prevention. We can do this by changing the basic question animating the entire modern child welfare system from ‘Is this child safe?’ to ‘What do families need to thrive?’” 

          — Sam Gill and JooYeun Chang, Doris Duke Foundation, The Imprint, “Why We’re Opting in to Invest in Supporting Families

Child welfare leaders across the country are recognizing the need to rethink, restructure, and improve child welfare systems to focus on prevention. Many states and counties have the same goal and have begun putting new programs, partnerships, and initiatives in place, from developing workforce strategies to fill vacancies to modernizing technology and support systems, and everything in between.

All these ideas have a common goal: to reimagine child welfare in a way that puts families first. Keep reading to learn more about some of the creative ideas and strategies being put into practice today that contribute to improving and enhancing child welfare systems, including:

  • Partnering with community-based organizations to support families’ needs
  • Task forces and legislative initiatives to improve prevention-based practices
  • New initiatives to reform mandated reporting policies




Intentional partnerships between state agencies and non-profit organizations can make such a huge impact in child welfare through community-based response. Involving the community supports longevity, safety, and a continuous assessment of needs, which in turn provides families with targeted services and supports to meet their unique needs.  


Opt-in for Families (Opportunities for Prevention & Transformation Initiative)

Why? Conducting a thorough needs assessment at the beginning, rather than on the back end, can truly impact children and families by making sure their basic needs are met, which can change their trajectory and potentially help them avoid experiencing CPS intervention.

Opt-in for Families aims to create a meaningful alternative to the child welfare system—one that “moves from a punitive system focused on assessing whether children should be removed from their homes to a prevention-oriented well-being system that leads to better outcomes across a child’s life.” 

Funded and launched by The Doris Duke Foundation as a three-year, $33 million prevention initiative that is piloting in Kentucky, South Carolina, Oregon, and Washington D.C., Opt-in for Families seeks to demonstrate a cost-effective, scalable approach to prevention. It aims to proactively meet families where they are, directing support for basic needs, and coordinating support services with community partners to ultimately help families get what they need to thrive.  

Focusing on four pillars—access, engagement, navigation, and support—for those who are referred to Child Protective Services for well-being needs rather than safety concerns, Opt-in for Families is working to change the trajectory of what it means to provide child welfare services and reduce the amount of children and families that enter the system in the first place.  


The Texas Family Initiative and EMPOWER

Why? Child welfare agencies have unique needs to be met that may require a community, collaborative approach to best serve children and families.

The Texas Family Initiative (TFI) has a long history of providing case management, adoption, behavioral health services, and more. Their mission is to strengthen the child welfare system through a community-based and trauma-informed approach of care to children and families.  

EMPOWER, a collaborative effort led by TFI and supported by local providers, was awarded a community-based care contract with the State of Texas to manage foster care placement and case management services for nine counties in North Texas, alongside the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS).

Collaborating with EMPOWER on things like foster care, kinship and reunification allows Texas DFPS to promote safety and well-being in new and improved ways. According to EMPOWER, “under Texas statute, DFPS is required to contract with community-based nonprofit and local government entities to provide child welfare services.” By contracting work with community programs that may have a better idea of what their specific communities need, the state can more efficiently assist in ensuring those needs are met, in a more timely and direct way.


The Adoption and Foster Care Certificate Program

Why? Training and support for workers is related to the quality of the work they do for children and families and can go a long way in improving system-wide outcomes. 

Supporting children and families directly is one thing. Providing support to individuals who do the work on a day-to-day basis is another. Both are significant in meeting the overall need of the child welfare system.

The Adoption and Foster Care Certificate Program was established by Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families, the Rhode Island College School of Social Work, and Adoption Rhode Island to support those doing the work through offering new training and continued education for child welfare workers.  

The program offers a collaborative approach to training and support for child welfare professionals that centers on the perspectives of individuals with lived experiences in foster care and adoption. The program is currently operational, expecting to relaunch as an online course in the summer of 2024 to enhance accessibility and relevance to workers and to address the current needs of the child welfare workforce.  



Many states have formed child welfare tasks forces and new offices that investigate their child welfare system and practices, aim to improve the way child abuse and neglect cases are conducted, strive to better understand the underlying factors of children and families involved in the child welfare system, and develop innovative ways to support a prevention-based approach to child welfare.


Michigan’s Child Protective Legal Representation Task Force

Why? Once a family enters the child welfare system, it’s important to ensure they are well-represented, supported, their voice is heard, and their needs are addressed. 

Courts across Michigan have been struggling to obtain and maintain court appointed attorneys due to very little funding and the complexities of child protection cases, which leads to inconsistent and inequitable legal representation for parents and children. As a response, The Child Protective Legal Representation Task Force was formed by Supreme Court Justices Megan Cavanagh and Kyra Bolden to ensure children and their parents have better representation in their child protective cases.  

