Alabama child welfare reforms hold lessons for everyone – but especially, at the moment, Oregon, Iowa and Indiana

The Arizona Daily Star is in the middle of publishing the results from a year-long investigation into how to fix the child welfare system in that state.  As I’ve noted before, the answers are relevant to every state.  Right at the moment, the answers may be especially relevant for three states (besides Arizona, of course): Oregon, Iowa, and Indiana.

For part two in the series, the Star spent a lot of time on the reforms that have turned one of the last

places most people might expect – Alabama – into, relatively speaking, a national model. (See especially the first three stories.)

The Star isn’t the first newspaper outside Alabama to take a close look at the Alabama reforms.  The first that I know of was the Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader. They did outstanding work in 2003 – but, unfortunately, like most Gannett papers, when they switched to a common website format they lost or hid their older stories so they’re no longer available online.

But a New York Times examination of those reforms is still available.

Now the Star stories bring things up to date.

It started with a lawsuit

The reforms began with a lawsuit brought by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program.  (The Bazelon Center’s Legal Director, Ira Burnim, also is a member of NCCPR’s volunteer Board of Directors.)  The Star stories show that, even though the system is no longer under court supervision, and though there has been some backsliding, the reforms remain in place. And, precisely because Alabama is a leader in family preservation, it’s also a leader in keeping children safe.

The stories are especially relevant to Oregon, Indiana and Iowa for several reasons:

Perhaps most important for Indiana and Iowa:

  • The Alabama lawsuit actually was welcomed by the leader of that state’s child welfare agency at the time, Paul Vincent. Vincent’s leadership was crucial to getting the reform effort underway and keeping it on the right track.He’s got one of the best track records in the field.

Now Vincent runs the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, which helps other states and localities fix their child welfare systems. Two of the states CWG is working with right now are Iowa and Indiana.  They’ve already had some things to say about Iowa – and it’s high rate of taking away children.  And they’ve already zeroed in on Indiana’s high rate of removal as one of the key “challenges” facing the system there.

Perhaps most important for Oregon:

  • Oregon was, at one point, the state most likely to follow Alabama’s lead.A lawsuit settlement in the 1990s called on Oregon to institute similar reforms. But unlike the Alabama suit, there was no real enforcement mechanism, no independent court-appointed monitor. And, unlike in Alabama, the child welfare agency in Oregon was not receptive to change.

As usual, the Oregon Department of Human Services proved to be the place where child welfare reform goes to die.  (Another NCCPR Board Member, clinical Psychologist Marty Beyer, who worked on the Alabama effort also was involved in the attempt to fix child welfare in Oregon. She discusses it in the epilogue to this story from the Salem Statesman Journal and Oregon Public Broadcasting.)

Spending smarter beats just spending more

The Alabama reforms also teach us something else. You can’t fix a child welfare system just by throwing money – or caseworkers – at it.

Yes, as a result of the lawsuit, Alabama spent more – but it also spent smarter.  Here’s how the Star explains it:

Child welfare leaders spread the word, through community meetings, that the state was shifting contracting dollars away from expensive services like group homes and residential treatment centers, in favor of less costly and more effective programs like therapeutic foster care and in-home services. 

         Providers had a choice: Evolve or risk going out of business.

In other words, while the Indiana child welfare agency was cozying up to private providers, Alabama was standing up to them.

As of 2014, the most recent year for which data are available, Alabama was spending on child welfare at one of the lowest rates in the country, while Oregon, Indiana and Iowa all were  spending at among the highest.

That doesn’t mean the answer is to cut spending. On the contrary, Alabama is good, compared to most of the rest of the country, but it could be better if it were willing to spend more.  But at least Alabama spends smart.

Oregon, Indiana and Iowa spend dumb, throwing away money on needless foster care and institutionalization – “services” that are both worse for children and more expensive than safe, proven alternatives to foster care.

As I’ve said many times before, I’m a tax-and-spend liberal and proud of it. But anyone who says the answer to these states’ child welfare problems is just to spend more is ignoring reality.

Instead, let’s imagine for a moment what kind of child welfare system you would get if you combined the amount that Oregon or Indiana or Iowa spends with Alabama’s priorities for how to spend it.

You’d probably get the best child welfare system in America.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform,  This post also appears on the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog,

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