Officials with the Ventura County Human Services Agency’s Children and Family Services (CFS) department know that sometimes foster care is not the best solution for children facing abuse or neglect.
“In addition to the trauma children suffer when they are abused or neglected, it is well-recognized that entering the child welfare system causes additional trauma to children,” said Jennie Pittman, deputy director of administrative services for the Ventura County Human Services Agency.
The assumption is based on multiple studies, including a 2015 report from the Child Welfare Information Gateway—a research arm of the Children’s Bureau, U.S. Administration for Children and Families and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—which found that children and teens in foster care experience increased anxiety due to their “separation from family, school, neighborhood and community,” as well as their uncertainty about the future.
The data has caused many agencies to change their approach to child welfare cases to keep more children out of the foster system and to stop social workers from uprooting their lives.
Locally, a change occurred three years ago when Ventura County’s CFS created the Family Preservation Program (FPP), which provides in-home treatment to children and counseling to parents when it is safe to do so.
Those in the program receive intensive services such as weekly in-person meetings with social workers, appointments with public health nurses and help to access basic needs like transportation. Families are also referred to substance abuse treatment, mental health care, parenting support and medical care services, according to Pittman.
“Family Preservation provides an alternative to the dependency court system and thereby reduces entries to the child welfare system by teaming families with social workers and service provider partners,” Pittman said. “The team identifies any support systems the family already has that may be able to provide even more assistance to the family, and develops plans to address the family’s specific needs.”
Instead of hiring additional social workers, the county extended its partnership with nonprofit agencies and encouraged employees to focus their attention toward in-home visits and care.
So far, the program is working. Of the 400 area families served, FPP has allowed 360 children who might otherwise be put into the foster care system to remain at home.
The success is also due, in part, to the county’s partnerships with local agencies including Interface Children and Family Services, a Camarillo-based nonprofit treatment center that provides free services to 59,000 people each year. Interface has taken the lead on the county’s Family Preservation initiative by operating the Homebuilders program, an evidence-based treatment system within the county’s in-home crisis treatment program.
An email from Erik Sternad, Interface executive director, and Joelle Vessels, director of youth and mental health services, states, “Interface started one of our most intensive programs, called Homebuilders, to provide in-home treatment to parents and children who are at imminent risk of removal due to child abuse. It . . . is achieving a 93% success rate in preventing failures into foster care.”
Officials believe the changes, as well as improvements to the county’s services to help families and partnerships with local caregivers, have contributed to a decline in open child abuse allegations and cases in the past five years.
From October 2014 to October 2019—the most recent period with official data—the number of open child welfare cases in the county has decreased by 22%, from 1,211 to 945, during the five-year time period, Pittman said.
Annual substantiated allegations have also decreased by 6% from 11,516, for the period between October 2014 and September 2015, to 10,850, for the time between October 2018 and September 2019.
“There are many societal factors that increase risks for child abuse and neglect, but there is a correlation between the recent decrease in child welfare cases and service enhancements implemented by Children and Family Services and its partners,” Pittman said.
The county and its partners are continuing to expand their prevention, intervention and treatment programs in the community by offering outreach presentations, classes and therapy.
Interface, for example, began taking hotline calls for Children’s Protective Services and Adult Protective Services this month to help the county process tips for youths and elders at risk of abuse or neglect. The partnership will help the county process more calls during the evenings and on the weekends. The 24-hour hotline number is (805) 654-3200.