New Council on Accreditation CEO Talks Family First Act, Behavioral Health, International Adoption

Council on Accreditation’s new President Jody Levison-Johnson. Photo courtesy of Levison-Johnson

The Council on Accreditation (COA) was founded in 1977 by the Child Welfare League of America and Family Service America (now the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities) to ensure a set of standards are met by human services agencies. This week, COA introduced its first new CEO in nearly two decades.

Jody Levison-Johnson, 48, has succeeded Richard Klarberg, who will step down after 18 years at the helm. Klarberg will move into the role of special adviser.

Levison-Johnson will draw from her past experience as a child welfare leader in a space of growing importance to the field – coordinated care with a focus on health services. She spent the first two decades of her career in upstate New York, working on children’s mental health, then served as deputy assistant secretary for child and family operations for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

In 2017, she became the assistant vice president for the National Council of Behavioral Health.

Levison-Johnson steps into the job at an interesting time for COA, which is currently working on accreditation and renewals for about 2,000 organizations. The organization recently moved out of the intercountry adoption space after a dispute over standards with the Department of State.

Meanwhile, the recently-passed Family First Prevention Services Act has set major changes in the field of congregate care, an array of placement options that includes group homes, institutions and residential treatment centers. The law requires any provider that wants to draw federal funds for more than two weeks to become accredited as a “qualified residential treatment program,” and COA is one of three groups approved to do the work.

In a press release announcing Levison-Johnson’s taking the helm at COA, it states that COA’s focus will be “more on client outcomes-based as well as to acknowledge the ever-increasing interplay between the behavioral health and child welfare.” Levison-Johnson spoke with The Chronicle of Social Change about her plans for COA and what’s going on with the Family First Act.

What will be the new direction for COA?

The true value of accreditation is for the end user. Our end game is about helping them. It’s ensuring those in need of support get the best support possible and figuring out how do we demonstrate value to the end user.

What does it mean to be more focused on client-based outcomes?

It’s going to be spending some time with organizations accredited by us. What do they hope to achieve for the clients they’re serving? Are the standards really aligned with what they hope to achieve?

How will you be acknowledging the crossover between mental health and child welfare?

Outgoing COA President Richard Klarberg will serve in an advisory role during the transition to Jody Levison-Johnson’s leadership. Photo courtesy of COA

For a long time, there has been a bifurcation between the mental health and child welfare systems, yet there is tremendous overlap in these populations. I have spent the better part of my career supporting both behavioral health- and child welfare-involved families. The door a family enters is often the determining factor in which system they are “assigned to” and the services that are available for them.

In my experience, families involved with child welfare often have behavioral health needs, families with behavioral health needs often encounter the child welfare system, and often the same organizations serve them. We want to ensure that our accredited organizations are poised to serve families regardless of the system they are involved with and that we are working effectively with the funders that support the various services arrays – child welfare, behavioral health, Medicaid.

How will your past roles in human services help you in your new role?

I’ve seen all different angles of the work. I have the perspective of funder and funded. It will allow me to think about all the things that impact agencies that are accredited by us. I know what resonates for them. I know what’s important for providers. And I have the lens of children and families.

COA gave up its role as an accreditor for the State Department. Do you see any path back to working on intercountry adoption again, is that something COA’s leadership is interested in?

COA remains committed to continuing to provide options for accreditation for both domestic and international adoption service providers. In 2018, while winding-down its work with the U.S. Department of State, COA launched two initiatives to update its processes and standards to reflect the current context of adoption. In November 2018, COA updated its Adoption Service Standards based on what we know are the most effective practices in adoption and to incorporate standards relevant to international home studies and post-adoption services. Additionally, in 2019, COA launched a new and separate option for home study programs to become accredited. We believe this is an important option for home study providers who are not required to be accredited under the Intercountry Adoption Accreditation Regulations, but have been required to have some form of accreditation by primary providers or by state or foreign regulators. COA’s Home Study Program Accreditation incorporates some key practices related to provisions in the federal regulations, but goes well beyond that to set the standard for best practice. COA Home Study Program Accreditation is uniquely designed to facilitate organizational improvement and peer validation, and we are pleased to be able to apply the rich knowledge and resources we gained through our work with the U.S. Department of State in a way that more closely aligns with our mission and goals.

How many providers have sought accreditation to meet the Family First Act standards?

We did see a significant increase in applicants for accreditation in 2018 due to the passage of the legislation and have received interest from providers in every state. Because of the extensions available to states, we anticipate having waves of applicants based on varying deadlines. We have engaged with a number of provider associations to assist in educating their members about COA accreditation and the importance of performance quality improvement in human-centered service delivery.

Do you have a wait list of organizations waiting to get accredited to be qualified under Family First?

No, we accept all applications that meet our eligibility criteria. Since our accreditation process takes 12-16 months with an average of 16 months for new organizations, we are asking organizations to apply with that timeframe in mind.

Another insight for prospective applicants is that we don’t expect an organization to have implemented the standards at the point of application, therefore they shouldn’t wait to apply. We assign a coordinator to work with the organization as they build capacity to implement the standards. Each organization’s timeline is developed with the understanding that accreditation often includes shifts in practice and COA works hard to make that process as collaborative and beneficial to the organization as possible.

What percentage of qualified residential treatment programs (QRTP) do you think are already accredited?

It’s been interesting trying to reach providers who may be considering becoming QRTPs. We have really leaned on our sponsoring organizations – particularly the Association of Children’s Residential Centers (ACRC), Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) – the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, and The National Organization of State Associations for Children (NOSAC) to help share the resources and information about COA Accreditation.

It’s difficult to know how many applicable providers are out there and since the law requires a shift in practice, there will be a shift in the number of organizations that continue this work/seek to become a QRTP and therefore, need to achieve accreditation.

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Kim Phagan-Hansel
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