Improving Child Welfare: Why Community-Based Prevention Must be Part of the Reform Equation

Already in the first weeks of 2015, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the county's acting Chief Executive Officer have taken action to improve collaboration and make structural changes that should speed up child welfare system reforms.

Such reforms are much needed and timely. New findings from a study by the Children's Data Network at the University of Southern California School of Social Work found that almost 1 in 7 California children (14.8 percent) were reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) for suspected child abuse or neglect before age five. The numbers by counties varied significantly, but some had rates higher than 30 percent. The study represents the first time California birth records and CPS data have been linked to generate cumulative rather than annual rates of CPS involvement over several years.

The study findings lend further credence to the argument that early intervention is the key to prevention. It also demonstrates the value of linked administrative data -- like birth and CPS records -- in highlighting directions for change.

However, getting relevant government agencies on the same page is just part of the solution. We also need to involve and integrate community-based organizations -- both those that contract with the county and others that don't -- as a major part of the child welfare intervention and service reform equation.

While improved collaboration within County government is essential for aligning resources to children already involved with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), equally important is close coordination with cities, schools, community-based agencies and grassroots groups that work with potentially susceptible families and children on a daily basis.

Community agencies and groups are often on the front line providing important resources to families, like child care, home visitation, parental guidance, nutrition programs and many other kinds of support; many are already well known to residents, so families are more likely to seek them out before problems get serious. Thus, any strategy to reform the child welfare system needs to build on these existing community resources that are already familiar and readily accessible to families. These organizations can also serve as a tremendous resource and a direct link to the community as new prevention and intervention ideas and programs are discussed and implemented.

In areas where strong networks of community-based organizations already exist, the results have been promising. Well-coordinated community networks have resulted in decreased social isolation of families, improved family self-sufficiency, and have helped get families into existing service programs that can resolve problems early. Their efforts help keep children safe, reduce the trauma of maltreatment, and ultimately can decrease the number of children served by DCFS.

Los Angeles has a number of examples of successful community-based initiatives in which parents support and help each other to learn and grow -- where neighbors assist each other in finding the best child care, school-based services, child-friendly parks or local library programs that help caregivers engage with their children in everyday learning activities. Community-based initiatives like those funded by First 5 LA, the California Endowment, the California Community Foundation, among others, continue to show positive, meaningful results.

We would be wise to use the lessons learned from these successful children and family initiatives to develop similar networks in all L.A. communities, giving families a place to go when help is needed. While it's the job of CPS to determine when maltreatment occurs and to respond accordingly, it's everyone's job to prevent child abuse and maltreatment before it happens. It's an enormous task, but one well worth doing for the future of L.A.'s children.