Prioritizing Family Preservation

This year, CSSP celebrates its 40th anniversary. During the next six weeks, leading up to our celebration event (taking place on October 23rd in Washington, DC), we will explore and highlight some of the most pivotal areas of our work and times in our history. Join us on this retrospective journey and if you can in Washington, DC in October as we celebrate 40 years of fighting for social justice.


Happy Young Child Running To Greet Dad Silhouette

During his signing statement for the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA) of 1980, President Jimmy Carter said, “By authorizing funding for services designed to prevent family breakup, we are placing a firm emphasis on helping families keep their children at home.” The federal government was finally acknowledging that foster care systems were much too quick to separate families with consequences of more than 500,000 children across the country in care.

The AACWA was a positive first step to stem the needless separation of families, but was not nearly enough on its own to fix longstanding systemic issues that incentivized placement in foster care over providing services in the home. The newly passed law had little effect for the families most in-need since child welfare agencies still had limited access to federal prevention dollars, while foster care funding was a readily-available open-ended entitlement.

In 1985, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, one of the only national foundations at the time with a focus on child welfare systems reform, gave a one million dollar grant to a fledgling, eight-year-old organization, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, in Washington, DC to advance and expand the family preservation cause.

CSSP initially confronted skepticism and the longstanding belief in the public discourse that family preservation was in direct conflict with child welfare’s mandate of ensuring the safety of children. The organization affirmed that family preservation services should never compromise children’s safety by stranding them in dangerous households, but rather give child welfare agencies another option for stabilizing families in crisis, without causing additional trauma. These services differed from traditional preventive services in that they were intensive, home-based and short-term as a complementary tool in the larger service continuum. Without this option, too many children were being placed in foster care despite the ability to remain safely within their families if their families were to get the kind of support they needed.

Relying on a playbook that has now become our trademark, CSSP elevated best practices, provided technical assistance to interested jurisdictions, and assembled a coalition of like-minded partners to build the foundation for substantive changes in policy.

In 1986, CSSP published a brief that would become a bedrock of the movement. Written by Doug Nelson, our Deputy Director at the time, Preserving Families in Crisis: Financial and Political Options identified the existing constraints to implementing robust prevention programming and how to circumvent them, most notably through an assortment of federal “matching” mechanisms. The brief argued: “The real problem is that these decision-makers find themselves operating in a political and fiscal environment which is not conducive to either investing new money or reallocating existing child welfare resources into new ‘initiatives’ or systems change efforts, regardless of how meritorious or ultimately cost effective they may be.” The movement was positively shifting the field-at-large, as more policymakers recognized the value of keeping families together.

CSSP launched a national network – the first in our history – of states committed to reducing unnecessary foster care placements by expanding family preservation services. The organization met with decision-makers in these states to provide technical assistance and strategic consultation around financing options. Iowa, one of the first states to join the network, developed and enacted a family preservation services pilot program in 1987. The state’s General Assembly allocated more than a million in a half dollars to these services over a two year period. CSSP teamed up with State Senator Charles Bruner, who spearheaded the legislation’s passage, to write a report giving a legislator’s perspective on the family preservation. Senator Bruner found that “Legislators had sufficient information, and confidence in that information, to believe that family preservation services provided better outcomes for families at lesser cost to the state.” CSSP’s coordinated policy message was starting to be seen in the law books and the influence would soon be seen in homes and communities across the nation.

Formidable partners joined the nascent movement. The Homebuilders program out of Tacoma, WA, became the gold-standard for service delivery and offered training and practice guidance around the country. The Child Welfare League of America and the Children’s Defense Fund began advocating for the cause, mobilizing their coalitions and pushing for federal policy change. Even the renowned poet and activist Maya Angelou began to use her influential and lyrical voice to uplift the family preservation movement. She asked a question that became the philosophical core of the movement, “How is it possible to convince a child of his own worth after removing him from a family which is said to be unworthy, but with whom he identifies?”

Eight years after CSSP began working on the issue, Congress passed the Family Preservation and Family Support Services Program of 1993, one of the crowning achievements of the movement. The federal law allocated significant public resources to both family preservation and family support services and required states to engage in a comprehensive planning process to develop more responsive strategies for these services. Across political divisions, lawmakers agreed that family preservation services work and are worth investing in.

CSSP’s role in the family preservation movement is a key piece of its 40-year legacy of putting ideas into action. Despite the pendulum swing that characterizes child welfare policy, “child rescue” to family preservation and back again, the movement codified family preservation goals as a priority in the field. After more than three decades of CSSP action and advocacy in the arena, the recent passing of the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 enacted much needed federal financing reform that balanced investment in family preservation with that of foster care, finally realizing the promise that CSSP first articulated in a 1986 brief.

Derick Gomez is a Program and Research Assistant at CSSP.