USC Dean, Marilyn Flynn, Provides Examples on How Colleges and Universities Can Help To Innovate The Child Welfare System

For National Foster Care Month, I interviewed Dr. Marilyn Flynn who is the Dean of The Social Work at the University of Southern California (USC). The School of Social is the largest social worker program anywhere in US with 3000 graduate students - 1200 on campus at USC - and 48 states across the program. Dean Flynn was appointed dean of social work at the University of Southern California in 1997, only the second woman to hold this position in the school's nearly 100-year history. Flynn created the first military social work specialization in a major civilian research university. She also greatly expanded the Hamovitch Center for Science in the Human Services and established the nationally respected Flynn Prize for Social Work Research. Flynn helped found the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfares and served president of the board of directors for the national Network for Social Work Management. In 2012, she received the International Sarnat Award for Public Advancement of Social Work, an award conferred by the National Association of Social Workers in Washington, D.C. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the USC Provost's Prize for Educational Innovation. Flynn also received from President Obama the National Award for Community and Volunteer Service. Flynn received her MSW and PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana, with specializations in social work, social policy and public finance. Here's our interview:

Marquis Cabrera: Can you give me a high level overview of the child welfare space from your vantage point?

Dr. Marilyn Flynn: We have to be concerned with the period before kids enter foster care as much as what happens during the time they are in foster care. Equally important is what happens when they are getting ready to age out. The majority of kids under supervision have experienced neglect, not abuse.

There are a whole series of strategies that can be used to address the problem of neglect. We have up to this point focused largely on abuse, because of courses the consequences can be extremely tragic. Crusades rightfully happen when kids die, but there seems to be less public anxiety about kids who suffer from neglect. Some people now argue that we should have two front doors to the foster care system - one, to address neglect and the other, to respond to abuse.

There's a report today that shows about 20% of the United States population is living in poverty, with higher rates in some regions. The fundamental problem in most cases of neglect is poverty. Many health problems are associated with very low incomes - allergies, skin conditions, asthma, malnutrition, dental disease, and developmental delays, among others. These are typically associated with inadequate ventilation, poor sanitary facilities, poor heating and cooling and other conditions related to inadequate housing or shelter. It's also hard for parents in these situations to be good parents, because in many communities transportation out of low-income neighborhoods is a significant obstacle, and employment opportunities are limited.

Affordable housing for children and families is one solution if the aim is to reduce the number of children in foster care. The cost/benefit of housing also reaches the adults who are on the streets. Jail costs go down, as well as the costs of treating addiction and hospitalization. One of the things we're focusing on is building out innovative ideas that advance public housing and alternative housing for children and families. This is one fundamental attack on the problem of foster care, because this approach may prevent the need for state supervision in the first place.

Unconfirmed estimates in Los Angeles suggest that as many as 80% of homeless youth on our streets were formerly in foster care. We have tried to intervene with kids as they are on the street. We have an ongoing research that traces their networks and relationships, which are largely maintained through mobile phone connections. We have added new contact points for relationships with agencies and other sources of support, and we find we can positively influence the movement of kids toward more constructive choices. We can get them off the streets. In addition, we have been working extensively with the school of engineering to create apps, games, and other things to take advantage of how the kids interact with the community.

Marquis Cabrera: Thank you for opening up your incredible mind to share your general thoughts on child welfare. It is so interesting how problems with foster care intersect with other social and community problems a la poverty. This is especially interesting because less than 2% of foster youth go on to complete 4-year degree programs. How do we improve educational outcomes for children in foster care insomuch that more foster youth graduate from college?

Dr. Marilyn Flynn: The USC Guardian Scholars Program works with students whose experience in foster care has left them without a significant number of adult relationships and guidance on entering adulthood. It enables these kids to function much better to meet the requirements of undergraduate life. It also helps with the transition from high school to undergraduate life and strengthens motivation so they can complete their degree. Most people are focused on getting foster kids to enroll in college, but retention is also a big problem, so the program helps to cement them. The financial resources are equally important. Our next big step is to focus on support for former foster youth enrolled in graduate level programs, where they tend to feel isolated from others and need interventions that differ from our work with undergraduates.

Marquis Cabrera: The Guardian Scholars Program is incredible and such a tremendous resource for foster youth. Is USC engaged in other initiatives to improve the child welfare system?

Dr. Marilyn Flynn: One of the most persistent challenges scholars and practitioners alike have faced is understanding which children are most at risk for abuse. We usually get a snapshot at the end of the year when agencies report contact, but we don't live our lives in a once a year snapshot. We need longitudinal data; we need to connect not just with child reporting systems, but also with birth records, death records, school records, and hospital admission records. What we have done at USC is create the "Children's Data Network," an ongoing research program focused on development of large integrated databases that link state and county child welfare records with institutional records from many other sources. At the present time, we are focusing on understanding patterns among children from birth to age five. For the first time, we are able to trace risks for children over these critical years, the likelihood of reoccurrence of problems among certain families, and the points at which risk is likely to be the greatest. One of our findings shows that maltreated children ages 0-5 are those most likely to have mothers who were also abused and in foster care. This suggests that one of the most powerful preventive interventions we might consider is to begin working with these mothers immediately after birth of their child to promote positive parenting. The advantage of using large, integrated administrative databases and a population-based approach is that we do not need special long-term, federally funded studies or some of the other more traditional and costly methods for analysis. There are already there. This is a complete breakthrough, and our next step is to share the data that we have secured. We will have to train providers and funders how to use these data [sets] so that they can better understand their client populations. This should help service providers with challenging kids make better decisions that will lead to better policy so that we can more accurately decide who is most vulnerable and when we should intervene.

Marquis Cabrera: Do you have a big idea on how educational institutions can partner with government to innovate the child welfare system?

Dr. Marilyn Flynn: Universities can actually work with public officials in the design of policy. We do that to provide data to help government officials make better policies using long and short term studies of impact, as well as simply outlining policy requirements for governments. I used to train state legislators in Michigan when I was there. Just being able to be a neutral source was enormously important for people on both sides of the aisle.

Another form of partnership is through graduate internships in public child welfare agencies. At USC, our students provide over one million hours annually through internships and volunteer hours in government child welfare programs. This prepares the future workforce for government agencies at the same time that families and children are also assisted.

We are also part of a statewide child welfare consortium. It's fundamental: one of the most important changes that needs to be made in child welfare is cross-sector training to so that professionals across the community who work with kids can better coordinate and support each other. Historically, we have all been trained in silos - police, educators, social workers, housing specialists, and others. Yet we recognize today that multiple forms of intervention and protection are often needed, especially over time, in helping families with successful parenting. We are working toward cross-sector training in Los Angeles that will be combined with better shared information systems.of the greatest partnerships is the Title IV-E program under social security, which is designed to help universities provide training programs in child welfare. This has been one of the best partnerships for child welfare that has been a long standing collaboration, and I hope that it will continue.