Impressive Cuyahoga collaboration led to nation's first county-level Pay for Success program: editorial (Cleveland.com)

By Editorial Board

Traditionally, social service agencies are paid to help families no matter what the outcome. Cuyahoga County's Partnering for Success, the first county-led program in the country to use the Pay for Success model, is flipping that approach on its head, paying for services only if they work. 

The wonderful collaboration that brings together private and public investors, a variety of social service agencies and a university has created a program that is well worth watching. If successful, the five-year, $5 million program, which was embraced by former County Executive Ed FitzGerald, could help more families while saving money -- and then be replicated.

County data show that the children of homeless parents are spending far more days in foster care than other children. That's expensive and troubling, because most of these youngsters are under six years old, an age that is critical for brain development and attachment formation.

The county does not allow homeless parents to take their children out of foster care if they lack a place to stay – a policy that keeps youngsters off the mean streets but can strain troubled families and eat into the county's budget.

Under the new program that began this month, five investors – the Reinvestment Fund, George Gund Foundation, the Nonprofit Finance Fund, the Cleveland Foundation and Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland --  ponied up a total of $4 million to provide 135 such families with services ranging from temporary housing to mental-health services. The county set aside $1 million a year to guarantee the investments.

Frontline, the Cleveland-based nonprofit running the program, has lined up temporary housing through the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority and others. If Frontline can significantly reduce the number of days those children are in foster care, investors can get their money back with a 2 percent profit.

Case Western Reserve University is measuring the results to see if Frontline meets its performance goals and it will also study a control group of 135 homeless families that will get the usual complement of programs. And, for once, the county will have hard data on which program is more effective.

Ideally, the money will be spent on solutions that break down silos and help families emerge from homelessness stronger and better. It's well worth a shot.