The task force has considered various ways to improve the current legal representation provided to children and parents, and the goal is to produce a report with recommendations for the Legislature, Governor, and State Court Administrator highlighting the critical need for reform.

Currently, the task force offers in-person listening sessions that will include separate times for families, attorneys, and court personnel so they can provide comments and feedback, which is a great start to partnership and collaboration to ensure voices are heard and families are restored. 


Georgia’s Senate Bill 133

Why? A whole-person approach to the assessment process can ensure children can stay home with their family or are placed in a secure and safe home based on their needs. 

Georgia has created and implemented a more uniform process for when children are placed in state custody/foster care. This initiative unfortunately derived from the increasing number of foster children who ended up in hotels or state offices because the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) could not find them a place to stay, which has been happening across the country when placement options are scarce.  

Senate Bill 133, which went into effect in July 2023, imposes that judge's making placement decisions must find that DFCS has made reasonable efforts to confirm what services have been provided to children and their parents, including those that would allow children to remain at home or confirming secure placement availability. The bill also calls for DFCS to review medical and psychological assessments pertaining to the child and family before the state assumes child welfare custody and family homes are disrupted. The goal is to ensure the agency has done their due diligence before placing a child in foster care.


The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy

Why? The voice of children and families is stronger when specifically advocated for by organizations that are solution driven. 

The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA) is an organization designed to be a strong advocacy network that provides a voice for the needs of children and youth, particularly those in the state’s care and those growing up experiencing poverty, violence, abuse and neglect, disparities, or other situations that put their lives and future at risk. 

When we talked about how OICA is serving communities in Oklahoma, Joe Dorman, the chief executive officer of OICA, said, “We do anything we can do to try to help the families receive preventative services or ensure the system is working the best way possible for children.” They remain involved in what takes place in Oklahoma and around the country to continuously learn best practices to improve conditions in the child welfare system. Joe Dorman also shared that the state of Oklahoma completed their child welfare task force, which includes four focus areas: 

  • To further reduce the time to permanency in the foster care system
  • To further reduce the number of re-entries to foster care after discharge to permanency 
  • To identify risk factors that lead to the removal of children from their biological parents' home
  • To identify and propose areas of support for biological parents 

These focus areas are aligned with strategies of other organizations geared towards prevention and support by restructuring services and identifying needs before the child and family are deep within the child welfare system.

In collaboration with OICA, Oklahoma has also proposed for the improvement and expansion of prevention effort with legislation to enhance partnerships, education for students, funding for Medicaid, and increased communication among agencies, nonprofits, other child advocacy organizations, and families.  




The implementation and practice of prevention and support seems to be taking precedence across various states looking to reform existing policy and practice, while developing new initiatives to best serve children and families who may need resources or services. Here are two states leading the charge to ensure their continued safety and well-being, with the hope that other states will follow suit.


New York’s Aim to Reform Mandated Reporting

The New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) and the New York City Administration for Children’s Services are striving to reduce unnecessary child welfare investigations and, where applicable and appropriate, replace reports with supports. To do so, agency leadership recognizes they must first conduct a full review of existing statutes and practices to determine how they can be improved.

The plan is to re-examine current mandated reporting laws and improve training for hotline staff, including more transparency and data on hotline calls, to allow child welfare agencies to screen-out calls that don’t require CPS investigation or have “low-contact check-ins” with families.

Unfortunately, the need for mandated reporting reform more than likely stems from disparities that continue to exist in New York and across the country. However, agencies like OCFS can reduce the number of reports coming in by creating, developing, and implementing an alternative path for prevention and community-based solutions for families.


California’s Child Welfare Council

The California Child Welfare Council (CWC) has implemented a statewide Mandated Reporting to Community Supporting Task Force with the goal of reforming California's mandated reporting laws to better serve children and families before entering the child welfare system.  

The need for change started with evidence that many reports to child protection hotlines ended up being screened out, unsubstantiated, or were reports that didn’t necessarily require CPS intervention, but required access to resources. The task force believes that once a child and family is involved in the child welfare system, the family is forever changed. So, the task force has started to look for ways to reduce the number of reports that come into the hotline that can be referred for community support and not investigated as suspected child abuse or neglect.  

The CWC also focuses on involving individuals with lived experience and expertise to transform current mandated reporting practices and policies, build community support, and equip reporters with the tools to change their approach through education and training. They call this collaborative effort a community pathway, where agencies can frame their work around accountability, re-defining neglect, measuring outcomes of well-being, and providing consultation to reporters before making a referral.


In their own ways, each of these organizations and initiatives aim to shift the child welfare system by improving existing practices, developing new ones, and partnering to redefine what it means to promote the safety and well-being of children and families in the communities around us. There is not a one-size fits all approach to improve child welfare, but there are many opportunities for growth, ideas, and change that directly impact those in need of resources and support.

Brittany Traylor is a change management consultant for Northwoods. Her social services background allows her to understand processes and systems in place to help others do their work more efficiently and in an impactful way.

New call-to-action