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2009 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 14, No. 2
May 2009

From the Front Lines to Policy Makers — and Back

In child welfare, change and the power to influence things often flows from above: congress makes laws, laws affect federal policy and funding, which affect the states, which affect counties, right on down to you.

Sometimes this top-down flow is so dominant we forget that influence also goes the other way: what we do has an impact not only on our corner of the world but on the child welfare system at the state and national levels.

As the following look at the federal Child and Family Services Review illustrates, this is especially true when it comes to the power and influence frontline workers and supervisors have as generators of data.

In response to the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, the federal government created the Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) to help it evaluate child welfare in all 50 States. Much of the CFSR looks at outcome data and other sources to assess each state’s ability to achieve safety, well-being, and permanency for children.

Program Improvement
States who do not meet the national standard in the CFSR partner with the federal government to develop a Program Improvement Plan (PIP) to address their shortcomings. The PIP allows the state to identify issues that contribute to nonconformity and plan steps to improve its performance.

North Carolina created its second PIP in 2008. Since then the NC Division of Social Services has made significant changes to child welfare policy and procedure. Changes that have directly affected county DSS agencies include:

  • Using Child and Family Teams (CFTs). In partnership with the Center for Family and Community Engagement at NC State University, the NC Division of Social Services has increased the training available for social workers, supervisors, and facilitators, to enhance the use of CFTs. In addition, Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Health is conducting an evaluation of CFTs across the state, and they have developed a tool for agencies to use as part of their self-evaluation in this area. For more information about this evaluation effort, contact Nicole Lawrence (919/668-3282).
  • Recruitment and Retention of Resource Families. Most county DSS agencies have participated in efforts undertaken by the Division and the Jordan Institute for Families at UNC-Chapel Hill to support the recruitment and retention of families for children in foster care. These efforts have included one-day workshops, online seminars, and a new online guide at (
  • Data Support. The Division provides support to DSS agencies that do not meet federal and state benchmarks to help them address coding errors and problems with data entry.

Your Role is Vital
North Carolina’s ability to improve the performance of its child welfare system depends not only on its ability to correct the shortcomings identified in the federal review, but on its ability to document progress in these areas using valid outcome data.

That’s where you come in. As frontline workers, supervisors, and data entry people, you are the ones who enter information into the county and state data systems. This information ultimately becomes part of AFCARS (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System), NCANDS (National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System), and other national datasets used to determine whether a state will emerge from program improvement or face financial sanctions. The data you generate is also used to guide other important funding and policy decisions.

The implications for practice are clear. Though the documentation connected to your work with families may sometimes feel like an unwanted and even pointless obligation, it actually gives you significant power in our child welfare system.

Thus, if you are ever filling out documentation and find yourself tempted to guess about the child’s grade in school or skip a field altogether, think twice. Though they might not be felt for some time, the consequences of “fudging” paperwork could negatively affect decisions about law, policy—and funding—which in turn could have a major impact on you, your agency, and the families you serve.

Your Part Matters

Providing complete, accurate, and timely case documentation:

  • Helps capture family progress
  • Ensures key data is available when caseworkers or supervisors change, become ill, or there is an emergency
  • Provides documentation for court
  • Verifies activities for which county DSS’s can claim reimbursement
  • Enables agencies to demonstrate their effectiveness to state and federal agencies, county and community representatives, and other stakeholders

Source: NCDSS, 2002; Muskie, 2001

References for this and other articles in this issue