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Scene 1

It’s 11:15pm at your child welfare agency. The stress level among your caseworkers is starting to rise as they begin experiencing a sharp increase in the number of calls they are getting about children who are suddenly in need of new placements. Many of your staff happen to be relatively new on the job and many are fresh out of school and now working their first full-time jobs. As they are bombarded with new placement requests, the tension in the room rises quickly. They are searching through incomplete databases, recent email chains, and even their memories, as they try to identify and contact families who will accept these children who are in desperate need of safe and stable homes.

Many of these children have just witnessed the police enter their homes to forcibly remove them from situations that likely involved violence, drugs, and even injuries. They have just begun the most traumatic period of their lives and their next living situations are both critically important and entirely dependent on the decisions of your caseworkers. Each case is unique: a sibling group of 4 children of different ages, a pregnant teenager and her child, a child with a severe physical disability. Many are required by law to be placed within the next few hours. The desire to find someone – anyone – who will say “yes” is strong and there is so little time to give each decision the weight it requires.

Over the next few days these decisions are made – for better or for worse. Your caseworkers make the initial calls to the families they have identified by whatever means they had available at that time. Some placements are found but a few unlucky children end up spending a night or more in the agency offices because the families identified did not accept them. Many are sent to “temporary” placements in respite homes or even shelters until a more permanent placement can be found. Given the pressure to find homes quickly, almost every single child is placed with the first family or facility to say “yes”. The more experienced among your staff know that the first placement option to respond affirmatively is not always the best match, which can lead to disruptions that are traumatic for the children and the families. They also know that the children whose ‘temporary’ placements are meant to last only a few days often end up lasting weeks, months or even years.

A few days later you reflect on the work of your caseworkers. Which families were called first and why? Who wasn’t called but might have been a great match? What other options were considered? What process was (or wasn’t) followed? The answers to these questions are not available to you. You realize that very little is known about the variety of methods that were likely used to arrive at the decisions that led to these placements but you are certain some of these methods were much less effective than others.

Scene 2

A few weeks later your staff begins to encounter another episode of high call volumes for new placements very late into the night. This time, however, there is a feeling of intensity and focus among them and the feeling of desperation is virtually nonexistent. Even the newest, youngest staff members are working efficiently to address each new placement that is needed as they follow an established process for identifying each child’s best placement options – a process that is enabled by the placement tools that the staff is now using to help guide their decisions. Each worker peruses lists of families that help to guide staff members’ attention toward those families who are most likely to fulfill each child’s placement needs. Workers are able to quickly compare the best placement options for each sibling group, teenager, or young child. The first calls are made to families who are better suited to and more willing to address the specific needs of each child or group, which results in many fewer calls and several hours of time saved. More “emergency” placements are being placed into welcoming family environments instead of shelters and respite homes. All contacts made with potential placements are logged and notes about the placement decisions are easily captured.

As the rest of the placements are made over the next few days you are now able to look at reports that show each placement, which other placements were considered, and how many calls were made to each. During the next few weeks you are pleasantly surprised as you notices how many fewer disruptions are being reported. These improved outcomes have not only dramatically reduced the amount of work for your caseworkers now that children are now moving less often, but they are also improving lives over the long term by reducing the amount of trauma that so often occurs whenever there is a placement disruption. Several months later you notice not only that children are reaching permanency sooner, but that foster family retention rates are also improving due to the fact that families are having better experiences with children whose needs more closely match their capabilities. You now feel a sense of understanding about your placement process that you have never experienced before.

The Systematic Approach to a Unified Placement Process

The question to ask is not whether your child welfare agency has a process for placing children; every agency has a process. The question to ask is whether your agency’s placement process is actually a system that can be improved to produce better outcomes for your children and families.

As the two scenarios at the beginning of this article illustrate, you won’t know how to improve your agency’s placement process until you can distinguish it as a unified process. This does not mean that your staff must follow a rigid set of steps wherein they are forced to go with a decision made by an algorithm. It means having a single framework that can be easily followed by staff members of any level of experience. It means implementing a clinically-based matching process that guides human decision-making and keeps human bias in check while accommodating and recognizing the importance of human intuition and experience. It means incorporating the knowledge of experts and using research to inform your matching decision process.

The right tools can provide this framework and the right expertise can help you make use of this framework. Together they reduce the amount of overall work for your placement staff by focusing their attention on the factors that matter most for placements and by making it easier to record and review what is happening during each decision process. They encourage placement best practices that should be followed by every agency while allowing room for the unique processes that are necessary for your agency. In times of high stress, high caseloads, and limited time the right tools and expertise also provide the calming effect that comes from being able to focus on a single process that has been systematically designed in a way that can be improved over time.

Every placement decision has the potential to reduce or increase trauma in a child’s life, the effects of which may be greatly underappreciated. But the best placement decisions will only happen when you have implemented your best placement process. Creating this best placement process from scratch is always an option but it can be a daunting task even for those organizations that have plenty of experience, time, and creativity to pour into the effort. For the rest, it is time to consider the systematic approach, which spares you years of costly experimentation and allows you to benefit from the knowledge of experts, the work of researchers, and the accumulated results of various placement processes being used by agencies across the country.