"The work we are doing is not sexy. It's been a slow, thoughtful process. We're designing a new concept that will be a big part of child welfare research. It's a chance of a lifetime, really."
When Dawn Wilson speaks of the Catawba County Department of Social Services' huge new effort to reform the child welfare system, you can hear the enthusiasm in her voice — right down to the details about data collection and analysis. This special projects coordinator leads the implementation team in the child welfare reform project and her excitement, even in the planning stages, is contagious.
Thoughtful Planning Process
"Right now, we're doing a lot planning and laying the groundwork for a long-term, randomized controlled trial. We've conducted 13 focus groups with parents, kinship caregivers, foster parents and staff. We're learning what families' needs are post-permanency and what would help them be successful."
In addition to collecting data on the families they serve, going through the focus group exercise also has built strong support for the project within the agency, says Wilson. "It makes it more ‘real life.'"
Key findings from the focus groups so far have been consistent with other objective studies and research on child welfare across the nation. "That's reassuring because it shows that our own work fits in with what the experts say," Wilson says.
Designing Implementation with Proven Practices and Models
Now, staff members are finishing their design for the trial's implementation phase. Teams from across the agency are exploring services to implement in six areas: clinical practice, parent training, educational services, material supports, support groups for adopted children and permanency workers (a.k.a. "success coaches").
"In each of these areas, we're looking for evidence-based practices and developing models where practices don't currently exist. We're also determining what data to collect and how to collect it."
Once the team puts its recommendations together, the Catawba County Department of Social Services (DSS) will launch its two-year pilot phase. The pilot will determine the effectiveness of every aspect of the program; DSS will refine and revise practices where necessary. Once the pilot ends, assuming the findings are promising, a randomized controlled trial may begin.
"This process has been wonderful because it has involved our staff at all levels," Wilson says. "As a result, we will have very well-thought-out interventions. The process also will allow us to fully implement those interventions and data collection measures and do it correctly before the randomized trial begins."
Hopes for Meaningful Impact on Children
While she's thrilled by the scientific aspects of the project, Wilson also is eager to see the impact on human lives. "It's exciting because we currently serve families while the children are in foster care, but have no contact with them after permanent placement. There's never been a way to tell if we had positive outcomes. It feels so good to follow up and see how effective we can really be, to see if we've had a positive impact. This is a huge investment for The Duke Endowment and for our staff, and it's very, very meaningful."