Commissioner Miryam Choca on Program Planning in Tough Economic Times

September-October 2010

Miryam Choca, a member of the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care, currently works as Senior Director, California Strategic Consultation, for Casey Family Programs, a privately funded national operating foundation whose goal is to work in partnership to safely reduce the number of children in foster care by 50% by the year 2020. Commissioner Choca previously directed Casey offices in Tucson and San Diego.

Prior to her work with Casey, Ms. Choca focused on public and private social service administration and program development. She was Operations Manager for Arizona's Administration for Children, Youth and Families, with oversight for all centralized child welfare services and functions-budget, planning, policy, licensing, contracts, information systems, training and adoption subsidy, and also worked as Manager of Arizona's Office of Children's Behavioral Health. As Vice-President of Human Development at Chicanos Por La Causa (CPLC), an Arizona community development corporation, Ms. Choca developed and implemented a model demonstration teen pregnancy and parenting program, residential and outpatient substance abuse programs and outpatient mental health services.

Ms. Choca's greatest interest is working on collaborative approaches to improve outcomes for children and families involved in the child welfare system.

I was asked to share thoughts about program planning in tough economic times. Let's start with a couple of assumptions: Times are not going to get much better in the foreseeable future, so it follows that those interested in implementing and supporting sustainable systems improvements may need to transition to smaller, more effective operations. What do I mean by this? Examples can be seen in some of the collaborative work of local foster care commissions that formed or expanded in response to our commission's recommendations.

For example, in Orange County the local commission identified that parents in the child welfare system often had to test twice a month for probation and another three or four times for the dependency court. This led to missed appointments and additional stress for parents attempting to meet the needs of multiple programs and reunification requirements. A unified testing program could minimize delays, save scarce resources, and lead to quicker reunification. The commission adopted as a goal the provision of one-provider drug testing for parents-certainly an example of a smaller, more effective operation, and one that will give parents a better chance for success.

Focus and clarity are the keys to success when the economy is floundering. This is a time to hold on to a vision of change, distinguish between what is vital and what is desirable, determine a few major goals in the vital category and then focus resources on accomplishing those goals. If possible, choose goals that require few or no additional resources or that can be accomplished by streamlining processes and eliminating duplication. Be clear about those goals with staff, partners and stakeholders.

I am reminded of the approach that the Blue Ribbon Commission took when we had to develop a set of recommendations to reform California's foster care system. We knew that in these times of severe fiscal restraint change would, by necessity, be incremental. But, while acknowledging that reality, the commission did not want to limit its blueprint for foster care reform to conform to current fiscal problems, but rather chose to put aside fiscal considerations and document a vision for real change. Budget restraints may affect the timing of implementation, but these recommendations represent the priorities—both short-term and long-term—that must be followed to ensure a better future for the state's most vulnerable children and families. This same kind of planning for short-term and long-term goals can happen at the local level. Savvy leaders can also use budget urgency to create support for needed changes which may have been politically unfeasible in the past.

Gone are the days when agencies can afford to pursue funding for interesting and helpful projects managed by specialized staff. Given the current conditions, a more useful approach integrates initiatives and strategies into a coherent practice model where all the pieces work together to move outcomes in the desired direction. This can be seen, for example, in local commission efforts that focus on family finding. There are a number of counties where social services, the courts, and CASA are working collaboratively to increase the chances of finding family members to step in and assume responsibility for children who come into the child welfare system. These efforts are notable for their effective use of resources, where much of the family finding work can be done using CASA volunteers.

It is also important to gauge the effectiveness of initiatives and strategies early and often. Using available data for planning and decision-making, including course corrections, creates a foundation for effectiveness and accountability. Sharing data and involving system partners in problem solving builds a culture of transparency and collaboration, and potentially creates a broader base of support, adding resources to support improved outcomes.

Beyond transparency and shared problem solving, it is important to push external collaborations to new levels. What might that look like? Clearly different in each jurisdiction, new collaborative approaches might include setting common goals and outcome benchmarks with specified roles for each partner; exploring collaborative contracting; co-funding positions to support collaborative goals; integrating various funding sources for common purpose; creating explicit agreements for mutual support and critical data exchange; developing and implementing common protocols to cover a variety of shared areas such as practice, public information, advocacy and communications, and reducing disproportionality and disparities; sharing training and technical assistance; and better targeting funding to improve outcomes across collaborating agencies.

The local commissions provide a wealth of opportunities to create collaboration experiments, pushing beyond the status quo to more responsively address desired improvements in the context of specific local conditions and reduced resources. Based on what I have heard, the local commissions are taking very promising steps toward making big changes with limited resources, and exploring ways to forge systemic changes resulting in better outcomes. Keep up the good work. You are improving the future for children and families in the child welfare system.

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“Foster Care Reform Update: A Briefing for County and Statewide Collaborations” is produced by the AOC Center for Families, Children, & the Courts. Questions, comments, or article ideas should be directed to Chris Cleary. All other questions and requests for subscriptions may be directed to Carolynn Bernabe at 415-865-7556.

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