Family First Act: Why Outcomes Oriented Contracting Should Be Part of The Plan

In 2018, Congress passed one of the most substantial changes in U.S. child welfare policy in decades. The Family First Prevention Services Act provides states with the opportunity to access federal dollars to prevent children from coming into foster care. States can draw down these unlimited federal funds to support a specific set of evidence-based policies, including home visiting services, services to help parents address substance abuse and mental illness, and kinship navigation services designed to support placement of children with extended families.

As they make use of this new funding, many state and county child welfare agencies will provide new services by contracting with nonprofit providers and community-based organizations. These new services are critical to support families in crisis, especially in these trying times when we know families are dealing with unprecedented challenges.

To translate this substantial investment of funding into better outcomes for children and communities, we suggest states do intensive work now to make sure those new and expanded contracts are laser-focused on improving child outcomes, including increased placement stability, decreased time to reunification, and reduced rates of maltreatment. Performance-based contracts link payment to achievement, and hold enormous potential for states interested in improving child welfare.

If you lead a state or county child welfare agency, outcomes-oriented contracts can help you in three key ways:

Compliance with federal law. Your state’s Family First Prevention Services Act plan will need to outline which evidence-based policies it will adopt. The state will also have to identify and track the fidelity measures used to show that the services provided are faithful to the evidence-based models.

Fidelity measures, also known as quality metrics, are core components of outcomes-oriented contracts, as they measure indicators that studies have shown lead to improved outcomes for families.

Engagement with community. As child welfare systems enter into new or expanded contracts with providers, it is incredibly important to make sure you have meaningful conversations not just about the services that they will offer, but also about the outcomes you collectively seek for families and communities and how you will know if the services are successful in achieving those outcomes.

Selecting mutually agreed upon metrics for these outcomes is a way to ensure that everyone shares a common understanding of what success looks like and agrees on the best ways to measure whether services are successful.

In Washington state, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families has conducted sustained outreach to tribal nations around Family First, to understand community needs and identify additional evidence-based models the state should explore to serve particular populations. These kinds of processes build trust among entities that need to partner in this work. Similarly, engaging communities and community-based providers about outcomes as you develop contracts can build the partnership and trust needed to work together effectively and improve outcomes for children.

Understanding what works. The Family First Prevention Services Act is taking federal policy in a powerful new direction by committing federal dollars only to services that have demonstrated evidence of positive impact. But we know that states and counties have different demographics and community circumstances. Outcomes-oriented contracting will provide data to help you understand which evidence-based models are achieving successful outcomes for your populations.

As a system determines the models that work best for the families it serves, it may be beneficial to shift additional resources toward those models. With the disaggregated data integral to a performance-based contract, systems can explore which populations are not being well-served by the models being used which will provide the opportunity to explore other, more effective models.

The Family First Prevention Services Act offers a real opportunity for states to improve services for families before children come into foster care and to reduce the number of children who enter foster care. Building outcomes-oriented contracts now can ensure you make the most of these new investments and secure a better future for the families you serve.

Debra Solomon is director of client services in the San Francisco office of Third Sector.

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