Building Performance Systems in Child Welfare (Social Innovation Research Center)

By Patrick Lester

The Social Innovation Research Center has today released a new report:

Building Performance Systems in Child Welfare
Lessons from Performance-based Contracting, Performance Management, and the Emergence of Social Impact Bonds
(February 8, 2016)

The executive summary is below.

Executive Summary

Child welfare organizations work with one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations, children who have been abused or neglected and removed from their homes. While performance is important for all social services, the stakes are especially high for these children, where failure can mean futures marked by domestic violence, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, criminal involvement, and suicide.

Despite this hard reality, there are also reasons to be optimistic. Advances have been made in multiple performance-related systems, including evidence-based practices, performance management, data systems, performance-based contracting, and social impact bonds. Most of these have made individual contributions, but they are also substantially interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

These advances have not yet significantly changed all or even most child welfare systems, but there are glimmers of progress throughout the field. This paper reviews these overall national trends in the context of two promising cases studies – one of performance-based contracting in the state of Tennessee and the other of a high-performing national nonprofit provider based in the state, Youth Villages – before concluding with lessons learned from the recent emergence of social impact bonds.

Highlights are summarized below:

Performance-based Contracts:  A central tenet of child welfare practice is that children fare better in stable, loving homes. Several policy changes have been instituted at the federal and state levels over the past two decades to divert more children from group homes to more permanent living arrangements with biological or adoptive families or legal guardians.

One policy change that has been instituted in several states is performance-based contracting. Such contracts establish financial incentives for providers to achieve faster placement of children in permanent homes and they appear to have produced results.  A 2011 study of performance-based contracting in three states found that they were associated with improved permanency-related outcomes for children. Tennessee’s system has followed this same pattern.

Unfortunately, because outcomes can be driven by many factors other than the work of providers, including the availability of foster homes or other policies adopted at the same time, it is difficult to be certain how much, if any, of the observed improvements are attributable to performance-based contracts. Indeed, the general history of performance-based contracting contains several examples of systems that appeared to be generating positive results only to see these results overturned when subjected to more rigorous impact studies.

A closer look at this overall history, however, also reveals a number of consistent design flaws. Reviewing Tennessee’s system in light of these flaws, which have largely been avoided, provides reason to be cautiously optimistic that it is actually contributing to improved permanency for the state’s foster children.

Service Provider Case Study:  Federal and state policies can establish a supportive framework, but actual improvements must take place on the front lines. This paper explores how one nationally-recognized child welfare provider, Youth Villages, has implemented a best-in-class performance system within Tennessee’s broader system of performance-based contracting. It explores several major components, including the organization’s: (1) leadership and culture; (2) evidence-based program models; (3) performance management system; (4) use of follow-up evaluations; and (5) funding sources for its performance-related work

Social Impact Bonds: While performance-based contracts have a longer track record, social impact bonds have also begun to draw interest in recent years, with several child welfare-related projects now underway both in the United States and abroad. This paper compares the strengths and weaknesses of these two approaches and concludes that while different, they are highly complementary. Although performance-based contracts are easier to scale, social impact bonds may help address some of the known shortcomings of performance-based contracts.

The paper concludes with recommendations to policymakers on how to further improve performance systems throughout the nation’s child welfare system.

Full Report

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