Child Welfare Leaders Turn to Supportive Housing

The staff of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (NJDCF) faces tough choices every day. They are responsible for serving and safeguarding the most vulnerable children and families in their state, ensuring protection, permanency and well-being. Like other child welfare agencies across the nation, their tasks at times can seem overwhelming.

Many of us have seen firsthand how homelessness, parental substance use and unattended mental health issues devastate children and can lead to family separation. Research shows such circumstances and poor outcomes tend to occur across generations and leave indelible marks on those who suffer through the traumas. That's why NJDCF decided to take bold action to reverse this downward spiral.

The problems and needs of struggling families facing multiple challenges and housing instability are complex, and for years child welfare agencies focused on removing children from such environments. We now know that action, in and of itself, can do more harm than good.

That is why it is important to showcase the "outside-the-box" thinking propelling NJDCF in a new direction, one which is elevating their standing as national leaders embracing change and innovation to put children and families first.

In order to fully address the complex needs of families with recurring child-welfare involvement and co-occurring mental illness and substance use, NJDCF resolved to find a way to help them while keeping children and parents safely under one roof.

NJDCF embraced the Keeping Families Together (KFT) supportive housing model -- first tested in New York and then replicated in other communities -- to change the trajectory of some struggling families.

KFT is a model of supportive housing designed specifically for child-welfare-involved families. KFT is all about improving child well-being and decreasing family separations.

In supportive housing, parents find a foundational stability, freeing them from fear of homelessness and enhancing their capacity to provide a safe home for their children. Stable housing takes away a major stress point contributing to the trauma often consuming these families. The relief that comes with housing helps the family move forward together, with the hope of self-sustainability in the horizon.

NJDCF, in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Human Services (NJDHS) and the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (NJDCA), has begun its own KFT supportive housing model project in Essex County, New Jersey, called "Home Safe." NJDCF also is reaching out to other states -- they recently met with supportive housing experts in Connecticut -- to learn best practices and capitalize on a wide range of experiences.

Although CSH is providing advice on how to expand the impact of "Home Safe" into other counties, especially in the southern part of the state, the dedicated professionals in NJDCF, NJDHS and NJDCA deserve the accolades for taking concrete steps to get at the very heart of issues impacting the lives of those they aim to serve, help, and heal.