Partnering for Family Success

by Deonna Kirkpatrick , Deputy Director for Communication of the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS)
The vision of a family may seem impossible for those families separated due to homelessness and/or foster care. Many social, economic, and personal factors can lead to families becoming homeless. Substance abuse, domestic violence, untreated mental health are some of the factors that lead to unsafe family situations and result in children needing to come into foster care. When homelessness is coupled with safety concerns for children the result can be that the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) must remove the children from the family in order to keep them safe. While reuniting the family is our goal, it can be especially difficult when there is no home the child can return to. 

For the past two years DCFS has partnered with FrontLine Service and Enterprise Community Partners to pilot an innovative collaboration aimed at stabilizing and reuniting homeless parents with their children in a safe and timely manner.  

The program, called Partnering for Family Success focuses on providing a more coordinated system of care in order to reduce the amount of time the children of homeless mothers spend in foster care, by helping the parents reunite more quickly with their children or allowing the child to enter a permanent placement.  

DCFS and FrontLine Service work together with the parents and children, providing counseling, mental health and addiction services, parenting guidance, and many other community services to deal with the causes of the family’s crisis.  Most importantly the program offers housing through Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority and other housing agencies. After all how can parents deal with any of those hard issues when they don’t even know where they’ll sleep at night?  

The Partnering for Family Success program is innovative not only because of this holistic approach to the family, but also because of its funding model.  Cuyahoga County is the first county in the United States to implement a Pay For Success model.  

Here’s how it works:  private and philanthropic investors provide up-front funding to the county to operate a social program that can ultimately save money.  Traditionally, philanthropic grants are paid out in order to effect social change but there is no expectation of the funders getting their money back. Pay For Success programs treat the funding like an investment. Knowing that the county can save millions of dollars by reducing the amount of days children are in foster care, the county has agreed to pay the funders back based on specific outcomes. The funders receive a return on their investment, the county spends less of our tax payer’s money and families are reunited sooner. It’s a win-win-win and the potential is game-changing; allowing funders to recoup outlays and create even more sustainable, ongoing funding.     Several private and philanthropic organizations are funding this five-year pilot program; The Reinvestment Fund, Nonprofit Finance Fund, Cleveland Foundation, The George Gund Foundation and Sisters of Charity..  Case Western Reserve University is evaluating and tracking the results of the program.  At the end of five years they will evaluate whether the program was successful in reducing the number of days children spend in foster care.    

While the overall success of the program is yet to be determined, we’re already seeing the value of the collaborative work with families.  In order to keep families together after reunification, FrontLine Services remains engaged with them for several months afterward. This after care service is critical to ensure that parents have the support they need to put into place the skills they learned while their children were in foster care. The therapy provided after reunification for children and the parents is an important component of the program because it helps the family build trust and learn new ways of functioning.   

Another profound lesson? The shift in our thinking about homelessness.  In the past government and non-profit programs operated on the idea that homeless people had to be “ready” for housing; sober enough, mentally healthy enough, employed enough, etc.  But in recent years this has changed.  Safe, stable housing is essential to the success of families – it should come first.   It impacts their safety, health, education, employment and much more.  Imagine trying to keep your child safe, fed, in school and on the right track while living in your car or bouncing from one friend’s couch to another.  

This new approach to serving Cuyahoga County Families requires collaborative partners to ask critical questions about outcomes that make a difference in families’ lives, use data to measure performance, and use feedback to drive improvements in practice.  We’re only two years into the program and Partnering for Family Success is already paying dividends. 

For more information about the program, contact Karen Anderson.

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