Catawba County, NC Childhood Wellbeing Project Strengthens and Prepares Foster Children and Families from Childhood and Beyond

ARTICLE | May 5, 2014

The Child Wellbeing Project is a partnership between Catawba County Social Services and The Duke Endowment. Catawba County Social Services is located in the foothills of North Carolina and serves a population of approximately 158,000 citizens. It is the public agency charged with providing child and adult protective services, foster care, adoption, economic/public benefits and child support enforcement. In addition to mandated services, it provides a broader continuum of child welfare, family support services and prevention services. The Duke Endowment is a private foundation whose Child Care program area seeks to help vulnerable children in North Carolina and South Carolina lead successful lives.

Concerned by the poor outcomes for former foster youth nationally and the focus of traditional child welfare services on permanence and safety rather than well-being and the assumption that well-being occurred as a result of permanence and safety, the two agencies came together in 2008 to plan the Child Wellbeing Project. This project specifically addresses the well-being of children through the provision of post-care or post-permanency services for children or youth who have exited the custody of Social Services to their permanent placement (reunification, adoption, legal custody or guardianship). The long-term goal of the project is to improve well-being of these youth as they transition to adulthood as evidenced by education, employment, stable housing, connection to family/community, access to health/mental health care, and healthy life choices (absence of teen pregnancy, school drop-out, etc.). The core services of the project are the Success Coach and Educational Advocate.

The Success Coach is a voluntary enhanced case management service with the mission “Success Coaches, through support, education, and coordination of services, work with families to strengthen the permanent placement and enhance child well-being for children who exit foster care.” Services are offered to families who have at least one child who exited foster care before the age of 16. However, once in the service, youth can be served up to age 21. The primary strategies are to support the family in providing a stable and safe environment for their children/youth, build individual and family resilience, and implement supports that will have positive long-term impact on post permanency stability and child well-being. As the term “enhanced case management” implies, this service provides more than the traditional case management activities. Success Coaches partner with families to assess their strengths and needs, help develop “Success Plans,” and do active skill-building with families to improve communication, decision-making, parenting, budgeting, and other necessary skills. Success Coaches also provide crisis intervention and support families as they learn to anticipate and manage their own crises effectively. The work with families is geared to reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors, specifically:

  1. Reduce risk of repeat maltreatment
  2. Reduce the risk of reentry to foster care
  3. Increase social support for the family
  4. Increase family self-sufficiency
  5. Increase family’s ability to manage crises
  6. Increase parent’s ability to access medical and mental health services for the child
  7. Increase parenting, communication and other skills
  8. Increase child’s ability to perform on or above grade level in school
  9. Increase parent’s ability to advocate for and access educational service

The Success Coach Service was implemented in August, 2009 and has served 98 families with 46% of all families offered the service accepting it (this percentage is 52% for reunified families). While the total number served is too small for a rigorous evaluation, our process evaluation has indicated that the re-entry rate (into foster care) is higher for families who declined the Success Coach than for those who accepted, and the service appears to be a stabilizing influence for families. Planning is underway to replicate the Success Coach Service in additional counties in order to conduct a more rigorous evaluation of the impact on longer-term well-being.   

The Educational Advocate is a dedicated position that serves as a liaison between the child welfare system and the three local educational agencies in Catawba County. The Educational Advocate tracks the academic progress, attendance and behavior of all school-age children from their entry in foster care to exit, as well as for all children served by Success Coaches. Through a Memoranda of Understanding with three public school systems, the Educational Advocate coordinates services and regularly communicates with school staff assigned as “designees” in each of the 44 public schools in our county, as well as with some schools in neighboring counties. School personnel are notified when a child enters/exits foster care, so the appropriate supports can be provided to the child and teachers. The Advocate assures appropriate communication, records transfer and transportation with the goal of keeping children in their school of origin to the extent possible. The Educational Advocate also provides training annually for designees to help them better understand the child welfare system and the needs of children who have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect and dependency. The Educational Advocate monitors report cards and flags children who are struggling academically, working with the foster care worker, Success Coach and school to put necessary interventions in place to help the child be successful. The Educational Advocate also serves as the “go to” person when school personnel have questions or concerns about children who are involved with child welfare and when foster care workers, Success Coaches or parents/guardians need help advocating for or intervening with school personnel.

As a result of this focus on educational continuity and stability, 85% of school-age children in Catawba County custody had two or fewer school moves while in foster care over a 4 year period compared with a Casey Family Programs study of 1,000 foster care alumni showing that 68% of youth attended three or more elementary schools. Additionally, of the 35 subject areas that were flagged as below grade level for 21 children in School Year 2012-13, improvement was made in 69% of the subject areas (24 of 35) after an academic intervention was put in place by the Educational Advocate. 

The core services of the Child Wellbeing Project, Success Coach and Educational Advocate, focus on building protective factors and resilience of children and youth who have been in foster care and their families. This focus on strengthening and supporting families, while preparing them to meet the challenges ahead, is an innovative way to improve the well-being of our most vulnerable children as they reach adulthood.

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