During the 1980s, Iowa child welfare leaders and governmental officials became alarmed by burgeoning foster care placement rates, including a 40 percent increase in placements from 1982-1987 despite an 8 percent decrease in Iowa's child population. This marked increase in placements and the accompanying fiscal impacts, coupled with the steady erosion of available foster care placement resources and increased placements in out-of-state treatment centers, created a climate ripe for state investment in family preservation.
The Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) Child Welfare Decategorization Project was designed with the intent to restructure the delivery of child welfare services to be more community-based, family-centered, and placement-prevention oriented. Decategorization of the child welfare system is predicated on the concept of pooling numerous public child welfare funds. The project entails development of a comprehensive community planning process for the flexible and efficient utilization of the pilot county's funding pool. Decategorization is envisioned as the planning and funding vehicle by which communities can overcome structural barriers that fragment service delivery. The result of this effort is the integration and individualization of service responses to the needs of families and children. The four pilot decategorization counties represent almost 25 percent of Iowa's 2.8 million people.
Several concepts and activities are central to the Child Welfare Decategorization Project. These include identifying and merging the county's allocated share of various funding streams into one child welfare fund, as well as establishing a joint governance structure to include the local DHS county director, chief juvenile court judge, and county board of supervisors. Also central to the effort is the development of a community child welfare service plan based on identified client needs and the best utilization of the community's available resources, as well as the reduction of excessive reliance on expensive placements of children so that cost savings can be retained locally for reinvestment in enhanced community services. Lastly, the project involves the development of methods to maintain budget neutrality and maximize the use of existing funds to meet project goals.
The following aspects represent the most important measures of the project’s success: 1) Budgetary impact and degree to which spending for less restrictive and more family-centered interventions has increased; 2) The degree to which new or enhanced local services are envisioned, designed, implemented, and successfully operated; and 3) The degree of broad-based local involvement and ownership of redesigned service systems.
Sampling from Scott County, Iowa, also evidences the success of the Decategorization Project. Since the program’s initiation, Scott County has increased funding of family-based services by 23 percent and reduced the average number of children in foster care by 11 percent. Scott County was also able to reduce state institutional placements of delinquent males by 22 percent.