2001 Finalist
US Department of Health and Human Services
Innovations in American Government Awards
Innovations in American Government Awards

Efforts to provide child welfare in America have generally not lived up to their potential. Child welfare agencies are often reactive in both procedure and motivation. State laws require these organizations to respond to reports of maltreatment, provide temporary shelter when children are endangered, and move children into new permanent homes when necessary. Child deaths, class action lawsuits, and unstable leadership have often driven these agencies. Through the Child Welfare Outcomes Initiative (CWOI), the US Children's Bureau (USCB) seeks to reform these organizations to provide a more proactive, outcome-focused service.

In 1996, President Clinton asked the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to develop a more efficient method of finding permanent homes for displaced children. The USCB responded by proposing that each state be required to double its number of yearly adoptions by 2002 and that each state receive a financial incentive for each adopted child over a baseline quota. These proposals were passed into law by congress in the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). The ASFA also required the DHHS to develop a series of outcome measures to assess each state's performance in addition to its proposals. These three components comprise the CWOI.

This new approach to increasing adoption is part of a general policy shift from process-oriented regulations to outcome-based motivational tools. The shift has resulted in several important results. From 1995 to 1999, the focus of state and federal attention on increasing permanent placement resulted in an 80 percent increase in adoptions from foster care. As part of CWOI, the USCB published state-specific goals and baseline statistics focusing on child welfare and placement permanence. Data baselines are used by each state to assess their own progress towards the welfare goals.

The USCB also established its own comprehensive process for state assessment. It also represents a shift away from process-oriented evaluation. The assessments begin with the given state's adoption outcome statistics and then focus on 30 to 50 individual case studies. These individual studies are spread across three cities and consist of interviews conducted by federal and state staff members as well as field professionals and specialists. States who do not meet USCB progress standards risk probation and the loss of federal funding.

Before the Child Welfare Outcome Initiative, child welfare workers were satisfied with fulfilling their process-oriented regulations. The innovative approach to outcome accountability has driven welfare workers to regard what was formerly the norm as unacceptable. As Ramona Foley, Oregon State Director of Services to Children and Families put it, "People in the field used to say, 'We're doing God's work, leave us alone.' Now with the focus on outcomes [including speed of adoption] we're breaking down the process step-by-step to find delays and eliminate them."