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Solving the ‘wicked problems’ of child welfare will require comprehensive reform

Over the last year, social work leaders, child welfare administrators, researchers, philanthropists, and policymakers have gathered to debate the “wicked problems” of child welfare, including how to reverse the traumatic effects of maltreatment and neglect on child well-being and how to overcome the barriers that prevent children from returning home or finding safe and permanent homes with alternative caregivers.
For UNC School of Social Work Professor Mark Testa, who helped spearhead these initial discussions, the real work toward comprehensive reform is now ready to begin. The first step: Finding innovative ways to bridge the research and practice divide.
Over the next few years, Testa will be working closely with the Children’s Home Society of America, a national association of some of the oldest child-serving agencies in the nation, to develop a child welfare, practice-based research network to help educate communities about the welfare of the nation’s children. This network will focus on those children most affected by problems of persistent poverty, domestic violence, parental substance abuse, and loss of stable family life.
Furthermore, this scholarly endeavor will serve as the foundation for building a national public education campaign to improve federal policies and practices that affect the health, safety and economic well-being of children. One specific goal for that campaign will be to urge U.S. lawmakers to expand the opportunity for all states to experiment with innovative tools and programs that aim to protect children from abuse and neglect, provide them with stable homes, and improve their overall social, mental, and physical well-being.
“What we’re talking about now is a major change in how the federal government structures its support for local innovation initiatives,” said Testa, the School of Social Work’s Spears-Turner Distinguished Professor.
This latest call-to-action for child welfare innovation began in February 2012 with the first of a series of three roundtable sessions known as “The Wicked Problems Institute.” Testa helped organize these groundbreaking discussions, which concluded last month in Washington, D.C. The institutes brought together a diverse group of experts who are eager to tackle the interrelated problems of child maltreatment, family breakdown, and social and emotional stress. All are pressing issues that have long challenged researchers and social workers because of their complex causes and incomplete solutions.
Nevertheless, there is a growing body of research evidence from various states that have tried and evaluated alternative ideas and practices that are demonstrating success in improving child welfare, Testa said. These states have tested their ideas using child welfare waivers, a federal funding program that could help advocates build a much needed evidence base for further improvements and innovations in the child welfare system, Testa added. But that opportunity might not happen if the waiver program expires as scheduled in 2019.
Since 1994, these waivers have granted states the flexibility to use federal dollars differently, such as foster care funding that traditionally has been targeted toward keeping children in state care. States with an approved waiver have introduced innovative strategies that have, for example, helped foster children find permanent homes, engaged parents in drug-recovery programs, and enhanced training for child welfare staff.
Although the original child welfare waiver program expired in 2006, Congress resuscitated it five years later. States must apply to participate in the program. Nine states have received waivers and based on the 2011 legislation, an additional 20 waiver demonstrations could be approved for states over the next two years.
For Testa, one major goal of the public education campaign will be to persuade the federal government to maintain and expand this waiver model long after 2019.
“So what we’re aiming toward now is working with states and our public and private partners to create the evidence-base for what we need to know to do true reform,” he said. “We also have to begin to demonstrate the evidence-based solutions that we want to make sure are fundable under a federal act. At the same time, we have to set the stage for the notion that this is going to be a permanent work in progress.”
In other words, there are no guarantees that all new programs and strategies will be automatic successes, he added. Over the next few years, the goal will be to explore more closely what has been working and to encourage child welfare providers to embrace practices that have proven effective.
Researchers also have to be prepared to accept that new unanticipated challenges will emerge over the next few years as the reform campaign gets underway, Testa said.
“We have to recognize and be adaptable to changes and understand that our best laid plans will likely create other wicked problems that will then need to be re-solved over and over again.”
More about the Wicked Problems Series

At the meeting in Washington, D.C., Dean Jack Richman and Professor Mark Testa were presented the Champion for Children Award from the Children’s Home Society. They were honored in recognition of their leadership and support in development of the Wicked Problems of Child Welfare Institute to shape and improve policy, practice and research.

By Susan White