B.J. Walker vividly remembers the call her department received shortly after she became commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources in May 2004.
A woman and her two young daughters were living in a car. Local school officials reported the family to the state child welfare agency because of the living conditions.
“The children were going to school, they were clean, they were doing their schoolwork, they were being cared for, but the woman had no money,” Walker said.
“We typically would have investigated and probably would have taken the children away from her,” Walker continued. “Instead, we simply helped her with the local United Way to provide funds so she could pay the first month’s rent and security deposit on an apartment. That’s all she needed to get out of that car.”
Walker said this is one of thousands of examples of how Baltimore-based Casey Strategic Consulting has helped bring a new focus to the department to improve the lives of families at risk while sharply reducing the agency’s caseloads.
Casey Strategic Consulting is the consulting arm of the $3 billion Annie E. Casey Family Foundation, whose mission is to help disadvantaged children.
Walker is one of several state family services agency officials who credit the firm with huge improvements in how their agencies handle cases.
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York City, and Philadelphia have all worked with Casey Strategic Consulting for help in turning around family services agencies in crisis or in need of major changes.
Casey’s advice and ongoing assistance costs nothing. It is offered free of charge.
Here are some case studies of how Casey Strategic Consulting and state human services agencies have been working together for the benefit of clients and taxpayers.
B.J. Walker is a former Casey fellow, so she knew of the expertise Casey Consulting had available. Walker became commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services in 2004, less than one year after her predecessor was driven out following the high-profile deaths of several children who had been in the state human services system.
Shortly after taking charge, Walker contacted a former colleague, Jim Dimas, an expert in performance management analysis at Casey. Walker and Dimas had worked together in Illinois in the 1990s to effect a major welfare reform program.
One important service Dimas provided in Georgia was to develop a performance improvement process to analyze data to address a surging caseload–which had grown 40 percent in the eight months before Walker’s arrival–without hiring new staff.
In less than 18 months the number of child protective services cases in the nine counties was halved (from 9,968 to 4,768). The number of cases more than 60 days old was cut 97 percent (from 3,901 to 114), and the number of investigations more than 90 days old was reduced 99 percent (from 3,030 to 3), Walker said. Statewide, the caseload has gone from 34,000 to about 20,000 now.
“We track diversion cases to be sure we’re doing the right work,” Walker said. “We have diverted about 18,000 families, and only 8 percent of them have been reported back to us for any problem. And of the 8 percent [who reported back with a problem], only 3 percent have a substantiated instance of abuse or neglect. This is an indication that we had been bringing in far too many families.”
Turnover among case workers has been cut in half, and the average caseload has dropped from as many as 60 cases per worker to 21 or 22 per worker.
“Now we can focus on families that should legitimately be in the system,” Walker said.
Simon Gonsoulin, director of the Louisiana Office of Youth Development, said the office is focusing more on treatment than corrections for youthful offenders, thanks to Casey Consulting.
Before Casey’s involvement began in 2002, two-thirds of the state’s incarcerated youth had committed misdemeanors or low-level property offenses. From 2002 to 2004 Casey helped weed out youths who had committed relatively minor offenses, reducing the number of incarcerated youths by more than half, from nearly 1,350 to about 580.
Now Casey is assisting with the development of another plan to further reduce the number of incarcerated youths and make better use of community services.
“These are kids who society has failed in many different areas–in education, in family life–and this is their last chance,” Gonsoulin said. “When they are with us they must go to school. And while they’re with us we’re bringing services close to home to work with the families. If you don’t work with the family and send a kid home, he will be sent back to the same problems.”
The impetus for seeking Casey’s help was a lawsuit filed against Louisiana by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) more than six years ago. The DOJ alleged that incidents of violence against youths in state custody violated their rights, as did poor educational, medical, and mental health services. In May 2006, a court order dismissing the lawsuit was agreed to by the DOJ and all interested parties.
All parties agreed the reforms that have been implemented with the aid of Casey Consulting have solved the problems.
Gonsoulin said Casey “did tremendous work in making the state’s youth facilities safer. They footed the bill for several of our leaders to go to Missouri to study their system. Casey participated in the trips. Everybody loved the Missouri model because of the approach they take and the good data showing low recidivism.
“Our leaders partnered with and shadowed their peers in Missouri for several days,” Gonsoulin continued. “This was real immersion training, not sitting in a room for eight hours a day. That was tremendous for our staff.”
Gonsoulin said the entire mindset of the Office of Youth Development has changed for the better.
“Instead of security staff being frontline, we have created youth care workers,” Gonsoulin said. “It’s therapy all day long. Everybody is a therapist, a teacher, an activist for each kid. It’s no longer punitive. We’re here to provide a safe environment for these kids to learn and be successful when they get out. The results have been excellent.”
James Beougher, director of Maine’s Bureau of Child and Family Services, said his agency has seen the number of youths in state care drop from 3,100 in 2001 to about 2,400 now. Since 2004 the number of youths in group care has dropped from 770 to 550.
The state also has seen a 13 percent drop in the number of youths in treatment foster care (foster children who receive psychiatric services or other kinds of therapy or supervised visitation with their birth family, or whose families receive therapy) in that time. Beougher said he expects the number of cases in all categories to continue to fall.
Maine first linked up with Casey Consulting in 2001, after a child in state foster care was physically abused and killed. The death was one of several recent scandals involving the agency.
Casey’s day-to-day involvement with the state agency lasted through 2004, but Casey stayed on to provide support until a few months ago.
“They helped us look at the reality of the situation as it was,” said Chris Beerits, Maine’s deputy director for child welfare services. “They brought in people from the University of Chicago to do an analysis of the kids who came into the system and what happened to them. We found that kids who came into state custody between 6 and 12 years old stayed in custody way too long. Kids who leave foster care when they are 18 or 19 don’t do well, partly because they don’t have a connection to the community or to family.
“We’re addressing this. We started family team meetings, instead of doing assessments like the kid is an object,” Beerits said. “We do things collaboratively with the client and build a team around the family to help the entire family. It’s worked great.”
Beougher said the state legislature this year redirected $4 million of savings from group care to community care, where more emphasis is being placed. In community care, children and families are kept together and given counseling or other services in the home or at local service agencies. When a child needs foster care, staff works hard to find a foster home in the child’s town and school district, and with a close relative if possible.
“Kids are actually safest when placed with grandparents, aunts, or uncles,” Beougher said. “We have gone from 10 percent of foster kids in relative care to 20 percent. This reflects how we are helping staff think about the strengths that exist in communities.”
Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.