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Triage Team: Working Together to Keep Kids Out of Foster Care

by Deonna Kirkpatrick , Deputy Communications Director
The Division of Children and Family Services is dedicated to assuring that children at risk of abuse and neglect are protected and nurtured within a family and with the support of the community.  Annually we have approximately 1700 children in temporary or permanent custody.  But not all of them are due to abuse or neglect. In any given year up to 300 children are in our care because the child’s needs require critical treatment or intervention their parents cannot provide. 

A youth with physical, mental and/or behavioral health problems may become too much for their parent to handle.  DCFS is typically notified because the parent or a service provider becomes frustrated and believes the options for that child have run out. At their wit’s end the parent is willing to do almost anything, even give up custody of their own child, in order to get help.  Treatment could range from intensive in-home services to short-term residential treatment. The average yearly cost for a child receiving an array of services in foster care is $91,250.00 per child and treatment in a residential facility on average costs $127,750.00 annually. 

Even more important than the financial cost is the trauma of removing a child from their home, parents, siblings, neighborhood and school. Placing a child in a family of strangers and expecting them to progress with intensive services can be an unrealistic expectation. The child not only has to get better, but also get over their feelings of abandonment, betrayal, and loss of a parent’s unconditional love.  The child may feel hopeless about their chances of returning home and because of this may not be able to focus on the hard work they are doing in therapy. Even if the child improves, overwhelmed parents may struggle to feel equipped to bring their child home.  Moreover asking a family to comply with goals set by multiple agencies can be confusing and frustrating.  All these factors can make it especially difficult to reunite the family. 

That is why this year the Division Children and Family Services, the ADAMHS Board, Juvenile Justice and the Board of Developmental Disabilities began partnering with families and community partners to   facilitate a timely treatment plan for these children in their own home, before they get to this point. 

This team is called the Triage Team because it mobilizes as soon as a child is identified by any county or provider agency. 

This new team approach is designed for situations when a child is or should be involved with multiple systems, is not abused or neglected, and needs immediate help to provide services or short-term care.  

Here’s how the process works: 
  • Representatives from each agency meet within 24 hours of a case being identified.
  • The team works with the family to develop a coordinated service plan that is creative, comprehensive and collaborative.
  • The team identifies and uses resources across systems to offer support, treatment, or intervention to quickly stabilize a situation and minimize further trauma or removal.
  • A lead agency is identified based on the child’s needs and costs are shared according to the services each agency provides. 

We hope that by meeting children and families’ needs on the front end of the system we can reduce the number of youth who are taken into custody for reasons other than abuse and neglect and reduce the number of low level youth offenders placed in the detention center because their family can’t meet their needs and keep them safe. When removal is necessary we hope these efforts will more quickly stabilize families so that youth spend fewer days in foster care or detention.  

We may save money along the way, but the true goal is to collaborate and invest in our children in order to achieve more often positive and sustainable outcomes. Together we can help keep families intact.